The Sopranos (season five) – Review

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T. and I approached season five of The Sopranos with some trepidation. The show’s writing started to tank after season two and I thought season four was pretty awful. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the first few episodes of season five, wondering if perhaps the show had turned a corner. The season begins with an injection of new blood, as several mobsters get released from jail around the same time, so there are several new faces. These include Steve Buscemi as Tony Soprano’s childhood friend, Tony Blundetto (known as Tony B.). The new characters give the show a bit of oomph, and it also helps that Tony and Carmela are no longer together. We’re therefore spared the inane family melodrama that dominated seasons three and four… for a while, anyway.

Season five initially sees a renewed focus on the FBI and their efforts to take down the various Mafia families in New York and New Jersey. This storyline drives much of the season’s better action, just because it’s interesting to see how the federal police plan and execute operations like this. Other shows have since done this sort of thing much, much better – think of The Wire, or even Sons of Anarchy – but nevertheless, The Sopranos’ fifth season has some good moments early on. Unfortunately, the season’s early momentum comes to a screaming halt by the time of episode six, “Sentimental Education”. This is one of the first Sopranos episodes written by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men – not a favourite show in these parts), and it marks a new low for a show that had already served up some pretty poor episodes. From this point onwards, narrative complexity is largely abandoned in favour of a straightforward story centred around Tony’s personal neuroses.

I’ll admit that for a while I thought Tony’s psychological problems provided an interesting frame to view the goings-on of the Soprano crime syndicate. But they are not enough to sustain a drama for this length of time. By this stage, Tony’s psyche and personality are as overexposed and repellent as his corpulent physical form. Just as Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi go nowhere and cover the same ground ad nauseam, so too does the storyline repeat itself; simply with new characters performing the same narrative function as the likes of Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto before them. Side characters are never given any time to develop, merely being used as triggers for Tony’s rage or depression, and the show relies on a procession of “star power” to maintain any interest in its cast. Like with Tony, series regulars such as Carmela and Chris Moltisanti are so one-dimensional and over-familiar that you just don’t want to see them on your screen any more.

A show like The Sopranos has such an aura around it that people explain away things that would elsewhere be called out as downright bad or incompetent. Season five fails to maintain a basic level of storyline continuity and credibility. In the space of a few minutes, Tony B. inexplicably abandons his deeply-felt plans to “go straight” which had been built up over six hour-long episodes. Halfway through the season a ranking member of Tony’s crew is caught sucking off another man in a car park; nothing more is said about it. Another character accidentally sets themselves on fire making a sandwich. Then there are the editorial decisions that only the most over-indulged show can get away with, such as Tony’s interminable surreal dream sequence; a laughable reminiscence montage when Tony is thinking about a childhood friend; or a “mic drop” freeze frame after Carmela dumps someone that would have felt cheap on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. None of this is helped by the fact that Tony’s main rival for much of the season is the singularly dull, unthreatening and effete mafia “boss” Johnny Sack. As unconvincing mobsters go, he rivals even Andy Garcia’s cringeworthy performance in Rob the Mob. How did we go from Brando, De Niro, and Pacino, to this?

The last couple of episodes of season five see some basic competence restored to the storytelling, albeit brought about in an abrupt and contrived manner via the police acting as a deus ex machina to move events forward. The sections of the show which follow the police tend to be the more interesting, as are the all too rare occasions when we see how the mafia try to cover themselves or, you know, actually conduct their business. As countless police procedurals and historical dramas have shown, the ways people operate in the world tend to be of wider and more lasting interest to viewers than summoning forth the obscure goings-on from inside someone’s mind. For all that its first two seasons were very, very good, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. Not least the way it helps legitimize this kind of introspective claptrap as a form of serious entertainment.

4/10

The Sopranos (season four) – Review

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Doesn’t this look like fun?

The first two seasons of The Sopranos rank as some of the best television I’ve seen, but season three represented a marked decline in quality. This was understandable, as the real-life death of one of the central actors caused a major story arc to be aborted. Season three therefore felt like there was something missing, and secondary storylines were made the centre of attention. I hoped that season four would see the show regroup and move forward with renewed purpose.

