The first ‘Sopranos’ episode to address the show’s critics, before they even saw it

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
07.22.15 43 Comments

HBO

Welcome to the eighth 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 eighth episode, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” coming up just as soon as I devote my energies to the dignity of Connie Francis…

“Where's my arc?” -Christopher

And here we come to the meta – before it was even 100% meta.

“The Sopranos” quickly became a hit for HBO in the early months of '99, and just as quickly became a source of controversy among Italian-Americans – many of them just like Dr. Melfi's ex-husband, Richard LaPenna – who were tired of seeing themselves portrayed as gangsters in movies and television. As the two TV critics at Tony Soprano's favorite newspaper, in a state with a robust and proud Italian-American population, Matt Zoller Seitz and I heard early and often from citizens who resented the popularity of the show and the way it once again cast a dark shadow over their people. At the same time, we were also hearing from Italian-Americans who loved the series, and felt every bit as much pride in having Tony as their pop cultural avatar as Tony does in this episode having Frank Sinatra as his(*).

(*) For the first half of the series, I was living in an apartment in Hoboken a block away from an Italian deli named after Luca Brasi from “The Godfather,” and it's hard these days to find an Italian deli in the state that doesn't have a picture of Tony Soprano up on the wall, alongside various Corleones and the cast of “Goodfellas.” 

This dichotomy of reaction to “The Sopranos” would in time become just as much a part of the show's fabric as Tony's dreams, as characters like Richard became stand-ins for the protesters, as the show engaged indirectly with its harshest critics. These first season episodes, though, were made in a vacuum, all written and produced before any of them aired, and before David Chase (who wrote “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” with Frank Renzulli) had any idea how successful the show would be.

But if Chase didn't know how many people would be watching, he and Renzulli very clearly knew the two extreme reactions that a story like this had tended to generate in the past from their fellow Italian-Americans. Whether you view “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” as a more general commentary on the relationship we have with mob movies, as a pre-emptive defense against the most vocal protests Chase and company knew they were likely to get in success, or something in between, it covers all the possible bases.

Reports of pending federal indictments for members of the DiMeo Family are all anyone can talk about in this episode, whether they're in the mob or not. For seasoned wiseguys like Tony and Big Pussy, it's nerve-wracking, but also the cost of doing business, and they focus on the practical: hiding or destroying evidence, preventing the FBI from trashing too much of the house, or warning  Dr. Melfi that some upcoming appointments may be missed due to “vacation.”

For Melfi's loved ones, alarmed to learn that she's treating one of the mobsters being discussed on the news, it's an opportunity to again debate the enduring popularity of mob stories and the alleged harm they do to the overall image of Italian-Americans. The conversation grows a little didactic at times (as would often be the case whenever the series revisited the topic), as Melfi's son Jason points out that the whole concept of Italian-American anti-defamation was started by mob boss Joseph Colombo (who did, indeed, found the Italian-American Civil Rights League), while Richard argues that the number of Italian-American criminals in pop culture is disproportionate to the number of Italian-Americans actually involved in organized crime.

The one counter-argument neither Melfi nor the show bothers making here is that Hollywood isn't biased against Italian-Americans, but towards excitement. There have also likely been more Irish-American gangsters in the movies than in real life, more glamorous drug kingpins, etc. That's what sells. A little over a year after “The Sopranos” debuted, CBS launched “That's Life,” a likable drama(**) about an Italian-American family who lived in the same part of Jersey as Tony and Uncle Junior, but who had nothing to do with the mob. It limped along for two seasons of meager ratings(***).

(**) Created by future “Veronica Mars” and “iZombie” producer Diane Ruggiero-Wright.

(***) Though that was still one more season than “Falcone,” a “Donnie Brasco” adaptation whose poster was a blatant rip-off of “The Sopranos” key art. So Italian-American mob stories are no guarantee of success, either; they've just been a safer commercial bet. 

It's also interesting to compare Richard's horror at his people being tarnished by the actions of a Tony Soprano with the way Jason's Jewish therapist Sam Reis boasts of having a relative who was a wheelman for Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. “Those were some tough Jews,” he says wistfully. If the archetypal media depiction of Italian-Americans is Vito Corleone, then the archetypal Jewish-American character is Alvy Singer, or some other quick-witted but not particularly tough Jewish comedian. For Richard, Italian mobsters are a stain on his people's legacy; for Dr. Reis, Jewish gangsters show that his people aren't just neurotic wimps.

