A few months ago, Ryan McGee wrote a piece for The A.V. Club positing that the Sopranos ultimately damaged the field of television by completely reconfiguring the relationship between individual episodes and the overall story of an entire season or even the full length of a series. As the premise suggests, the essay reads a little bit like a well thought out argument and a lot like an attempt to swing a rake at the wasp’s nest that is the Interweb commentariat. It did start a lot of digital chatter (though not on the level of a Community episode recap, but we must have reasonable goals in life), with many jumping to the defense of David Chase’s series. I eventually tuned most of it out, but I honestly don’t recall anyone making what I felt was the most salient rebuttal: the creators of the The Sopranos were very adept at crafting individual episodes. It was only once a full season played out that all the sly interconnections could be seen and appreciated.
For what it’s worth, I agree with McGee’s motivating epiphany (which he seems to have arrived at fairly late, to be honest) about the unique HBO model. Recent shows like Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and the abandoned Luck all move meticulously through a slowly changing narrative landscape. Individual episodes don’t have self-contained stories with a beginning, middle and end, instead opting to nudge each character and situation ever so slightly forward (the recent Game of Thrones episode “Blackwater” was a notable exception, and was all the more striking for it). However, I think he’s wrong to tag The Sopranos as the starting point for that methodology. While the show unmistakably had overarching storylines, it also had notable episodes that can largely be viewed as standalone all the way through its run: “Employee of the Month,” “Pine Barrens,” “The Strong, Silent Type” and, to a slightly lesser extent, “Members Only.” The Sopranos was indeed novelistic, but it didn’t achieve that at the expense of the episodic narrative structure any more than earlier experiments in long-form storytelling such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere did. McGee probably should have blamed The Wire.
The perfect balance of the series is established from the very first season, which I think still stands as the very best of the series. Upon its debut in January 1999, the series seemed to be built on a simple, amusing idea. Simple and amusing enough, in fact, that a big screen comedy with a very similar simple, amusing idea arrived in theaters less than two months later. A big-time mobster started having panic attacks, motivating him to take the unlikely step of seeing a therapist. James Gandolfini played mob boss Tony Soprano and, in what initially seemed like the major casting coup for the program, Goodfellas alumnus Lorraine Bracco played Dr. Melfi, his psychiatrist. With that elegant conceit, series creator delivered himself the perfect way to dig into his lead character’s complicates psyche, with the added benefit of having a direct, clear way to explain all of the complicated relationships that were laced throughout the story. To try to get to the bottom of what’s stirring him up, Tony has to explain, with some guardedness, the ins and outs of the challenges he faces in his life. It was the ideal entryway to a character that was designed to spark mixed emotions in the viewer. As Gandolfini recently put it, “So you sat there and you got to see his motives, what he was thinking, what he was trying to do, what he was trying to fix, what he was trying to become. And then you saw it didn’t really work out the way he wanted it to. If you took the Melfi scenes away, you wouldn’t care about this man as much, or care about anything that was happening to him.”
That’s simultaneously the starting point, the head start and the means to continually reground the series for the audience, but that’s ultimate only one chunk of a vast, snarled puzzle. Chase and his collaborators are intensely interested in each facet of family, both the traditional nuclear unit Tony has at home and the cadre of criminals that are culturally and professionally bonded together. Though there were some overtures from the production company in the early going to try and position the series as a modern take on The Godfather, Chase was determined to create something that pushed back against the glamor that had been ascribed to the mob by Hollywood from the first moment that a gangster flipped a coin on screen. The people in Tony’s life were colorful, flush with personality, but they weren’t glamorous.
In fact, The Sopranos often deferred to the terribly mundane. Tony had a hard time getting his guys to handle the simplest of tasks, the strategies of succession weren’t the stuff of high drama but instead of stomach-burning nuisance, and no matter how much power and authority someone might have, there was always some slight that needed to be accounted for. Paulie Walnuts, played with comic bulldog intensity by Tony Sirico, might be a feared tough guy with a fairly lucrative position, but that doesn’t stop him from being unreasonably irritated that Italian coffee culture has been co-opted by American chains that are making a fortune off of it. No matter how much underhanded authority Tony and his guys develop, they’re always going to be undercut by the same smoldering indignities that everyone faces. Tony’s a big shot, but he still needs to deal with household chores, shopping lists and everything else that’s bundled along with being a suburban dad.
I’ve already mentioned a handful of episodes that are fine single-dose offerings, but the pinnacle of serving both the big picture and the hour at hand may very well have been reached in the first season’s fifth episode, “College.”
