The Sopranos is a TV series that has gained the reputation of being one of the "greatest TV shows" of all time, and I think it's a title the series deserves. It's one third of what I like to call the "holy trinity" of TV dramas, the other two being the much loved Breaking Bad and the critically acclaimed The Wire. It's such a great TV series that even a 20,000 word review would struggle to explain every single thing about the show that works, and I know you're about as willing to read a post that long as I am willing to write one, so I'll try not to draw this one out too much. That being said, there's a lot about this show that I want to say, and a lot of praise I'd love to throw its way, so here goes.
The Sopranos works on so many different levels it's staggering. It's a complex character study, a tense crime drama, a relatable family drama, and sometimes it even feels like a weird, twisted sitcom. There's moments of brutal and shocking realism right alongside surreal dream sequences and scenes ambiguous in nature. There's suspense, black comedy, surprising deaths, and even the odd tear-jerking moment.
Every character is fascinating, as barely anyone is purely good or purely evil- almost every character is a different shade of morally ambiguous grey, and this is what makes almost every character, major or minor, so interesting. The stand-out character of course is Tony Soprano; the show is about him after all. He is absolutely flawlessly played by James Gandolfini, who has done other stuff in his career, but never anything as memorable as his role as the lead in The Sopranos. Here is a character who feels like such a real person it's damn near scary- I feel like I know Tony better than some people I see in real life on a weekly to bi-weekly basis. This is perhaps one of the most fleshed-out and well-developed characters in the history of entertainment. Throughout the 6 seasons we see dozens of Tony's therapy sessions, with each one adding something to the character. We see many of his dreams too, with these sequences putting the viewer directly into his head and allowing us to see his most personal thoughts and feelings. He interacts with countless other characters too; in fact, almost every character in the show interacts with Tony on at least one occasion. It's a credit to both Gandolfini and the writers that the character of Tony Soprano felt so real throughout the show's run.
That's not to say Tony's the only well-developed character on the show, because that's not true at all. Almost every character has depth and is interesting in their own way- personal favourite characters of mine include Livia Soprano, Tony's delightfully crabby mother who's obsessed with control, Ralph Cifaretto, an absolutely horrible colleague of Tony's who is so much fun to despise, and Adrianna, a character who starts out as being there mainly for fan service, but becomes one of the show's most sympathetic and interesting characters further down the line. I would like to talk more about the characters, but honestly, to do so may cause this review to move into spoiler territory, because like I said before, nobody on this show is ever really safe from death. One character may appear to be the kind of person who'd last all six seasons, but may well be "whacked" after just a few episodes. On the other hand, there's characters who could only be seen in the background occasionally throughout the first season who become significant characters in later seasons. What I'm trying to get at is that the show's unpredictable and I don't want to go into discussing specific plot-lines or characters too much because you're really better off going into this series knowing as little as possible in order to get the most enjoyment out of it.
And by the way, try not to read too much about the show on the internet either before or while you're watching it, as it's an old-ish show, and that means people are generally less cautious about displaying spoiler warnings prior to discussing potentially "sensitive" material. The internet is a dangerous place to be while you're watching a show that's already aired, so just remember to be cautious.
The use of music in this show is also something that really needs mentioning. The show uses music frequently, and also uses a great range of music throughout its run. David Chase and the others who worked on the show clearly have a talent for selecting music that just works so well for particular moments. Special mention has to go to a few songs/scenes in particular:
- Alabama 3's "Woke up This Morning," which is used so perfectly in the show's unforgettable opening sequence, which never fails to get me psyched for the episode to follow.
- A lesser-known Rolling Stones song called "Thru and Thru" is used unbelievably well in the final montage of seasons 2's finale, "Fun-house." ("Fun" fact: Funhouse is not only my favourite episode of The Sopranos but probably my favourite TV episode of all time. I think it's so good I might even write a blog post specifically for the episode, as I can't really go into why it's so good in this review without outlining the general plot-line).
- Then there's the song "Wrapped in my Memory" by Shawn Smith used at the end of the classic episode "Long-term Parking," which is season 5's penultimate episode. The way this bittersweet sounding song is used is phenomenal- a perfect way to end one of the most well-known episodes of the show
- And I don't want to forget the use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" in the show's notorious final scene. Most people seem to associate the song with Glee, but The Sopranos used it first, and so much better too. Like the episode Funhouse, the final scene of The Sopranos could use its own blog post also, but I probably won't ever talk about it because it's already been discussed to death all over the internet. Generally every episode of The Sopranos ends with a piece of music that plays over the final scene, and continues to play over the credits, and it's staggering how often this piece of music reflects either the style, tone, themes, or even the general plot of the episode it closes. I'm an absolute sucker for a good soundtrack, and The Sopranos, I'm pleased to say, completely nails it in the music department.
The writing and the directing in The Sopranos is sharp as hell too. The writer's inject so much wit, tension, and pathos into this show (sometimes all at once) it's mind-blowing. The show has so many different moods and feelings, but somehow the writers manage to tie it altogether into something that feels very cohesive. Many, many quotable lines and catchphrases too. This show has some serious style too, and the look and feel of the show honestly looks almost movie-quality at times. This can be credited to the show's directors and cinematographers, who give the show such a unique and memorable style that really progresses and becomes more pronounced as the show goes on. There's a reason this show was so revolutionary and acclaimed when it first came out- no other show before it had ever looked quite so cinematic. I personally found myself forgetting at times that I was watching a TV show (worth mentioning is that the acting from some cast members is movie-quality too).
Mind you, The Sopranos is not a show for everyone. It's got some very adult content, and there's the fact that it's quite a strange show too- there's literally at least three episodes that are almost 45 minute long dream sequences inside Tony's head, and a sense of ambiguity is often present thanks to the characters' general sense of moral murkiness, as well as their often strange and ambiguous motivations that aren't always spelled out. Almost no character is ever easy to decipher and understand- there's few stereotypes on this show- and while this could frustrate some people, I personally like this aspect of the show, as it makes everyone feel a bit more "real" and compelling. And then there's that ending, which isn't going to be for everyone (I loved it though).
I also want to say that this show requires some patience to really get into. I don't think the first season was phenomenal, as the writers and cast members were still trying to work out the best way to portray and develop these characters, so it gets off to a slightly shaky and uncertain start. Mind you, I still thought the first season was very good, but it took me to the end of the second season before I started loving the show, and it was about a month after I finished the final season before I realised that The Sopranos was probably my all-time favourite show. The show will grow on you, but it'll probably take some time, so be patient. Pretty much every HBO show is like this (see Game of Thrones and The Wire in particular). Also, there are a huge number of characters, and it will take by my approximation at least 10 episodes before you'll remember most of their names (unless you've got a great memory or something). This can make early episodes a little difficult to get through, but if you stick with it it'll become something you get used to.
So if you're an avid TV watcher, I highly recommend giving The Sopranos a watch. It helped popularise the sense of grey VS grey morality that is so prevalent many recent shows, and also pushed many boundaries in regards to what kind of adult content a TV show could depict, as well as how cinematic TV could look. It's amazingly well acted, written, and directed, has an astoundingly diverse soundtrack, and features in my personal opinion one of the most deep and interesting characters off all-time- Tony Soprano. I see it as required viewing, and even though you personally may not love every aspect of it, I'm sure most of you will be at least able to develop a great sense of respect for the show. Don't be put off by its age, or the fact it ended 13 years ago- this is still must-watch television that has aged and will continue to age gracefully.