The Sopranos Season 1 (HBO)
Written by David Chase, Mark Saraceni, Jason Cahill, James Manos Jr., Frank Renzulli, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess, Joe Bosso
Directed by David Chase, Dan Attias, Nick Homez, John Patterson, Allen Coulter, Alan Taylor, Lorraine Senna, Tim Van Patten, Andy Wolk, Matthew Penn, Henry J. Bronchtein
I was a high school student working at my local library when I first encountered the Sopranos. I think I was thumbing through the newest issue of Time or Newsweek we’d just had delivered and found a full-page ad announcing the premiere of the show. I was a little confused, being someone who only had seen television series on network television. The ad read, “Welcome to the family.” Tony Soprano stood in the center. To his left were the principal members of his crew, and to his right were the members of his family and his psychiatrist. I wasn’t sure if this was a serious drama or a sitcom about a mob boss. We didn’t have HBO at home, so I didn’t think much about it. In my freshman year of college, I probably became aware of the show’s popularity, but it wouldn’t be until around 2003 that I checked out the first season from the library and watched it. Life got in the way, and I never continued the series until now.
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a capo in the North Jersey mob. When the show begins, he’s suffered from two anxiety attacks. This leads him to seek the help of a therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfie (Lorraine Bracco). She quickly realizes what Tony’s line of work is, but she will keep his secrets in confidence due to her professional oath unless she learns someone’s life is in danger. The show unpacks Tony’s life as a husband to Carmella (Edie Falco) and father to Meadow & Anthony Jr. (Jamie Lynn Sigler & Robert Iller). Tony is torn between his domestic life and duties as a made man to the mob, another kind of family. His nephew Christoper (Michael Imperioli) is hungry to move up the ranks but reckless with drugs. His three principal lieutenants: Big Pussy, Paulie, and Silvio, jump at his beck and call.
However, two presences in Tony’s life loom over him as a threat. First is his Uncle Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Dominic Chianese), a capo who is close to becoming the leader as the current mob boss is sick with cancer. Tony’s second and main torment comes from his mother, Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand). Livia is one of the best villains you will ever see in a television program. She is a Shakespearean figure, looming over the mind of the show’s protagonist in destructive ways. By the end of season one, she is involved in a plot against her son that is so reprehensible & dripping with evil. Yet, she’s an aging & ill woman, moved from her home into a retirement community, which she doesn’t hold back from saying she hates. While Tony has the threat of rivals within the mob to worry about, no one inspires more anxiety & self-doubt than Livia Soprano.
I think the show begins from an absolutely original and fascinating premise: a mob boss with depression. That gets played for laughs in Analyze This, but David Chase takes Tony’s condition very seriously. That doesn’t mean The Sopranos isn’t funny. It has moments of downright hilarity. However, Tony’s anxiety is the wheel that keeps the whole show turning. Whether he would admit it or not, Tony’s greatest fear is losing his family. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t take action that could lead to that. He cheats on Carmela in both long-term side relationships or just having intercourse with sex workers. Yet, he does have a genuine love for his wife. Tony likes to think he’s the guy in charge when in fact, he’s imprisoned by toxic masculine social cues from his environment. What makes it worse is he knows he shouldn’t do these things but does them anyway.
Carmela is no saint and has an ongoing relationship with Father Intintola. It’s not clear if he likes charming her more or eating her food. He imposes himself on the household under the banner of being Carmela’s spiritual guru and also voices some, possibly insincere concern, for Tony’s soul due to his line of work. I didn’t find the Carmela/Intitola relationship one of the more compelling subplots of this first season, though I absolutely love Carmela, and she gets some much better arcs in the following seasons. I think Edie Falco has such a juicy role with this character, someone who understands her life is built on acts of evil but expresses a moral superiority over her husband. Yet, when her own daughter calls out Carmela, she always jumps to the defense of her husband and their way of life. These contradictions and complexities are what make this show so worth watching. Not a single person is a character you would aspire to be like, but neither were Shakespeare’s best characters.
Arguably the third central character of the series is Christopher, Tony’s nephew. Christopher is young but not that young. He’s ambitious about becoming something, yet not sure what he wants to become. In season one, Christopher is attempting to write a screenplay about his experience being the mob and including anecdotes he’s heard around the neighborhood. Tony doesn’t like this as, throughout the series, there’s a strong FBI presence watching the characters. Christopher is also reckless when it comes to drugs, but that hasn’t reached its zenith yet in season one. He constantly questions Tony, only able to get away with it to a certain point because he’s Tony’s nephew, but he will occasionally hit his limit and get reminded of that.
Aside from Livia, Tony keeps brushing up against Uncle Junior, who becomes the boss of the family when Jackie Aprile succumbs to cancer. Junior is simply not the great leader he imagines himself to be, and we see more of that classical drama influence coming in. Junior knows that Tony is an inherently better strategist and negotiator than him. Junior’s ultimate comeuppance in the final episode of the season is so beautifully written. It’s a classic moment of hubris being upended. The character is obviously put in place to appease his ego and draw attention away from the members of the family seeking to avoid an arrest. By the end of the season, it’s Junior in an orange jumpsuit, taking the fall.
I get the sense David Chase’s primary intent was to tell a complete story and the season finale, aside from Big Pussy’s vanishing, feels like an ending point. I have a particular love of television shows that see each season as an entire arc yet can bridge seasons together with more significant themes & build their characters into something extraordinary. I haven’t yet reached the end of this show as of this writing, but I know it will be something so special, and it’s going to stay with me for a long time. I think it captures that growing anxiety I felt entering the adult world in the early 2000s and the shared fear of the country as we spiraled deeper into the mess we’re now in. It’s a story taking place at the crux of two decades of horrible diminishment of empathy and on the precipice of civilization as we know its collapse.