Mere Anachrony: The Sopranos Season One

sopranos

It’s been over two years, now, since The Sopranos ended its run on television with one of the most cryptic endings in television history, leading to weeks of debate over whether or not Tony was dead, who killed him, and why Meadow was such a bad parallel parker.

For many people, that ending is the most iconic image from the show; for some, it may be the only thing they remember of the show’s cultural impact. Unfortunately, that black screen is blocking a very rich history.

It’s easy to forget, but when The Sopranos premiered in 1999, it instantly became the best television drama of all-time (granted, this wasn’t as difficult of a crown to earn back then, since The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, etc. had all yet to air). It also resonated culturally in a way other great shows rarely do; it was almost instantly beloved by critics and viewers alike, at least partially because HBO allowed them to show violence, profanity and nudity.

Looking back on the first season of the show, it’s odd to think how “edgy” a lot of it was. Aside from cursing and sex, the show features a character who kills someone with his bare hands in the fifth episode (which HBO thought would render Tony unsympathetic to an audience), which now seems tame (this guy doesn’t even wait five scenes). The show uses psychiatry as a key feature of the narrative, which is commonplace now. And the show offers a frank approach to sexuality and drug use, which has become par for the course now as well.

And yet, none of the shows that have pushed the envelope farther has achieved the resonance that The Sopranos had. What made the show great wasn’t shock value— though it had plenty of that— but something much more substantive.

The resonance of The Sopranos comes from the fact that it was, at heart, a modern family drama. (David Chase has stated that he really just wanted to write a story about his own dysfunctional relationship with his mother, but then gave it a mob hook to sell it to a network.) When the show is at its best, it is really just about a guy trying to be a father and husband while simultaneously holding an unconventional and morally indefensible job.

This raison d’être was never met as faithfully as it was in the show’s first season. I used to have a theory that TV dramas always peaked in their first season, because the first season always represents the purest vision of the creator’s hopes for the show (I say “used to” because this theory has been shattered by The Wire, Mad Men and Lost, among others). The first season of The Sopranos was always my primary evidence for this theory.

While later seasons would venture into tangential storylines about FBI procedure, the movie business, the parole system, gays in the mafia, and several other issues of the day, the first season is a much more focused, and forceful, story.

The ambition of The Sopranos was that it simultaneously portrayed its protagonist, Tony, as morally contemptible and an everyman. From the first episode, Tony is represented as a stand-in for many late-90s Americans, telling his therapist, Dr. Melfi: “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

As Melfi points out, this feeling was not entirely unusual in 1999. At the end of the most prosperous decade in American history, many Americans, whether they were mobsters or not, had felt as if they lacked purpose or meaning— the paper Tony picks up in the first of what would become a recurring getting-the-paper-from-the-driveway motif (see, everyman) has a story about Clinton’s impeachment trial, to really set the tone. Tony admits that by any conventional measure, he is a success—he is rich, married, his own “boss”— but he still has to worry about where his daughter is going to go to college, how to get his mother to agree to live in a “retirement community,” whether or not his son has ADD, and a plethora of small, tedious, never-ending problems. Most importantly, he is unhappy: 

This scene is pretty representative of the first season of the show, not just in its thematic elements (ethnic heritage, the tension between the stoic and the effusive, depression), but in its dialogue: Rarely does a line as funny as “I have a semester and a half of college, so I understand Freud” creep its way into typical dramatic scenes.

The strength of the dialogue and writing always set The Sopranos apart. No show has ever done dialogue as well as The Sopranos; the show never descended into banter or pithy witticisms, instead developing unique, realistic voices for every character.*

*One of the things that makes the writing on The Sopranos (and to a lesser extent, The Wire) so great is that it focuses primarily on dumb, uneducated characters. It’s easy to get Don Draper or Benjamin Linus to say something profound or make an insightful literary allusion. It’s a lot more impressive to get enlightenment from someone who cannot pronounce “Hannibal Lecter.” 

Discussing the broad themes and grand ambitions of The Sopranos and ignoring the minor details, like characterization and dialogue, that they get so right is to do the show a great disservice. The show is excellent at capturing how real people talk and act, down to mannerisms and accents. I’ve never seen a show handle college admissions, or ADD diagnosis, or therapy, or generational differences, or countless other traditional storylines as well and as realistically as The Sopranos did. It’s not as if the show was the first to do these stories, but it was the best at not glossing over the important details and lasting implications.

When Tony takes his daughter to visit colleges in the fifth episode (“College,” possibly the greatest episode of the series), for example, the show explores how Tony’s family is corrupted by his line of work.* When his daughter Meadow asks him if he is in the Mafia, she is not naïve or sheltered, but trying to finally get honesty out of her father. Tony wants to have an honest relationship with her—he tells her that some of his money comes from “illegal channels”— but he knows he cannot divulge the full extent of his profession without losing any respect she has for him.