Amusingly, Richard finds a kindred spirit of sorts in his wife's “Patient X,” who responds to the FBI raid on his home by lecturing his kids about all the great Italian-Americans (like Antonio Meucci) who had nothing to do with organized crime. Tony is, as always, in denial about many things – including the idea that spaghetti could have been invented in China, not Italy – but here it's part of his larger desire (which was emphasized last week in “Down Neck”) to keep his children as far away from the Family as possible.

But where Richard is alarmed by the news of the indictments because of the light it casts law-abiding Italians in, and where Tony isn't happy because it endangers his business and freedom, the episode's title character is upset mainly because he's being ignored in all of this.

As Christopher reminds Adriana early in the hour, he loves movies, and seems to have joined the Family as much out of a desire to emulate his heroes from them as to be closer to his uncle. He's so young, cocky, and stupid that he doesn't even realize that he's better off not being named in the indictments, or mentioned in the paper, to the point where he becomes envious of his dead friend Brendan for being referred to as a soldier on the local newscast.

It's our biggest spotlight on Christopher so far, and also a melancholy one, because everything he wants in life (other than the beautiful Adriana) seems so far away. He wants to write his own version of “Goodfellas,” but can't even spell simple words like “managed,” and doesn't realize how much work actually goes into writing a script. (He thought the computer would do a lot of it for him.) Jimmy Altieri laughs at the idea that the feds would care about a guy on his low level, he's a glorified errand boy for Tony, and as he admits to his uncle later in the hour, “the fucking regularness of life is just too hard for me or something.” If he's not clinically depressed, he's certainly not taking any real joy in the outlaw lifestyle he dreamed of as a kid. The episode's an outstanding showcase for Michael Imperioli – the scene where he confesses all his worst fears to Paulie is remarkable for how haunted and defeated Christopher seems, this early in the series – as it illustrates the folly of trying to model your life on your favorite movie and TV characters.

The closest he comes to living up to his fantasies – when he pulls a gun on the baker who doesn't show him what he thinks is the appropriate level of respect or fear – is a moment that's doubly meta. Not only is Christopher being reckless and bold like his favorite movie wiseguys, but he shoots the poor baker in the foot, which is the same injury Imperioli's character Spider suffered at the hands of Joe Pesci's Tommy in “Goodfellas.”

“The Sopranos” would employ a lot of faces from “Goodfellas” over the years (see also Lorraine Bracco and Tony Sirico, among others), and even a few from “The Godfather” films (most notably Dominic Chianese, who was Hyman Roth's right-hand man Johnny Ola). Though Chase loved those films, this wasn't entirely homage, but a reality of the business: if you're making a show about Italian-American gangsters, odds are many of the actors coming in to audition (like Frank Vincent, another “Goodfellas” alum, who read for Uncle Junior but didn't join the show until season 5 in another role) will have a resume filled with similar roles. Which again plays into Richard LaPenna's argument, even as “The Sopranos” – whether with non-criminal characters like Melfi and Artie Bucco, or simply in showing the fuller and more complicated lives of men like Tony – painted a much richer and more complicated picture than Richard and his real-world analogues were ever willing to admit.

Some other thoughts:

* When Christopher's trying to explain what a character arc is to Paulie, he first tries using Richard Kimball, the hero of “The Fugitive,” before recognizing that Kimball didn't really have one. (He has a plot arc, in that he finally proves his innocence in his wife's murder, but he's more or less the same man at the end as at the start.) That's because character arcs were all but non-existent for the first couple of decades of television, where characters were meant to exist in a never-ending sense of stasis, so a viewer could tune into any episode from any season and feel comfortable that it was the same as when last they watched. That started to change a bit in the '70s with Archie Bunker, Mary Richards, and Hawkeye Pierce, and even more in the '80s starting with “Hill Street Blues.”

* The local FBI organized crime unit, glimpsed briefly at the end of a few previous episodes, finally gets a couple of faces in Agent Harris, who makes an effort to be polite to Tony (which Tony says makes him the worst of them all), and Agent Grasso, who bristles when Tony insults him in Italian (and becomes the subject of yet another argument about Italian-Americans' self-image). Perhaps the most interesting development about the looming FBI search warrants is seeing just how complicit Carmela is in helping Tony hide evidence of his criminality. It's not just that she knows where the money's coming from, but that she helps him stash cash and guns in Livia's room at Green Grove.

* This is the first of a whopping 20 “Sopranos” episodes directed by Tim Van Patten, who also helped come up with the story for one of the show's most famous episodes, season 3's “Pine Barrens.” Before he was an award-winning director, Van Patten was Salami on “The White Shadow” – a show where creator Bruce Paltrow mentored many of the young actors into becoming successful directors – and I implore you to, at minimum, watch the “Tonight, on 'The White Shadow'” clips from the start of the episode “Salami's Affair.”

