I have vivid memories of how I discovered and watched “The Sopranos” all the way through for the first time. 12 years ago I was having a discussion with a co-worker about our shared loved for gangster cinema. As we were ranking films like “Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” and “The Untouchables,” my co-worker quickly realized that Tony Soprano was nowhere to be found on my list of favorite cinema mob bosses. I think he had half a mind to get me fired when I told him I had never seen “The Sopranos.” He demanded that I get my shit together and watch the whole series immediately. I was also not allowed to talk to him again until I finished it.
Ok, that may be a little bit of an exaggeration for dramatic effect but I’m not too far off, honestly. Never one to shy away from a film/tv challenge, I waltzed into Target that very day and bought the entire DVD box set, complete with a behind the scenes booklet and fancy casing. I don’t have time to go into what life was like before streaming, or what DVDs are, or how much went into designing box sets. Just know that there was a time when none of the things you wanted to watch or rewatch were readily available, and it took time, effort and money to catch up on things you missed.
The moral of this long introductory story is that I did in fact watch “The Sopranos,” and naturally it skyrocketed to the top rankings in my mobster list. But I never actually went back to crack open that box and take the journey again.
Fast forward to present day, and my scathing review of “The Many Saints of Newark” got some backlash. This included accusations that I must not have actually watched the series. While that wasn’t entirely accurate, I hadn’t watched a single episode of “The Sopranos” since that first watch almost 12 years ago. Well, fine. Challenge accepted. My girlfriend had never seen the series, and she’s a gangster film fan as well, so we decided to take the journey together. What a ride.
The perspectives change drastically over time, particularly when you consider how engrained “The Sopranos” was in the culture at the time while simultaneously being a pioneer for modern cable television. It is somehow both a product of its time and light years ahead of its time, and I learned a lot rewatching the antics of Tony Soprano all these years later.
For the record, I completely stand by every single negative word I wrote about “The Many Saints of Newark.” Frankly, after completing the series again I don’t think I was harsh enough. It is a vapid, dull, almost parody rehashing of things that aren’t what made the show great, and more than ever I have realized that it is missing its greatest weapon: James Gandolfini. We’re going to come back to Mr. Soprano, but for now just know that this challenge made me more result in my stance that “Many Saints” is a terrible interpretation of the what was once the greatness of “The Sopranos.” It is admittedly hard to summarily review such a vast, sprawling, intricate series spanning 6 seasons.
“The Sopranos” is different from a number of other series rewatches like “Supernatural” and “Ally McBeal” in that almost every season feels as if it’s starting over with a few carry overs from the previous season. That’s not a knock on the show, either. It is a compliment to its brilliance. The revolving cast with little to no introduction at the start of every season is a big risk that rewards the show by setting it apart from its peers in a big way.
Because the scope of “The Sopranos,” we’re only going to focus on a few things: the pacing and storytelling, the flaws in the series finale (and my issues go far beyond the controversial cut to black), and the unmatched performance of James Galdofini. We’d be here all day if we tried to break down the guest stars, cameo appearances, subplots, character development, the overall impact “The Sopranos” had on television as a whole. There is a library of discourse and analysis of the shows cultural impact, and I don’t really have anything new to add to that conversation, so I’m going to avoid going into it here.
Just know that I 100% agree that we would not have the kind of programming we have today if it wasn’t for “The Sopranos,” and my omission of that deep dive isn’t a reflection of disagreement. Likewise, you can easily scour the internet and find every familiar face that pops up in countless episodes. I am fully aware that Paul Dano, Lady Gaga, and yes, even Lin Manuel Miranda all make appearances in the show. I did the Leo pointing meme when Hamilton himself showed up. So again, just because we aren’t discussing it here doesn’t mean I didn’t catch it.
Let’s start with the pacing and storytelling of “The Sopranos.” The show is so unique in that each episode (particularly within the first 4 or 5 seasons) transpires as it’s own contained narrative. Yes, it carries over stories and overarching plot points from episode to episode, but more so than any other television show at the time, “The Sopranos” really does operate like a collection of mini movies. Episodes dump you into the lives of these people, some you may know and some you’ve never ever seen before, and expects you to not only follow along but know everything that transpired before it.
