When twenty-one-time Emmy Award winning series The Sopranos debuted on HBO in January of 1999, it was the start of something big in more ways than one. But at first it was "that show with the same plot as Analyze This," the 1999 Robert DeNiro-Billy Crystal comedy about a neurotic mob boss and his shrink. Of course, creator David Chase had greater ambitions for his small-screen saga than the unfortunately timed "two-off" big-screen "high concept" of Harold Ramis and friends (Analyze That followed in 2002). Chase was crafting his own mafia saga, a la The Godfather, and while the series would have a pronounced sense of humor, its weightiness found a useful home on HBO, the pay network that not only allowed violence and profanity but welcomed them as added justification for the motto "It's not TV. It's HBO."
Speaking of weightiness, James Gandolfini let it all hang out as Tony Soprano, the capo of the DiMeo crime family in New Jersey. A capo's life is full of agita in the best of times, as he assuages egos and fends off contenders for the throne, but Tony has domestic problems as well—at home with wife Carmela (Edie Falco), daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and son Anthony Junior (Robert Iler), and with mother-from-hell Livia (Lou Grant vet Nancy Marchand), who vehemently resists placement in a nursing home. So it's not so much a surprise when Tony begins having crippling panic attacks; the question is whether or not his macho pride will allow him to slip away to consult a psychiatrist. Eventually, he does, beginning sessions with the understandably uneasy Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco of GoodFellas). Tony gets assistance of a sort from nephew and frequent screw-up Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli, also of GoodFellas); Tony's easily offended Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) soon becomes a conspirator with Livia to rob Tony of his power and his happiness. Meanwhile, Tony's foot soldiers Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), "Paulie Walnuts" (Tony Sirico) and "Big Pussy" (Vincent Pastore) take care of business.
Over the course of the first season's thirteen episodes, trouble is a constant, turning the screws to Tony and sending him inexorably back to the squeamish Dr. Melfi. Young mobsters step out of line (especially the drug-addled Christopher), and so do old mobsters, forcing Tony to settle disputes and dole out punishments; the same is true at home as Meadow and Anthony "act out." The FBI doggedly pursues a case against the crime family. Worst of all, Tony proves to be his own worst enemy; he sins against one of his few friends when he burns down the restaurant of Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia), Tony's neuroses compound when he starts having sex dreams about his therapist, and he cannot resist cracking jokes about Uncle Junior's sex life, further alienating a man best not crossed. And could it be that one of Tony's trusted lieutenants is a rat?
The Sopranos has always been a bit overrated, as it's not as deep as its defenders would have it. Still, it's a plenty compelling soap opera of the bloody variety, never boring as it ties its ensemble into knots. Chase isn't above heeding the show's cultural reception and answering criticisms in the show's scripts, as in a dinner-table discussion about Italian-American stereotypes. And the first-season episode "College" is a masterpiece of episodic TV narrative, a self-contained short story that incisively sums up the series' theme of how work life can contaminate family life (especially when one's work is crime). And, of course, the overall metaphor of the mafia as a cutthroat corporate culture like any other gives the series an ongoing satirical edge. Dealing with his Freudian issues (the beloved "black poison cloud" that is his mother), the pettiness of everyone around him (and himself), and the defining self-absorption that permeates the world of the show, Tony is as much an archetype of the American father as Homer Simpson, only just smart enough to be perpetually miserable.
Though The Sopranos could have used a bit more TLC in its promotion to Blu-ray, The Sopranos: The Complete First Season still shows a notable improvement from the standard-def of DVD. Detail and deep blacks are the most obvious improvements (though the image can still be soft at times), and color is more consistent. The biggest issue is frequent edge enhancement, but the show looks good overall, and will only look better and better as subsequent seasons hit shelves. Audio comes in very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes that better maximize the source material: I was pleasantly surprised to find how immersive these mixes can be in setting the ambience—of the restaurants and clubs, in particular—and the all-important dialogue is always crisp and well-balanced.
Season one extras may seem rather slim at first, but "David Chase Interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich" (1:17:34, SD) is a very in-depth, lengthy sitdown with two artists important to recent pop culture: creator Chase and film historian/film director Bogdanovich, who would join the series in 2000 in the recurring role of Dr. Elliot Kupferberg. Chase discusses the series' origins, his inspirations (going back to the 1930s gangster pictures), the development of the series from the pilot forward, the use of music and the show's opening sequence, and the series' themes, among many other topics.
There's also an audio commentary on pilot episode "The Sopranos" with executive producer and creator David Chase, again in discussion with Bogdanovich, but one may as well watch the interview instead, as it covers more ground in a more user-friendly format.
HBO also includes two vintage promo featurettes. "Family Life" (4:11, SD) includes interview clips with Chase, Dominic Chianese, Michael Imperioli, Nancy Marchand, Steven Van Zandt, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, and Tony Sirico, while "Meet Tony Soprano" (3:32, SD) includes a few choice comments from James Gandolfini, Sirico, Marchand, and Bracco.
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