* The wedding of Larry Boy Barese's daughter Melissa starts off resembling the kind of lavish receptions we've seen in other mob films, but ends in a crueler, more “Sopranos” way, with Pussy taking back his present in case he needs traveling money, and all the other wiseguys and their families leaving early to do some “spring cleaning.”

* It's not spoiling much to say that this is our first real glimpse of Paulie serving as Christopher's mentor. Tony is his uncle/cousin, but Paulie is often the one who takes a more direct interest in his career, and doesn't have the tangles of leadership or family that Tony has in his dealings with Christopher.

* Also, Tony's conversation with Christopher in the car again illustrates how isolated Tony feels about his therapy. He suspects Christopher could be suffering from depression, but he can't come right out and ask him that or risk exposure, and ultimately has to go along with Christopher's mockery of people who commit suicide.

* I always get a kick out of the hacky stand-up comic playing the Green Grove rec room, who can't get a laugh even with cultural references right in his audience's wheelhouse.

* Richard Romanus makes the first of many appearances as Melfi's ex-husband, and there's an added meta layer to his hatred of movies about wiseguys, given that Romanus' most famous role was arguably in “Mean Streets.”

* The closing songs throughout this season are perfectly chosen, and Cake's “Frank Sinatra” couldn't be more spot-on, given this episode's primary subject.

* For the most part, the series tried to be very authentic in terms of Jersey locations, landmarks, media (Tony reads The Star-Ledger, not a fictional newspaper), etc. Yet the TV station everyone's glued to for the first report on the indictments is Channel 6, which doesn't exist here as an over-the-air channel. (Channel 9 is the only local channel that, at the time of “The Sopranos” at least, was specifically focused on New Jersey rather than New York, but the other main local stations are on 2, 4, 5, 7, 11 & 13.)

* If you're looking for more of my writing on “The Sopranos,” here are links to my Star-Ledger episode reviews from the later seasons. As mentioned above, the show was also the centerpiece of my book, “The Revolution Was Televised.”  It's getting an updated edition in late fall, dealing primarily with the ends of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and some of the larger changes to the TV business in the last three years, though there will be some other tweaks. (“The Sopranos” chapter, for instance, will touch on David Chase's recent comments about the show's ending, but the bulk of that one's unchanged, if you're eager to read now.)

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.

* We get fleeting glimpses of Silvio and Big Pussy's wives, neither of them played by the actresses (Maureen Van Zandt and Toni Kalem, respectively) who would play them beginning in season 2.

* Hey, it's Vito! But not really! Joseph Gannascoli pops up as Gino, the bakery customer who stepped out to park his car. The show repurposed Gannascoli a year later as Soprano soldier (and future captain) Vito Spatafore, making Gannascoli one of only a few actors on the show to play multiple roles – and the only one of those not re-cast as his own twin.

* It's interesting to watch the “where's my arc?” scene, given that Christopher is venting to Paulie, among the show's most prominent characters without a major arc of his own over the life of the series. He gets promoted to captain, and there's a sense at times that he resents being bossed around by the son of his old pal Johnny Boy, but the Paulie of the series finale is more or less the Paulie we know here.

* Everyone say hi to Matt Servitto (currently co-starring in Cinemax's super-fun “Banshee”) as Agent Harris, who will be Tony's point of contact with the FBI for the life of the series, even after Harris' responsibilities shift from organized crime to terrorism. The two get along so well that, by the end of the final season, Harris is actively rooting for Tony in his war with Phil Leotardo.

* Tony's plan to hide evidence at Green Grove will prove so popular that some of the other wiseguys will start placing their mothers there, and talking business in the place, in a way that comes back to bite them by season's end.

* This will be far from the last time that people Melfi trusts – notably her own shrink, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg (introduced in season 2) – will give her a hard time about her relationship with “Patient X.” And it will take Melfi virtually the entire run of the series to realize that Richard is correct when he tells her, “You know you can't treat sociopaths.”

* While the show's dream sequences mainly come from Tony, Christopher's dream of Emil Kolar – plus a severed arm helping him work the Satriale's counter – is the first of a handful of times we'll look inside the unconscious minds of other characters. (See also Carmela's dream of Adriana in Paris.)

Up next: “Boca,” in which Tony gets involved with Meadow's soccer team, while Junior's girlfriend gets too chatty for everyone's good.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television since the mid-'90s. He's the author of "The Revolution Was Televised," about the rise of TV's new golden age, and co-author of "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time."

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