Welcome to the first installment of our summer trip through “The Sopranos” season 1. When I revisited early seasons of “The Wire,” as well as the whole run of “Deadwood,” I did separate versions of each review for newcomers and veterans, but over time realized that the newcomers weren't commenting much, if at all, and that it therefore made sense to simply do one review. Any significant spoilers for episodes beyond the one being reviewed will be contained in a separate section at the end of the review; so long as you avoid that, and the comments, you should be fine.
Thoughts on the first episode – which is also known as “The Sopranos” – coming up just as soon as I finish unscrewing my belly button…
“It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” -Tony
As Dr. Melfi notes, Tony's fear that he came in at the end – not just of his particular job field, but of the American experiment itself – was a common one at the time, and it's no less common today. The world is a mess, the economy is a mess, and our political system is a catastrophe at this point. So what was timely and universal in 1999 still is as we revisit the show today.
“The Sopranos” itself, though, is the start of something. It's the drama that launched a thousand imitators – some great in their own right (“The Shield,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad”), some less so (“Low Winter Sun”) – and kickstarted this new Golden Age of TV drama in which we currently live.
And what's amazing is not only how current this pilot feels 16 years later (fashions and technology aside), but how fully-formed it is. The series wouldn't become a word-of-mouth phenomenon for another few episodes, which we can discuss when we get to “College,” but this episode isn't a version of “The Sopranos” with training wheels on it. Give or take some minor character or set design details (some of which I get into in the spoiler section), “The Sopranos” the episode is “The Sopranos” the series .
David Chase fought to direct the pilot (in part because he was hoping HBO would lose interest and he could expand it into a feature film that would get him out of the TV business forever), and his eye is apparent from the very first shot of the series proper: Tony Soprano, glimpsed through the legs of a sculpture of a woman in Dr. Melfi's waiting room. The series would not be shy about exploring familiar conceits of psychiatry, and given Tony's many complicated feelings about his mother (not to mention his wife and daughter), it's the perfect image to open on, and the hour is filled with some of the most memorable images of the series: Tony in his bathrobe reading The Star-Ledger at the end of his driveway, the backyard grill flaring up after Tony's collapse, the cuts to the different pictures on the pork store wall as Christopher murders Emil Kolar, or even Tony lying in the MRI as Carmela tells him he's going to Hell when he dies. Chase would tweak certain elements as the series moved along, but it's an assured hour of TV that in no way looks like it was made by a man with only a handful of directing credits before this(*).
(*) But where Chase's protege Matt Weiner would ultimately direct a number of “Mad Men” episodes, Chase's only other directing job of this series was the very last episode.
The starting point for the show was Chase's combative relationship with his own mother, so it's not surprising that the two most instantly vivid characters are Tony himself and Livia. Chase and Nancy Marchand do such an efficient job of creating Livia that you know exactly who she is almost before she's opened the door and we've seen her for the first time. Just the paranoid way she responds to Tony's knock is enough, and the rest of their encounter – rejecting the gift of the CD player (and Tony's attempt to dance with her), moaning about her late husband (of whom Tony will later tell Melfi, “my mother wore him down to a little nub”) being a saint, and otherwise trying to play the martyr – tells you exactly how toxic things are between mother and son. Chase added the mob angle to make the idea more commercial, and the show certainly wouldn't have been the phenomenon it became if Tony was (as one of Chase's friends suggested) a screenwriter, but there's more than enough meat in the way these two don't get along to have filled some brilliant but obscure drama that inspired fewer imitators, but awed whispers from those who watched it.
The pilot neatly toggles back and forth between Tony's family and Family, frequently making clear how blurred the lines are between them. When Uncle Junior objects to Tony's attempt to keep him from killing Little Pussy Malanga(*) at Artie Bucco's restaurant, he tells his nephew, indignant, “How many fucking hours did I spend playing catch with you?” The one should have nothing to do with the other, but Junior feels entitled to unconditioned fealty from Tony, even though, as Tony tells Melfi, “When I was young, he told my girl cousins I would never be a varsity athlete, and frankly, that was a tremendous blow to my esteem.” It's a small, interconnected world where past slights are remembered, and exploited, forever, and one where all the members of it seem blinded to its true cost. When Tony expresses misgivings to Dr. Melfi about the current state of the mob, it's not about any of the larger morality, but simply the inconvenience of so many wiseguys turning rat when arrested rather than sticking with the code of silence and doing their time.
