The Sopranos. Drama. Redefined?
*contains some spoilers*
In its eight year, six season run The Sopranos graced over ninety critics’ top ten lists and won numerous awards. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, in 2007 The Sopranos was voted the greatest television drama of all time by British viewers. In a few years’ time it will be ten years on from the finale, will it still be viewed as the greatest television show of all time?
On watching the pilot episode with its low angled shots and Scorsese-esque soundtrack, it would be all too easy to label it as Goodfellas for the small screen; after all it’s set in the world of organised crime, shares a total of twenty-seven cast members with the film including Lorraine Bracco and Michael Imperioli and even references Henry Hill. However, as it progressed through its opening season, The Sopranos took on its own unique style that set it apart from the films of Scorsese and Coppolla as well as episodic television drama as a whole.
From the outset you know this is not your typical American drama series. Our protagonist is not a cop, a doctor or average Joe working man; he’s a gangster, a fraudster, murderer and adulterer. Yet at the same time, a hardworking, loving family man with a few mother issues and a dislike of terrorists. Take away his involvement in the mafia and he could be your next door neighbour. (Keep in mind that this was 1999, before the Don Drapers, Bill Henriksens and Walter Whites of the TV world.)
Analyse This it is not. The creative team behind The Sopranos did what few mainstream television producers would do; they took a group of criminal sociopaths and allowed us to view them as human, took us into both their professional and personal lives and displayed the complicated, often morally murky nature of life. Just as great drama should. Life is not black and white and neither should mediums depicting it. If the show had been made by a mainstream network our viewing focus probably would have been the life of Jennifer Melfi and it would have been a different show entirely. But this wasn’t mainstream, this was the combination of David Chase and HBO.
We are never put under any illusions about who and what these men are. Right from the beginning we see all sides of Tony and his crew. On the turn of a dime he goes from grilling meat at a family barbecue for his son’s birthday to mowing his car over a man who owes him money. We have sympathy and care for characters who in other, mainstream shows would be the villains of the piece. We feel for Paulie when he discovers that his family life has been a lie, Paulie, a man we have witnessed suffocating an elderly woman for the money under her mattress. We may not agree with it, but we understand why Christopher hands his fiancée over to be killed after she reveals herself to be an FBI informant; we saw this man make his oath, the family comes before all else.
Being a cable show, The Sopranos was able to contain more swearing and violence than standard network shows but this violence is never gratuitous or glamorised. It’s there because it needs to be; these men are mobsters, violence and murder are part of their day to day lives. What kind of depiction of life in the mafia would it be without scenes of violence? True, there is a lot of it but that is not to say that it loses any of its shocking nature or impact. The demise of Ralph Cifaretto is one of the most shocking of the series. Tension builds for over five minutes, almost to the point of being unbearable, before unleashing perhaps the most brutal seventy-six seconds of the show’s airtime. It is a ‘whacking’ unlike any other in the series; no guns, no organisation, just two men fighting with anything at hand, pans, bug spray and bare knuckles. For the first time we stay with the characters all the way through the process, see the reality of disposing of evidence.
After a two year hiatus season six marked the beginning of the end, taking on a style of its own, a style unlike that of any previous season. Although generally not a favourite season among fans it brought the series to a fantastic close. Right from its exquisite opening sequence it tells us everything we need to know about the season and that is that things are changing. Tony Soprano’s life can’t remain the same forever and we can’t keep watching his day to day struggles. The characters have to change and move on and so do we; everything comes to an end.
The Sopranos comes at viewers from all angles, flipping our opinions on their heads; in early seasons informants were revealed and we felt Tony’s pain and betrayal, then in season four we witness the FBI tricking their way into Adriana’s life and her struggles as she finds herself trapped as an informant on the man she loves and we find ourselves understanding why she does it. In season six we see the impact that ten years of investigation into the DiMeo family has taken on the personal life of Agent Harris, the main involved in trying to take Tony down. We see true emotion from Janice, no dramatic wailing or “poor me” attitude, just quiet pain.
In the end do we really blame Melfi for discharging Tony? No, in fact, we find ourselves asking the same question she asks herself. Have we been swindled by this man? In the eleventh hour Chase and his team pull our views out from underneath us; we may have been seeing all angles of Tony but have his private moments with Melfi all been an act? Has everything we thought we knew been a scam? How often do long running dramas do that?
Debates about what happened to the characters are rife and varied. Did Silvio survive? Were the New York power struggles resolved? And the biggest question of all, what was Tony’s fate? Was he killed in front of his family by that guy in the Members Only jacket who kept looking his way? This is an opinion shared by many, including cast member and contributing writer Michael Imperioli. Or, did he simply have dinner with his family and go about his life just as he did before we met him in Melfi’s office? (Personally, I think he was indicted.)
Chase created a finale that spurred numerous debates across the viewing nations. Go to sites such as YouTube, search for the final scene, and you will find hundreds of results from people debating its conclusion. Was it genius? A cop-out? Frustrating? Or the only way it could have been? If nothing else, the conclusion to The Sopranos left a residual imprint on people’s minds that is hard to forget. Chase created the perfect ending; open-ended, draw your own conclusions. Life often holds no resolution, why should a show depicting life have a resolution to every story it’s told? We may never know his intention but we can decide for ourselves how we want it to end, everybody wins.
So what is it that makes The Sopranos such great viewing? Its definitive style that is at once both cinematic and theatrical, epic and intimate? Its pitch perfect portrayal of the often mundane nature of life? Scripts that feel so effortlessly written that you could almost feel you’re sitting right there with them witnessing an argument on a car ride home? Its succinct use of music? Small moments that are both comic and add another small piece to the story, such as AJ’s confusion as to why his parents keep talking to him about event planning when he says he doesn’t know what it is? It’s all these things and more besides. Repeat viewings still hold as much to interest you as the first one.
We often hear people saying that viewing episodes of top rated drama series is like a film every week and with The Sopranos it really is, unsurprising as Chase originally pitched it as a film. A run through of the show feels like watching the most satisfying film you’ve ever seen, almost like an epic novel on screen. If The Sopranos provided viewers with any disappointments it’s that, like the ducks, the Russian never did come back. As far as being the greatest television show of all time, along with shows such as The Wire and Mad Men, it holds a strong case. As to what the future of television holds, who knows, but it will take one hell of a team to upstage Jersey’s finest. (Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad may have done it but that’s a whole different story.)