Warning: this review contains mild spoilers about the first season. If you haven’t watched it yet and want to avoid spoilers, please stop reading now.
The beginning and ending of The Sopranos’ first season are pretty much perfect. The early episodes do an excellent job of establishing Tony Soprano and the other members of his family; and we were immediately drawn in to the story and the setting in a way that’s quite rare. Similarly, the final episodes of the first season were really outstanding, providing a satisfying conclusion to the main story arc of the season while allowing plenty of room for development going forward.
I was particularly impressed with the way the season handled Tony’s struggle with his relationship with his mother, Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), and the way this impacts upon his self-perception and behaviour. Few shows tackle the taboo subject of mothers who don’t love their children, and even fewer feature mothers who actively hate their children and plot against their lives. There was a really chilling moment in the last episode where Tony’s psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi (played wonderfully by Lorraine Bracco) highlighted his mother’s obsession with recounting stories of infanticide she hears in the news. Sometimes the things that people say have an obvious meaning or significance which we shy away from acknowledging. Marchand’s performance is very powerful and intimidating, and her scheming reminded me of another Livia–the one from I, Claudius.
The fact that Tony only learned about the plot against him via federal agents felt like a slightly awakward deus ex machina, but it is hard to see any other way he could have been forced to accept incontrovertible proof. It allowed the story to move forward so it’s fair enough. I felt like the relationship between Tony and Dr Melfi was treading water for the second half of the season, after Tony precipitously declared his feelings for her, and they did the scene where Tony blows his top during therapy once too often. Hopefully their relationship finds some kind of equilibrium in the next season as their sessions are very interesting. Dr Melfi disappears at the end of season one though so no guarantees I guess.
To me, the season did hit a bit of a lull in the middle. One or two episodes felt a bit like filler, like the one where Drea de Matteo tries to make it as a music manager. It was never less than enjoyable, though, and perhaps some of these things will come back to matter in subsequent seasons. Also I shouldn’t really complain about an episode focusing on Drea de Matteo, should I? Otherwise, I found a few small details jarring, like the fact Tony Soprano’s son is supposed to be unintelligent, but he has posters for bands like Nevermore and Ulver on his walls (very advanced bands for a 12 year old!); and the scene where they filmed father and son playing Mario Kart made me cringe (they weren’t using the controllers properly, etc). I guess back in the late ’90s they didn’t expect people who actually played video games to watch the show, so it didn’t matter. They would probably do it differently now.
Nitpicking aside, this is absolutely first-class TV. It’s not only very enjoyable, it gave me a lot to think about as I go about my daily business, which is the hallmark of the best entertainment and “attention TV”. I can’t wait to start season two. I’m only giving it a 9/10 for now but reserve the right to change my mind once I’ve seen future seasons and see how it fits into the overall story.