(*) Not to be confused with Big Pussy Bonpensiero from Tony's crew. The only sad thing about Little Pussy's death here is that the series couldn't do more Who's On First?-style humor about the two men.
It's a big world with a lot of players, but Chase keeps the focus on lower-case family throughout. Of all the members of Tony's crew, the only one who gets a lot to do in the pilot is the one he's related to, the cocky, petulant Christopher, and his biggest professional conflict involves his uncle. It's a smart way to not only underline some of the themes of the series, but to make Tony more identifiable to the viewer. This is not a good guy, which is clear from our first extended glimpse of him (look at the glee on his face as he beats up Mahaffey), and he's in a business most of us will be lucky if we never encounter in person. But having a complicated relationship with a mother, or uncle, or nephew, or spouse? Those are more universal concerns. Chase had a lot on his mind about the general state of America, and Tony's organization is only the most extreme representation of the larger rot he finds, but so much of what happens in and around that McMansion would be unchanged regardless of its owner's profession.
And for all the people who would complain later on about Tony's dreams, his inner psyche is baked right into the show from the start, as Dr. Melfi helps him connect the dots with a dream he had about his penis falling off with the feelings of intense loss and pain he had when the ducks flew out of the Soprano family pool. Tony very badly wants to connect, yet he's incapable of doing so with so many of his relatives, whether through his fault, theirs, or both. It's a tragedy, even for a person as compromised and awful as Tony, and Chase, James Gandolfini and everyone else making this great show constantly let us see that tragedy, and understand the man at the center of it, even as it didn't blink from all the terrible things he did.
This was a great pilot in 1999, and it still is now. And we're just getting started.
Some other thoughts:
* The iconic opening credits sequence (which would remain largely the same throughout the series, even as Gandolfini got much bigger than the relatively svelte version we see in them) follows Tony as he emerges from the Lincoln Tunnel on the Jersey side (making clear that this would not be another story about a New York wiseguy) all the way until he pulls up to his house in North Caldwell. The route he takes to get there makes no sense if he's going directly home, as he winds his way all around the Meadowlands, over by the Holland Tunnel, and into various other parts of Hudson, Passaic and Essex Counties. If, on the other hand, the credits are meant to reflect a day where he's stopping by various Family-affiliated business along the way (the sanitation company, for instance, is located in the shadow of the Pulaski Skyway, which he drives past at one point of the credits), then I can see it, even as I spend the start of every episode yelling at him to just hop on Rt. 3 West.
* If you are new to the show, I should warn you: AJ Soprano will have his moments from time to time in later episodes and season, but the character really peaks with, “So, what, no fucking ziti now?”
* I've always loved the round, wood-paneled design of Melfi's office, which seems more of a TV conceit of that kind of space than what an actual therapist (even a successful, well-heeled one like Melfi) would actually have in Montclair, but which makes for such a great backdrop for all their scenes together.
* Notable guests: Meadow's best friend Hunter is played by David Chase's daughter Michele, while Hey, It's That Guy!” Michael Gaston has one of his earliest high-profile roles as the injured Mahaffey, who nearly goes over the Great Falls before he agrees to the MRI scam.
* Speaking of which, actual wiseguys at the time complained about that plot, not because it was unrealistic, but because the show was giving away one of their better new revenue streams.
* “The Sopranos” used music as evocatively as any show in the medium ever has, though it was still a work in progress at the pilot stage. When Tony and Christopher are assaulting Mahaffey, we hear “I Wonder Why” by Dion & The Belmonts, the kind of vintage doo-wop typical of mob movies like “Goodfellas,” and that Chase swore he would avoid using in the future. “I'm A Man” (playing as Christopher kills Emil) is also familiar, but more timeless, while Nick Lowe's “The Beast In Me” over the end credits is more typical of the eclectic selections Chase would prefer as the series went along. Also, as Livia is getting her tour of the Green Grove retirement community, you can hear the theme song to “The Rockford Files” – the TV show that gave David Chase his first big break in the business – coming from a TV in the rec room.