On the contrary, I was sorely disappointed to find that season four is significantly worse than season three. The thirteen episodes see Tony’s world begin to fall apart, as bad decisions and the stresses and strains of the mobster lifestyle take an increasing toll on his family and personal relationships. Tony’s character doesn’t necessarily develop a great deal in this season, but he’s still written as a fairly deep and rounded character so is always compelling. Sadly, the same can’t really be said for anyone else. Tony’s wife, Carmela, falls for one of Tony’s henchmen, and much of the season follows her emotional plight as she’s tortured by an impossible dream of romance and confronted daily by her growing hatred for her husband. The relationship between Tony and Carmela has been an emotional center across the four seasons so far, but the dramatic payoff from their marital problems is really lacking. In part, this stems from something of a ‘Betty Draper’ syndrome: Carmela is by now pretty horrible to almost everyone, not just Tony, and despite her depression and the humiliation she suffers from her husband’s constant philandering she does enjoy the material fruits of his illegal activities, which of course come at no small cost to his victims. In general, Carmela’s character is just not written with enough depth or subtlety to really imbue her with the kind of sympathy which we should feel in the circumstances.

At least Carmela’s behaviour is largely consistent across the season, though. The same can’t really be said for most of the supporting cast, and Tony’s business associates often seem to flip-flop between different personalities. At times it’s as if someone mixed up the actors’ lines, like when one wiseguy who had been taking a hard line on a business deal suddenly changes his mind, while another who had been the voice of compromise starts playing hardball. There are also some poorly-conceived storylines, such as the infamous episode about ‘Columbus Day’. One of the few bright sparks is Ralphie, played by Joe Pantoliano, who despite his brutally misogynistic and violent personality is responsible for most of the season’s humour and lighter moments. These rare occasions are a welcome contrast to the procession of misery and manipulative behaviour which constitutes most of the rest of season four.

One of the curious things about this season is the comparative lack of police interest in Tony and his New Jersey crew. The police are a constant presence, sitting in cars outside Tony’s house, businesses and so on, but their approach is largely passive. There’s one exception, as the cops try to recruit a mole within Tony’s network, but by the end of the season this storyline inexplicably fizzles out. Perhaps most disappointingly of all, Tony’s psychotherapy sessions with Dr Melfi become less and less insightful, covering the same ground ad nauseam, until Tony eventually decides to give them up. It’s a kind of metaphor for the way the whole show loses its sense of sympathy for its own characters, as well as the insight into human compulsions which characterized the first few seasons. While season three was a disappointment, season four is downright poor, and its existence undermines the case of those who would argue The Sopranos is ‘the best TV show ever’. If I didn’t already have the box set, I might well give up now.

5/10

 

The Sopranos (season three) – Review

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Season three of The Sopranos comes as something of a disappointment, but it’s not really the show’s fault. There’s only so much you can do when one of your main actors dies, rendering moot storylines you’ve been building up over two seasons. It’s an inherent danger in long-form storytelling. Although the writers do a brave job of coming up with alternative material, season three nevertheless fails to live up to the mark set by its predecessors.

Because of the last-minute changes to the script, some secondary characters get more attention that one might otherwise expect. For example, there are a number of storylines about Tony’s daughter, Meadow, and her boyfriends and other experiences at university. This is fine as far as it goes, but it felt quite melodramatic at times, and you imagine it wasn’t originally conceived as such a major part of the season. Most of the rest of the season sees Tony trying to manage his volatile crew, including a new character, Ralph Cifaretto, played by Joe Pantoliano. Ralphie is one of the highlights of the series; rather like Tony, he’s charismatic while also being extremely violent and very frightening. Unlike Tony, he doesn’t seem to have any protective instincts towards women or children–quite the opposite, in fact.

Tony himself continues trying to balance work and family pressures, continuing his counselling sessions with Jennifer Melfi (who also deals with major problems of her own.) We see Carmela trying to attend to her emotional needs, which proves interesting and provides probably the best scene in the series, when she attends psychotherapy herself. One of the odd things about the season is that, after the first few episodes, there’s no attention at all given to the federal prosecution of the Soprano gang; if the police had kept up their surveillance of Tony, they would have found him in some very awkward situations. As it is, they seem to give him a largely free leash. Maybe it was two for one on donuts or something.

On the whole, while watching this season it felt like the character and story development was in something of a holding pattern. Tony does develop a new romantic entanglement, which he learns from (to an extent) and which provides some more emotional insights. But I’m clutching at straws here. Considering the show’s reputation, and how good the first two seasons were, there’s no denying season three is a low point. Here’s hoping season four sees The Sopranos back on form.

7/10

The Sopranos (season two) – Review

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The first season of The Sopranos was excellent, and I was very excited to see what the second had in store. The answer is pretty much ‘more of the same’, as the storylines and character arcs of the first season carry on for much of the second. Considering the quality of the first season, that’s no bad thing, but I’m eager to see how season three will shake things up.

