Recurring Cast: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Dominic Chianese, Michael Imperioli and Nancy Marchand
Everyone remembers the Sopranos for the big moments. It is claimed as one of the greatest television programmes to be shown on TV, admittedly probably reviewed so fondly as it came at a time before the golden era of TV. Shows like the Sopranos simply weren’t made. However, even today, the Sopranos is spoken with a reverence – a classic show about the Italian Mafia that, alongside Game of Thrones and True Detective, likely goes down as one of HBO’s greatest series.
The problem is that when you revisit this show, you remember just how slow it actually was. As I said, everyone remembers Sopranos for the big moments and it is easy to see why. The series gets the mobster executions perfectly, perhaps inspiring some of the shock deaths directed in Game of Thrones. The hint of death drips in the background for episodes at the time, but the actual murders can be acted upon in a heartbeat. A main player in the show might be shot to pieces while going for a morning run. A rat in the organisation might suddenly feel a gun pressed to the back of his head. These moments fuel the Sopranos, as you are constantly aware that the gangsters here always live a tightrope of a life. If they aren’t fearing for the DEA or Feds knocking on their door, they are worried a trusted friend might be ready to climb up the ladder a few notches. Looking back, you recall the flashes of action, the delicious confrontations between capos (essentially the lieutenants of the mob), but the wait to get to these moments is often forgotten. This first season takes a long age to get going. The framing device here is that major play in the Italian mafia, Tony Soprano, starts collapsing for no reason. Fearing that he might be suffering from both anxiety and depression because of the strenuous toll his criminal life has on his family, Tony starts seeing a shrink. The majority of the episodes see James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano discussing the current events of the mob with his therapist, Lorraine Braco’s Dr Melfi. It gives an examination into the collapsing psychology of a cold-blooded criminal. And while it does hold some interest, it does mean that the Sopranos focuses on the day-to-day stuff. Whole episodes revolve around how Tony’s mobster ways effect his daughter’s search for colleges, his son’s behaviour at school and his marriage to long-suffering Carmela (Edie Falco). The whole premise of The Sopranos is slowly down the great Mafia movies (Godfather, Goodfellas), to a crawl and focusing on the gradual decline of a man’s identity in this cut-throat business. However, the issue here is that the great mafia films are very slow-burning in themselves; Once Upon A Time in America is almost four hours long. Therefore, we get a slow-paced genre slowed down to television standards, which can be a stumbling block for the actual quality of the show. The Sopranos does not promise gripping television on a weekly basis, like other shows. In fact, even when important stuff happens, it happens so gradually you do not see the chess pieces moving into place. Part of that is brilliant writing, as you figure out who vital small beats are to the overall arc of the first season. However, as Tony and his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), slowly become rival mob bosses pitted against each other, you cannot help but wish for a bit more flair. The other way of looking at it is that the ending is stronger because of it. When the action ramps up, it still sticks to its slower character-driven roots, but it is exciting television. An assassin comes after Tony Soprano at the boiling point of four different sub-plots, meaning that the final episode, where Gandolfini tries to track down the man behind the assassin is a thrilling piece of television, resulting in some of those grand scenes that people get so excited about the Sopranos for.
Perhaps another issue is that in terms of acting, and also basic characterisation, James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is head above the rest of the character roster. Gandolfini is masterful here, taking a role that could very easily descend into monstrous. The white-knuckled male head of a mafia family is a masculine subject in itself, but channelled through the chauvinistic HBO, this is taken up another notch. Look out for the gratuitous nudity for little to no reason (Tony Soprano does his illegitimate business in the back room of a strip club, for example), and the female characters being shoved to the side fairly often. It means that the script is often making Gandolfini out to be a womanising, workaholic who often does nasty or negative things (cheat on his wife, slap his kid around the head), for little reason other than he is a man’s man. A lesser actor would have made the Sopranos a pretty unbearable watch. But Gandolfini adds that touch of vulnerability to everything he does. Look out for some of the most inappropriate monologues, perhaps mocking a race, religious or birth defect, and see how Gandolfini takes the cruel words and puts a touch of sadness to them. He is a kid trapped in the world of crime and is now trying to make it through the day. Gandolfini also has to work both the depression angle and the excellent mob capo angle. The script asks Gandolfini to go from moping sad-case to focused killer depending on the tone of the script. In fact, if it wasn’t for Gandolfini understanding the core of Tony Soprano so well, you would be pretty sure the therapist stuff would get slipped under the rug in the middle of the season, when it feels less important. The switch is also done well, as later episodes see Gandolfini both believably portray a man too depressed to get out of bed (with a family that don’t understand his crippling mental instability), to the man who can do his job out of muscle memory. When he is kick-started by a crucial problem in the gangs, Gandolfini brings the violent Tony Soprano back to the surface. In a slow drama like this, you need such a gripping character to make it work. The issue is that none of the other characters are as interesting. The family characters do what is expected of them. Edie Falco adds bite to a part that could have been nothing. The children stand around until the story calls upon them. Even the gangster characters lack depth. Uncle Junior has an interesting balance of threat and respect that is fairly fascinating to follow, but it doesn’t truly flourish in the course of the show. Tony’s hitmen are fairly thin, one’s fat, one’s psychotic, the other does a good Al Pacino impression. Michael Imperiola’s Christopher gets some good material as the runt of the litter, but he still feels like the best of a bad bunch. If the Sopranos is to improve, Gandolfini needs a solid cast member to lighten the load of bearing such a clunky script.
Final Verdict: In places, Sopranos earns its stripes, but in between those moments, it slows down to a crawl with only Gandolfini’s mesmerising turn holding it together.