As part of the roving tour of classic TV series some of us have been doing on the message boards, I'm having a brief conversation with a chewer about each season as we wrap it up. First up was the inaugural season of HBO's breakout hit The Sopranos:
Nathan Wishart: I never actually caught The Sopranos when the first season aired but I kept hearing how groundbreaking it was and bought the first season when it arrived on DVD back in those heady days of 2002. I’ve revisited it since over the years, and what stands out to me is how excellent the writers were at establishing plot points that wouldn’t be paid off until much later, and the show’s dark sense of humor.
Al Schwartz: We had a pretty similar experience then. I caught up on DVD in 2003 and only watched seasons 5-6 live. Although I did catch one random episode earlier in the run, which happened to be "University" (where Ralphie "disrespects the Bing"), so...yeah, that probably wasn’t the best entry point and it took me a while to dive in from the top.
The humor is something I felt was frequently overlooked during the show's run. Watching these early episodes, you can see that the show was originally conceived of as more of an overt comedy. If you watch teasers for the first season, they play up the slapstick and silliness, as opposed to in later years when they were cut for maximum ominousness and teasing that every cast member was on the verge of being murdered from week to week.
On that note, what was your biggest laugh of the season? For me it's got to be Tony's "recounting" of the ice cream truck story about John Gotti to the country club folks.
NW: I’m tempted to say Junior’s reaction at Tony’s house when Livia starts to lose her memory. But it’s got to be Mikey P trying to save his ass by blaming everything on Junior only to have Moltisanti tell him ‘Yeah, right. It was Junior. Mr. Magoo!’ just makes me laugh everytime, plus you have Paulie getting caught in poison ivy.
AS: That whole last episode is about as good as the show gets. I'd probably have to give the edge to "College" out of this batch for being such a seminal moment in the history of not just the show, but TV history (I don't think that's hyperbolic, given how many creators I've seen cite that episode specifically as an eye-opening moment for them). But "I Dream Of Jeannie Cuisamano" is probably the hour I most enjoy sitting down to watch again and again. The Sopranos doesn't dole out satisfying payoffs very generously, so you have to savor watching Tony and the guys clean house, Artie confront him about the fire and Carmela calling Father Creeper on his shit.
Mikey's murder is a great sequence, and is quintessentially Sopranos. It's one of the show's "biggest" action sequences, and a major dramatic catharsis for Christopher to get revenge for the murder of his friend. But even that climax is undercut by Paulie freaking out about getting poison ivy, to the point that he takes the first shot out of annoyance while Chris is still drawing things out. And of course there's the fact that Tony (and the rest of us) are denied their satisfaction when it comes to the major architects of his betrayal, as his mother and uncle avoid his wrath. Did/do you feel irritated by any of the instances of the show not delivering traditional payoffs in this season?
NW: Nah, I didn’t feel irritated but I’m not sure how much of that is because I know what’s coming later on. It makes sense to hold off on the payoff for Junior and Livia because they’re such fantastic foils for Tony.
AS: Fair enough. Was there a supporting character that stood out as particularly well-drawn from the start, or the other way around? For instance, I've always had a soft spot for Silvio (and think that Van Sandt gives an underrated comic performance throughout), but I don't think he's particularly well-developed in this season.
NW: I really liked how Adrianna was presented, initially, as a stereotype and not particularly bright but over the course of the season she begins to reveal a smart, capable woman is lurking somewhere underneath that bimbo. The episode ‘A hit is a hit’ gave us a hint that she’s not as dumb as she comes across sometimes.
AS: You can see Adriana sneaking up on them in this season, first appearing as a random hostess and becoming more and more prominent as they realize how good De Mateo is with Imperioli. Conversely, I think Chase always liked John Ventimiglia, but the show would really struggle to find storylines for Artie Bucco in the coming seasons. Even this year, you can see that they don't have much for him to do between about ep. 2 and the finale. Not that this is a major issue; they have too many interesting characters around the periphery to consistently service them all, which is a high class problem to have.
We somehow have hardly mentioned Livia, which I think is one of the series' greatest creations. She is just a nightmare combination of everything you don't want a mother to be, and every unpleasant interaction you've ever had with an elderly person. Nancy Marchand plays it with toxic single-mindedness, creating a more formidable antagonist for Tony than any of his mob rivals, and doing a lot to keep Tony more sympathetic than he really ought to be for all the terrible things he does.
NW: I think it’s interesting to see how the character of Livia evolved in later seasons. Livia is presented as a self-involved woman who thinks everyone has abandoned her and when she doesn’t get her way, she casually manipulates people into feeling sorry for her. When that isn’t enough, she subtly manipulates Junior into arranging a hit on her own son, the fact that there was a gale wind blowing when Junior and Livia met to discuss the situation post-hit on Tony was a great bit of foreshadowing. In later seasons, we’re shown the reasons for Livia being so bitter and it casts a much better light on what she had to put up with.
AS: I don't know that I'd say Livia ever gets shown in a particularly good light, but later on when some of the bloom comes off Tony's memories of his father, you certainly get a different perspective on how she could become so ludicrously embittered as to plot her only son's murder. Also, I don't think anyone ever gets shown in a wholly sympathetic light on this show, ever. It caught flack for portraying Italian-Americans in an unflattering light, but its misanthropy is much more all-encompassing than that. Jews, African-Americans, psychologists, teenagers, and Catholics all come off as venal, foolish and hypocritical throughout the series, though I don't think any group comes off as badly as the elderly.
But looking at it the other way, do you think anyone comes off as a truly sympathetic character in the first season? Artie would seem to be the obvious candidate, but the finale really makes it hard to view him as a paragon of virtue, as he chooses to forgo any semblance of justice because it would jeopardize his business.
NW: I’d have to come back to Adrianna as the most wholly sympathetic character in the first season, as she clearly loves Moltisanti even though he’s such a self-involved asshole sometimes. I’ve always found Artie to be whiny and irritating, almost like he’s in denial about who Tony is, he effectively loses his wife’s respect because he can’t or won’t stand up to him.
AS: Adriana's not entirely an innocent, but her guilt is pretty much entirely by association at this point and Mateo gives her a level of sweetness that makes her more likeable than anybody else on the show (except maybe Meadow). And it’s hard not to feel for her belief in Visiting Day (dear Lord, that "Meow.!" song...), so yes, she’s probably my “favorite” character at this point.
Any thoughts on the ending of the season to wrap up? If this had been the end of the whole series, would you have been satisfied?
NW: It’s interesting that the end of the season 1 finale directly mirrors the infamous series ending (without getting too much into that). Pussy is still missing and Melfi has lammed it, if they hadn’t left the Pussy plot thread dangling, it would’ve been a satisfactory ending to the series but that’s not the way David Chase rolls.
AS: It would be a fairly happy ending overall, but I think the only real issue would’ve been to not get any more closure on Tony’s relationship with Livia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that we got to see Uncle Junior’s trial play out, and that we got some really great stuff when Pussy showed back up, but I could’ve lived with being denied full satisfaction on those fronts along with Tony. But to have things end without closure on those fronts as well as the maternal one would tip over into outright frustrating territory. Knowing that there was more to come makes it go down smooth. Like “one of the best seasons of TV ever” smooth.