Season one ended with Tony sitting pretty, more or less, as boss of the New Jersey Mafia, despite the machinations of his enemies. Season two sees more plots hatched against Tony, from the FBI as well as rivals within LCN, and his stress levels skyrocket as he tries to manage business and family problems–which, as in the first season, often overlap. Season two introduces Tony’s sister, Janice, who despite her apparent interest in Eastern religions and a hippie lifestyle, has a lot in common with their mother. Tony’s continuing emotional problems lead him back to therapy, but his counsellor Dr Melfi is having problems of her own; seeing your highly strung and emotionally unstable client linked with murders in the news every other day can’t be good for you. Jennifer Melfi’s character gets a fair amount of screen time here and we learn more about her, but this season doesn’t have the same psychological insights as the first. Part of this is probably because, as Tony sinks deeper and deeper into criminality and violence, there’s less and less that can be done to help him.

Some of the show’s secondary characters are starting to come into their own. Silvio, one of Tony’s most trusted guys, is hugely entertaining and lights up the screen whenever he makes an appearance; Pauli is also given a bit more back story and his simple-mindedness can be quite entertaining. Tony’s nephew Christopher continues his story arc from the first season, which felt like it dragged on for a while but fortunately did come to something of a resolution before the end of the season, for which I was grateful. As in the first season, trust and betrayal are major themes and the threat of police infiltration is ever present. The season’s pacing is generally quite good although there are a few times when characters flip-flop a bit too much between opposite points of view. If you were being generous I supposed you could view this as a function of the mental strain most of the characters are under.

This is top-quality drama, and the show has some truly iconic scenes. I particularly appreciated a scene towards the end of the season when one character changes his mind about a conspiracy, changing his allegiance in the process, and clearly explains his reasons for doing so. It was deeply intelligent writing and something about it felt completely truthful and profound. Like all the best dramas, the script is able to depict complex human behaviour with sympathy and understanding.

That said, while we may understand specific decisions in their own context, as we learn more about Tony’s criminal enterprises, it gets harder and harder to sympathize with him. Some of the storylines in this season make for heavy viewing, particularly when we see people not involved with the criminal world being exploited by Tony and his confederates. This is probably one of the main differences between this season and the first, and by the end of season two Tony is pretty much established as the villain of the piece. He’s likable and sympathetic in his own way, and trapped by circumstance, but that knowledge only goes so far. There are also a few dream-like scenes over the course of this season which are quite disturbing, and felt like something out of a David Lynch film. Partly because they’re so unexpected, these moments feel distinctly unsettling, and add to the overall darker quality of this season compared to the first.

The influence of The Sopranos on popular culture can hardly be overstated, and I think watching it now for the first time it suffers a bit for that; so much of what it does well I have seen in other shows, from The Wire to Sons of Anarchy. I enjoyed the second season very much but am ready for the third act to start moving the story forward a bit more.

9/10

The Sopranos, season one – Review

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.

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You call this a review?

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.

9/10

First Impressions – The Sopranos, season 1

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Tony with his ducks

Somehow I’ve managed not to watch any of the Sopranos until now, even though I’m a big fan of many of the shows that came in its wake (like The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, True Detective, etc). I was very excited to finally get round to it although slightly trepidatious that it wouldn’t live up to the hype–this is widely regarded as the best TV drama of the last 25 years, after all.

A few episodes in to the first season, and it seems that I had nothing to worry about. The Sopranos does a great job of pulling you in right from the start with a combination of humour, action, and human drama, and this has been consistent across the first several episodes. It is intelligently written and the main character, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), is very engaging and makes for a surprisingly likable and complex mobster cum family man. His vulnerabilities are clear from the outset, as is his sense of humour and his propensity for shocking violence. The famous sessions with his psychiatrist are at times funny, moving, and disturbing, and are always compelling.

The writing seems to display sensitivity and empathy in discussing psychology and complex behavioural issues and I can see now that it has been very influential in shaping other TV shows and films, although I’m not sure I’ve seen many that deal with these issues so well. The very first episode has a recurring theme about a family of ducks that have taken up residence in Tony’s backyard, and what the family symbolizes to him. This sort of plot point could easily take on a surreal or risible quality in lesser hands, but here it is profoundly affecting and I felt myself relating with the main character to a surprising degree.

One of the interesting things about this show is how the life of a mobster is depicted, with Tony talking about his role as a crime boss like any other job, and how he deals with the typical pressures and anxieties we encounter as we and our loved ones grow older. I’m interested to see how that develops. At the same time, it avoids glamorizing the mafia, with matter of fact exhibitions of extreme violence, and misogyny and racism. It’s also interesting to see the show reference the depiction of mob life in popular culture, and how the public perception of the mafia shapes the personas of certain characters in the show and also people’s reaction to them.

In terms of the plot, tensions with certain family members are already evident and I expect those will shape the direction of the series. The episodes are easy to burn through and I am going to have to resist watching several each evening. But with seven seasons to get through it should tide me over for a while to come.