There’s a lot of “wait, who is that again?” and “what job is this? What are they doing now?” For any lesser creator, writer and director, this would be an impossible watch and an unrealistic ask of an audience. But as a testament to just how brilliant the show is, it manages to convey the answers to your questions in ways you didn’t even expect. It also keeps the intricate details and inner workings of all of their scams close to the vest, as if we are actually watching the mob operate from afar. We know they’re connected, we know some of their workings and what they’re doing, but we never REALLY know how it all comes together or how it all works.
We are almost like our own FBI surveillance, on the outside looking in with only bits and pieces to go on and put everything together. This kind of pacing and storytelling is wholly unique to “The Sopranos,” particularly at the time of its release and is part of the powerful influence over film and television that the show has. The show also has incredible patience, unafraid to take as long as it takes to create, examine, or resolve conflicts and issues that arise. This is challenging to do well for any creator even for one story, but “The Sopranos” manages to do so with a vast array of recurring characters while also consistently introducing new characters that instantly become integral to the overall narrative. The puzzle of “The Sopranos” feels almost impossible to put together in a way that makes sense, but against all odds the showrunners make it all work. And they do so very well. It becomes almost impossible to not become enthralled in the story. Whether it’s Tony Soprano in a therapy session, Carmella (Edie Falco) crushing hard on Furio (Federico Castelluccio), AJ (Robert Iller) ruining his life time and time again, Chris Moltasanti (Michael Imperioli) love affair with drugs and Hollywood, or simple mob feuds and union scams. All of these things feel as important as the next, and you can’t help but remain glued to the screen as they unfold.
And there is so much that unfolds over 6 seasons, it’s almost an accomplishment on its own that they were able to continually deliver on their top notch story telling time and time again. That is, until we get to our second part: the series finale. I said it before, my issue with the ending has nothing to do with the cut to black ending that through the entire world into an uproar. I actually enjoyed that, and of all the things that happen in the last few episodes, it’s actually the most “Sopranos” thing you can do, and I applaud the creators for making such a bold, ambiguous choice right up to the very last second. What doesn’t work is the very thing that had worked so well previously: storytelling and pacing. I can’t put my finger on exactly what went wrong, but there is a noticeable shift in tone and intrigue that starts right around the episode 13 of season 6. I’m not entirely sure if it’s because we now know we’re nearing the end, so the slow burn pacing because tedious instead of intriguing, or it just feels different.
Or maybe it’s the complete lack of resolution across the board for all of our characters that makes the cut to black more frustrating that it should be. See, it’s ok to end a show on an ambiguous note. “The Sopranos” proved as much, as we’re still discussing its ending over a decade later. What isn’t ok is the “Game of Thrones” season 8 vibes we get concerning key characters that amount to a little more than nothing in the end. This is predominantly notable in the final two episodes of the show, but a great example is how Dr. Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) story is concluded. She has been an integral part of the series, and an even bigger role in Tony’s life. And while she has always had misgivings and doubts about her work with the mob boss, she has also been a staunch defender of her desire to continue to treat him. The late, great Peter Bogdanovich as Melfi’s own therapist continually tries to dissuade her from seeing Mr. Soprano, and continually fails as she, despite knowing that it’s best to end things, decides to press on with their sessions.
So it is out of left field when he’s able to simply site a single piece of research that spins Dr. Melfi around in a complete 180. She unceremoniously exits Tony’s life, essentially becoming every other doctor in her field and succumbing to their badgering. Their whole relationship dissipates almost immediately, as if the previous narrative meant absolutely nothing. It’s not uncommon for “The Sopranos” to shockingly end the run of their characters (often in brutal fashion), but this one felt cheap, unearned and out of character, both for Melfi and the show itself. There’s a laziness to it, and I had flashbacks of Jamie suddenly waking up next to Brienne of Tarth and inexplicably riding off into the night to be Cersei. Everything both characters had been developed towards is thrown away in an instant, and it is jarring to see it happen in a show that had been so consistently strong with its character development. There are a thousand ways to end the relationship between Dr. Melfi and Tony Soprano, and I’d venture to say that 999 of them are better than whatever we got here. She’s not the only one that gets this treatment, either. I feel the same about AJ, Paulie, even Phil Leotardo. They aren’t all as bad as Melfi’s ending, but “The Sopranos” finale episodes set a lot of things in motion and then spin their wheels until it cuts to black in the final second.
