Sopranos (Complete Season 1-5)
The Sopranos, writer-producer-director David Chase's extraordinary television series, is nominally an urban gangster drama, but its true impact strikes closer to home, chronicling a dysfunctional, suburban American family in bold relief. And for protagonist Tony Soprano, there's the added complexity posed by heading twin families, his collegial mob clan and his own, nouveau riche brood. The series' brilliant first season is built around what Tony learns when, whipsawed between those two worlds, he finds himself plunged into depression and seeks psychotherapy--a gesture at odds with his midlevel capo's machismo, yet instantly recognizable as a modern emotional test. With analysis built into the very spine of the show's elaborate episodic structure, creator Chase and his formidable corps of directors, writers, and actors weave an unpredictable series of parallel and intersecting plot arcs that twist from tragedy to farce to social realism. While creating for a smaller screen, they enjoy a far larger canvas than a single movie would afford, and the results, like the very best episodic television, attain a richness and scope far closer to a novel than movies normally get. Alternately seductive, exasperated, fearful, and murderous, James Gandolfini's Tony is utterly convincing even when executing brutal shifts between domestic comedy and dramatic violence. The first season's other life force is Livia Soprano, Tony's monstrous, meddlesome mother. As Livia, the late Nancy Marchand eclipses her long career of patrician performances to create an indelibly earthy, calculating matriarch who shakes up both families; Livia also serves as foil and rival to Tony's loyal, usually level-headed wife, Carmela (Edie Falco). Lorraine Bracco makes Tony's therapist, Dr. Melfi, a convincing confidante, by turns "professional," perceptive, and sexy; the duo's therapeutic relationship is also depicted with uncommon accuracy. Such grace notes only enrich what's not merely an aesthetic high point for commercial television, but an absorbing film masterwork that deepens with subsequent screenings. In its second season, The Sopranos repeatedly defies formula to let the narrative turn as a direct consequence of the characters' behavior, letting everyone in this rogue's gallery of Mafiosi, friends, and family evolve and deepen. That gamble is most apparent in the rupture of the relationship that formed the spine of the first season, the tangled ties between Tony and Livia, whose betrayal makes Tony's estrangement a logical response. Filling that vacuum, however, is prodigal sister Janice (Aida Turturro), whose New Age flakiness never successfully conceals her underlying calculation and opportunism. Soprano's relationship with therapist Melfi also frays during early episodes, as she struggles with escalating doubts about her mobbed-up patient. At home, Tony contends with wife Carmela's ruthless ambitions on behalf of college-bound Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler), as well as son Anthony Jr.'s (Robert Iler) sullen adolescent flirtation with existentialism--the sort of touch that the show handles with a smart mix of sympathy and amusement. In the brutal and controversial third season, The Sopranos justified its 11-month hiatus with some of its best, and most hotly debated, episodes. It continued to upend convention and defy audience expectations with a deliberately paced, calm-before-the-storm season opener that revolves around the FBI's attempts to bug the Soprano household, and a season finale that (for some) frustratingly leaves several plot lines unresolved. "Employee of the Month," in which Dr. Melfi is raped and considers whether to exact revenge by telling Tony of her attack, earned Emmys for its writers, and is perhaps Emmy nominee Lorraine Bracco's finest hour. Other story arcs concern the rise of the seriously unstable Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) and Tony's affair with "full-blown loop-de-loo" Gloria (Emmy nominee Annabella Sciorra). Plus, there is Tony's estrangement from daughter Meadow, his wayward delinquent son Anthony, Jr., Carmela's crisis of conscience, bad seed Jackie Jr., and the FBI--which, as the season ends, assigns an undercover agent to befriend an unwitting figure in the Soprano family's orbit. Though for some the widely debated fourth season contained too much yakking instead of whacking, and an emphasis on domestic family over business Family, in most respects The Sopranos remains television's gold standard. The season garnered 13 Emmy nominations, and subsequent best actor and actress wins for James Gandolfini and Edie Falco as Tony and Carmela, whose estrangement provides the season with its most powerful drama, as well as a win for Joe Pantoliano's psychopath Ralph. Other narrative threads include Christopher's (Emmy nominee Michael Imperioli) descent into heroin addiction, Uncle Junior's (Dominic Chianese) trial, an unrequited and potentially fatal attraction between Carmela and Tony's driver Furio, and a rude joke about Johnny Sack's wife that has potentially fatal implications. Other indelible moments include Christopher's girlfriend Adriana's projectile reaction to discovering that her new best friend is an undercover FBI agent in the episode "No Show," Janice giving Ralph a shove out of their relationship in "Christopher," and the classic "Quasimodo/Nostradamus" exchange in the season-opener, which garnered HBO's highest ratings to date. Freed from the understandably high expectations for the fourth season, heightened by the 16-month hiatus, these episodes can be better appreciated on their own considerable merits. They are pivotal chapters in television's most novel saga. From the moment a wayward bear lumbers into the Sopranos' yard in the fifth-season opener, it is clear that The Sopranos is in anything but a "stagmire." The series benefits from an infusion of new blood, the so-called "Class of 2004," imprisoned "family" members freshly released from jail. Most notable among these is Tony's cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi, who directed the pivotal season 3 episode "Pine Barrens"), who initially wants to go straight, but proves himself to be something of a "free agent," setting up a climactic stand-off between Tony and New York boss Johnny Sack. These 13 mostly riveting episodes unfold with a page-turning intensity with many rich subplots. Estranged couple Tony and Carmella (the incomparable James Gandolfini and Edie Falco) work toward a reconciliation (greased by Tony's purchase of a $600,000 piece of property for Carmela to develop). The Feds lean harder on an increasingly stressed-out and distraught Adriana to "snitch" with inevitable results. This season's hot-button episode is "The Test Dream," in which Tony is visited by some of the series' dear, and not-so-dearly, departed in a harrowing nightmare.