‘The Sopranos’ rewind looks at the intersection of gangsters & gangster rap

Welcome to the tenth 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 tenth episode, “A Hit Is a Hit,” coming up just as soon I've recorded in Denmark…

“But I never really understood what he felt – to be used for somebody else's amusement, like some fuckin' dancing bear – til I played golf with those guys.” -Tony

Like “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti,” a few episodes back, “A Hit Is a Hit” is very concerned with Italian-American self-image and ties between the organized crime and popular culture. The wrinkle here is that it adds in the intersection of Italian-American and African-American gangster depictions, as Christopher crosses paths with Massive Genius, a hip-hop mogul (in the vein of Jay-Z) who loves “The Godfather” films so much, he'll even defend “Part III.” One set of gangsters mistrusts the other, even though they're symbiotically linked, with the mob having a long history in the music business, and a lot of hip-hop iconography modeled after “The Godfather” and “Scarface.” Both Christopher and Paulie are dismissive at different points of Massive Genius's gangster credentials, even though the guy has a mansion (and gun collection) that puts Tony's to shame.

Like the earlier episode, this one's more didactic than the show tended to be most of the time, with characters delivering speeches to underline the history and themes at play here. That stuff tends to work best in Tony's therapy scenes here, not only because monologues feel more natural in that setting, but because Tony's own dilemma on the subject – being made to feel less than because Bruce Cusamano and his friends only view him as an exotic curiosity – hits on a more personal level than what Christopher and Adriana are fighting about.

Still, this is the biggest spotlight on their relationship to date, and their scenes speak not only to the good eye David Chase had in spotting Drea di Matteo's potential in the pilot, but to Christopher being more complicated than he's sometimes willing to admit. When the other wiseguys are celebrating the jackpot from the “Juan Valdez” murder with their girlfriends, Christopher just wants to head home to Adriana, and he decides to invest his share of the money in her music-producing ambitions. His justification for her gifts in this area – “With how much you listen to the radio, you'll be good” – is hilarious in its naivete, and Adriana proves to be wrong in her belief that her ex-boyfriend Richie and his band Visiting Day(*) have what it takes to be big. But Adriana still comes out of the episode as a more well-rounded and sympathetic character than she entered it. She wants more than to be a mobster's eye candy – or to be mother to his kids, spending all her time at the gym like Carmela “and her stretch marks” – but just like Christopher with his screenwriting ambitions, she has only an outsider's understanding of how the business actually works. And having Christopher tell her that Massive Genius is only supporting her because he wants to have sex with her only reinforces every bit of doubt she has about her self and the way the world sees her.

(*) Visiting Day is equally amusing in its current incarnation as a whiny Matchbox 20 wannabe and from what we hear of them as hair metal band Defiler, whose biggest song includes the lyrics “Stay out of my way / And don't be so gay / We're coming to defile you.” It's tricky to make a fake band for a TV show that doesn't just feel like a parody, but Visiting Day in particular walks the line between comedy and plausibility.

But as darkly funny as it is to watch Christopher order recovering addict Richie to “spike up” and keep recording his monotonous single (followed by a hitting him in the back with a guitar), the episode's livelier over on Tony's side of things. It's elements of the same theme – like Massive Genius, Cusamano and his white-collar pals all love “The Godfather” films, and they're positively giddy to be playing a round of golf with a local crime boss – but the hurt Tony feels from it hits harder. (Asking any story to compete for attention with one where James Gandoflini is playing vulnerable isn't really fair, of course.) And Tony's prank on “Cooz” is priceless.

Ultimately, this is a bit too self-conscious an episode compared to my favorite flavor of “Sopranos” – “Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” did a more fluid job of incorporating similar discussions into the pre-existing fabric of the series – but it definitely has its moments.

Some other thoughts:

* While this season is a bit more focused on the mob arc than some later ones would be, it doesn't feel beholden to it in every episode. So Junior, Livia and Mikey Palmice all get the week off. Given what Junior was contemplating for Tony near the end of “Boca,” and how we've come to expect serialized dramas to operate, I imagine a lot of the audience would be going ape if this season were first airing now and such a major development was just left hanging for an extra week. Though I'm sure some people were annoyed even back then.

* While the Defiler, Visiting Day, and Little Jimmy Willis songs were all originals written and produced for the episode, the song Christopher listens to when Hesh wanders through the Bing office and says, “That's a hit” was a pre-existing song, “Nobody Loves Me But You,” by Dori Hartley. Also, we hear “Why” by Annie Lennox and Bon Jovi's “You Give Love a Bad Name” at different times in Christopher's apartment.

* This is also a strong Hesh episode, where he's more in his element than the other mobsters, and where he's less given to compromise than when Junior demanded a retroactive tax on him. Yet as he listens to the Little Jimmy hit he took a writing credit on, and stares at the photos of the other acts from his old stable, you can see that Massive Genius at least temporarily forced him to think about whether his business practices were fair – even though Hesh ultimately refuses to pay off Little Jimmy's family.

* Paulie's line about Christopher and Adriana's relationship – “Could this be the end of Rico?” – is a reference to another classic gangster film, Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar.”

* Though Tony always refers to Christopher as “my nephew,” Christopher here acknowledges that his actual tie to the family comes from being cousins with Carmela. An episode much later in the series will clarify that technically, he and Tony are also distantly related going back to their ancestors in Italy, but the nephew business is just about Tony having been close to Christopher's father Dickie.

* Adriana notes that Silvio used to manage clubs in Asbury Park, a reference to Steven Van Zandt's long history with the Asbury music scene, both on his own and with Bruce Springsteen.

* I hope whoever came up with the fake headline “AMERICAN BIOTICS TUMESCENT” was very proud of their work. Because they should be.

* The opening shot of the hustle and bustle of Manhattan marked quite the change for a show that until this point had deliberately stayed in the Jersey suburbs as much as possible.

* 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.

* Despite the threats of suits and countersuits between Hesh and Massive Genius, this would be the last we'd see of Bokeem Woodbine on the show.

* We get our first reference to Frankie Valli, who will actually join the show in season 5 in a recurring role as Little Carmine's Dick Cheney-esque adviser.

* Adriana's interest in music will lead to her managing her own rock club in later seasons, which will only get her in deeper with the FBI and lead to her doom.

Up next: “Nobody Knows Anything,” in which Vin Makazian passes along a tip that threatens to blow apart Tony's crew.

I was able to finish this review before arriving at press tour, but I am planning to take next week off from this project, so look for “Nobody Knows Anything” two weeks from today.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com