That’s really all that didn’t work for me, which is a pretty damn good ratio for any show, honestly. 6 seasons, 86 episodes and only 7 are average and 2 feel off and out of place? That’s still batting 90% which any show in the last 20 years would kill for that kind of success rate. Aside from a few misfires in the narrative towards the end, “The Sopranos” is a phenomenal and culturally transformative show, one that tests the limits of what cable shows can be and what audiences can handle. It’s all pretty good, but the show is launched into greatest by their not-so-secret weapon: James Galdolfini. I have always been a fan of Galdolifini’s work, and have also always maintained that he remained criminally underrated as a performer throughout his career. But this rewatch of “The Sopranos” only deepened that awe and appreciation for him, as his performance of Tony Soprano is a legacy defining performance that may be unmatched in television.
I don’t even know if I have enough superlatives to describe how incredible Galdolfini is here. For all the things the show has going for it in its narrative foundation and collective cast, none of it functions without him. I want to be clear: I’m not disparaging any of the other performers in the show. Everyone is giving it their all, and everyone is incredible across the board. But there is pure magic bursting from Gandolfini’s performance. It is a once in a lifetime performance that shoulders a show that doesn’t really need a lot of heavy lifting and thrusts it into the stratosphere of iconic relevance. It’s one of those performances that becomes impossible to separate the actor from the character, because he embodies Tony Soprano with such vigor and immersion you start to believe that he’s not even acting. James Gandolfini IS Tony Soprano.
His performance is the heart and soul of “The Sopranos,” and somehow gets better the longer the show goes on. Typically with leading roles like this, you can start to feel the actor phone it in around the halfway point of whatever series. Either the writing gets lazy or the actor does, but there always seems to be something missing the longer someone plays the same character over and over again. Not Gandolfini. He continually adds layer after layer to an already complex and controversial anti-hero, and there is never a single moment of screen time where you get the sense that Gandolfini isn’t giving every single ounce of himself to Tony Soprano. His 7 awards (3 Emmys, 3 Screen Actors Guild, 1 Golden Globe) seem like not enough for such an iconic performance. I don’t think I’m out of line for saying this, but Gandolfini’s performance might be one of the greatest performances in American television history. There is simply nothing like it, not before or after, and it is a great loss of an incredible actor who gave so much to us in “The Sopranos.”
Minus a few missteps in the final few episodes, “The Sopranos” is undoubtedly one of the best shows to ever air on television. It set the precedent for what we know as television today, and we would not have the kind of programming we have now if it wasn’t for this show. Even if you aren’t into the gangster genre, there is enough here that I would recommend this show to anybody. It is incredibly difficult to make a racist, homophobic, sociopathic crime boss not just a leading man of a series, but a guy you root for in spite of all of that. “The Sopranos” does well to never really excuse these things even at a time when you probably could. And Gandolfini is so calculated and invested in Tony Soprano that even when the things he says hits our 2022 woke eardrums with a cringe ringing, you kind of just move on and accept that ya, Tony Soprano is a piece of shit but I still kind of love him and root for him.
It is narratively intriguing and unique, and is powered by some of the greatest performances every put on screen. “The Sopranos” is as good as everyone has said it to be, and it more than holds up over a decade later. Whether you’re watching it for the first time or heading back to New Jersey for another round of mafia antics, “The Sopranos” is always worth the journey. It is as close to perfect television as you can get, and I encourage anyone to revisit it or seek it out when you can. It is an offer you can’t refuse.
Oh and don’t you dare skip that intro. Ever. 86 episodes and I never once got tired of watching Tony Soprano drive through New Jersey while “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3 plays.
“The Sopranos” is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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