The episode opens with Tony surveying the pristine lushness of a college campus, the contrast with the usual low-down dinginess of his strip club, the Bada Bing, serving as its own announcement as to a slightly different approach to the story. Tony is out touring colleges with his high school daughter, Meadow, played by Jamie Lynn-Sigler. When they stop at a gas station, in part so Tony can make various calls back home to touch base with his many concerns, he coincidentally recognizes a former mobster who had exchanged court testimony for a place in the FBI’s witness protection program years earlier. The show’s thematic balance between the two sets of family concerns gets condensed down to a single intense conflict as Tony tries to continue with his paternal responsibility to his daughter while also plotting the way to get the necessary revenge on the escaped rat he’s unexpectedly snared.
Up until this point in the series, most of the mob machinations have been relatively harmless or at least taken place well away from Tony, the clear protagonist, who ostensibly is supposed to keep the audience’s sympathy with him. In a crucial turning point for the program, Tony kills the informant with his bare hands. The murderous repercussions of Tony’s lifestyle are no longer theoretical. They’ve taken place right on screen, with the camera closing in. There would be other shocking moments during the run of the series–even moments far more brutal and cold than this one–but none would have the same impact. The episode is almost entirely self-contained, and yet it is instrumental to the success of the whole.
No thread pulls the season together better than Tony’s relationship with his mother, playing with such cunning mastery by Nancy Marchand that I’m stunned to this day that she didn’t win a Best Supporting Actress in a Dramatic Series Emmy to go with the four that she nabbed in the seventies and eighties for playing newspaper publisher Margaret Pynchon on Lou Grant. For most of the season, she’s a grouchy, addled old woman, causing Tony no small amount of misery and guilt in her apparent inability to continue living alone without risking herself grievous harm by setting food atop the stove on fire or bumbling into some other terrible mishap. Seemingly every conversation with her is a ongoing tumble of passive aggressive misery deployed like expertly shot blow darts. In Tony’s circles, she’s the least capable, or so it seems. That impression is directly countered by Tony’s eventual realization that his mother has been manipulating everything behind the scenes, using her reputation as a daffy old woman who will bluntly say anything to plant seeds that grow into actions taken by others, usually wholly unaware that the idea and motivation wasn’t their own, but was stealthily given to them. When Tony confronts her in the closing minutes of the season finale, the entirety of the preceding story locks into place as an ingenious whole, begging to be reevaluated with a freshly informed perspective. It’s not a betrayal of the well-worn strictures of episodic television that makes the first season of The Sopranos feel like a beautifully constructed novel, it’s how well Chase and company a full, company and complete story within those strictures.
I’m convinced that part of why this season works so well is that Chase pulled it together sure that he’d never have another. Even though Chase had enjoyed fairly steady work in the television business since the seventies, he had a perpetually pessimistic view of how his ideas were going to be received, perhaps shaped by relatively recent experiences toiling on shows that were critically respected but generally ignored by audiences. The Sopranos had already been turned down by Fox, and Chase wrapped the shooting of the pilot for HBO by essentially telling the cast and crew that it was nice knowing them. While the pay cable network had produced plenty of series by this point, they were hardly the originally programming powerhouse they are now. The Sopranos was only the second hour-long drama they aired, following the famously harsh prison drama Oz, hardly the sort of fare Emmy voters were going to warm to when they were still snuggling up to the likes of Law & Order and The Practice. They apparently weren’t even quite ready for The Sopranos either. Horrendously, it was the previously mentioned David E. Kelly lawyer-dabbed nonsense that won the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy the year that first season of The Sopranos was in competition. (Since I’ve called out the injustice of two Emmy losses, I should note that in the show’s first year Chase and James Manos Jr. did win for writing “College,” and Edie Falco won a Best Actress trophy that was immensely deserved, even if I haven’t been able to find room to praise her performance in the seventeen-hundred or so words that led up to this parenthetical aside.) If Chase thought, even subconsciously, that these thirteen episodes were going to be his sole word on the families he created, he poured his all into making it into a helluva word.
The Sopranos didn’t end with these thirteen episodes, though. For the entirety of the series run, which culminated in 2007 with a finale that was ingeniously fitting despite the many gripes about it, The Sopranos could make a legitimate claim on being at least consideration as the best show actively on television. It’s no slight whatsoever to any other part of the program’s run to gauge that the first season was the finest the show ever produced.