* Tony makes the first of many trips to the end of the driveway to pick up The Star-Ledger, the biggest newspaper in New Jersey and my employer at the time the series debuted. Production actually reached out to the paper very early on to get help producing the facsimile papers Tony and the family would be seen reading throughout the series. It turned out we had another connection beyond the Ledger being the paper Chase grew up on: my editor at the time, Mark Di Ionno, was in the freshman dorm at Rutgers with a young James Gandolfini, and was even responsible (accidentally) for putting that memorable dent in Gandolfini's forehead.
* The moment where Tony responds angrily to Christopher's suggestion that he might write a screenplay isn't the pilot's most memorable, but in some ways, it was the most important. As Chase told me for my book, the script called for Tony to simply slap Christopher lightly across the face to make his displeasure known. Instead, Gandolfini aggressively pulled Michael Imperioli out of his chair, and Chase – who hadn't been certain at that point about the tonal balance between comedy and drama – recalls thinking, “All right, I got it. This is big shit. This is serious.”
And now we come to the spoiler section, where I talk about how events in this episode will have ramifications later in the season or series. If you're new to the show and watching one week at a time, you can safely stop reading now.
* The pork store in the pilot, Centanni's, was and is a real business in Elizabeth, NJ, and wasn't able to keep closing down to allow filming there once the show went to series. So production used a storefront in Kearny to build Satriale's, which is very much modeled on Centanni's.
* Michael Santoro makes his only appearance as Father Phil, and will be replaced by Edie Falco's old friend and frequent co-star (including on “Nurse Jackie”) Paul Schulze.
* Silvio's first appearance at the pork store doesn't entirely fit the rest of the series. Tony is surprised to see him there, when later episodes will depict him as a core part of Tony's crew and a regular at Satriale's, and Sil wonders if Tony remembers Artie Bucco, when the rest of the show will treat Artie as someone who's been an unaffiliated mascot for the whole crew all these years.
* Also, there are several references to Junior being mad because Tony is the boss of North Jersey. While Tony will eventually become the boss, after the pilot, Chase depicted Tony as just one of several captains (and of equal rank to Junior) in a Family where Jackie Aprile Sr. is the current boss. It gave the character more room to grow professionally, and provided the spine of the central Family conflict of season 1. It also makes slightly more sense for Tony to do something as public as the beating of Mahaffey when he's a captain than when he's the boss, though even at this rank, it feels like something he would either leave it to Christopher to do or do it himself someplace where he wouldn't be seen by so many witnesses. Then again, given the complete incompetence of law-enforcement in “The Sopranos” universe, it doesn't really matter, does it?
* Yup, that's Drea de Matteo as the hostess at the restaurant where Tony brings both Irina and Carmela to eat. Though she isn't made up like how we think of Adriana, Chase liked de Matteo's presence enough that he decided to make the character Christopher's girlfriend, and she'll mention the hostessing job in a later appearance.
* Christopher mentions his cousin Gregory and Gregory's Hollywood girlfriend; both will appear in season 2's “D-Girl.”
* We'll finally see one of Carmela and Meadow's Eloise dates in the episode of the same name from season 4.
* Livia's lament about daughters being better than sons at caring for mothers is amusing in hindsight, given what we'll see of her relationship with Janice, and that their younger sister Barbara has so effectively distanced herself from the entire family. As usual with Livia, she'll say whatever will most effectively hurt the other person in the room, regardless of its relation to the truth.
* Junior's dig about Tony not being a varsity athlete will return later on in season 5's “Where's Johnny?,” as an increasingly senile Junior pushes Tony away with the same insult.
* When Tony's in his coma after Junior shoots him (mistaking him for Pussy Malanga, in fact), Carmela will apologize for telling him that he's going to Hell when he dies.
Next week: “46 Long,” in which Christopher runs afoul of Uncle Junior, Paulie and Big Pussy go out for coffee, and Livia goes for a very short drive. As usual, you can find the episodes on HBO Go, HBO Now, Amazon Prime, and many cable On Demand systems. That'll be right here on the blog next Wednesday morning.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com