*The show, thankfully, does not center Meadow’s application process around a shockingly good SAT score or a brilliant interview like so many shows. Instead, The Sopranos depicts getting into college as the long, arduous, tedious, capricious and obsessive process that usually involves way too much thought.

This may seem like an issue that only really confronts members of the Mafia, but it isn’t. It’s only a more extreme version every parent faces: How do you deal with your children when they start to see you as people and not just as parents? Meadow is reaching the age where she knows that, as she puts it, “most dads are full of shit,” but Tony also has to deal with disciplining his younger son, AJ. If parental discipline has to come from some moral authority, then Tony is in trouble— and not just because he is a mobster. As this scene from “Down Neck” illustrates, punishing children is rarely a simple affair:

This scene also showcases the crux of the first season: Tony’s relationship with his mother. Now, a mother-son relationship is not exactly a cutting edge story, and it hasn’t been since Sophocles. Nevertheless, Tony’s scenes with his mother offer an honest and original look at the Oedipal relationship. Typically, the elderly are portrayed in movies and TV as either stoic fountains of wisdom, like Mama Lucas or Mr. Feeny, or quirky but lovable, like Edwin Hoover or Frank Costanza.

Livia Soprano, however, does not fit into any mold. She is selfish, senile, demanding, racist and self-absorbed. She doesn’t know how to use the telephone and says things like, “These blacks! You never know what they are going to take the wrong way!” She is also one of the greatest characters in TV history. Nancy Marchand plays her as brutally honest and hilarious, playing her as shrill and aloof instead of as the typical marginalized and forgotten parent. She never utters words of wisdom—except of the “life is meaningless” variety— and it is hard to imagine how she could have ever raised children. For Tony, she is never-ending source of tension and guilt:

The idea that someone could hate his mother is a taboo one (as Dr. Melfi says), but with Livia, it never seems unjustified. Nevertheless, she is Tony’s mother, and he feels a desperate need for her approval. There is a scene in the pilot in which Livia and Tony’s uncle Junior are driving to AJ’s birthday party: They reminisce about the good old days and compare Tony to his father. Junior complains that Tony does not respect him as his dad used to, and Livia complains that Tony doesn’t take care of her like her husband did.

This kind of generational contempt is not unique to Tony, or Italians, or mobsters, etc. And it’s not simply nostalgia or resistance to change at work here— there is a real question as to whether or not Tony, the 90s everyman, meets the standards set by previous generations.

This disconnect sets the backdrop for the entire season. How Tony raises his kids, treats his wife, takes care of his mother, runs his business, is all measured against the standard set by previous generations, and what his mother and uncle think of him. The power struggle between Tony and Junior for control of the family is almost a metaphor for this generational gap.

The season’s climax, a failed attempt on Tony’s life, illustrates the show’s deft blend of the sensational and the deep. On the one hand, it is a classic mob-movie showdown (it comes after Tony buys orange juice, in a nod to The Godfather). On the other, though, it comes when Tony is in the depths of his depression, and has the added quirk of being condoned (or ordered, or possibly neither, depending on your viewing) by Tony’s own mother.

Ultimately, The Sopranos was about violence and crime, but not as much as it was about being a middle-aged man in the 1990s. Tony was an everyman who dealt with many of the same moral issues that every middle class American deals with, only in more extreme forms. Most people’s parents don’t try to have them killed for putting them in a nursing home, but plenty of people probably think their parents want to. Most people don’t actually have the ability to have a teacher who has sex with a student killed (as Tony almost does in “Boca”), but plenty of people wish they did. Most people can’t write a mob movie about their own life (as Tony’s nephew Chris does in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”) but plenty of people try to turn their lives into screenplays.

The Sopranos would continue to walk the line between Tony as everyman and Tony as sociopath, but would never again achieve the perfect balance of the first season. In season finale, “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano,” Tony offers his kids a bit of philosophy that sounds like it comes from a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. In the context of the show, coming after Tony has “settled” his family business, seen his uncle arrested, and confronted his mother for trying to have him killed, the words sound like they may as well have come from Socrates: “Someday soon you’re going to have families of your own. And if you’re lucky, you’ll try and remember the little moments like this… that were good.”

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on August 26, 2009 at 6:43 PM

    Excellent article John. I think you hit the nail on the head. I think certain shows have the capacity to capture a place and a time in a certain context (USA, end of 20th century) and The Sopranos truly succeeded. One point of disagreement – I never found the ending to be so cryptic. It simply stated that there is no ending, life goes on. And that the vicissitudes of life coexist at any moment. The frustration of parking a car can be juxtaposed with eating the perfect french fry. A saccharine but catchy song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” represents the essence of the final show:

    Just a small town girl, livin in a lonely world
    She took the midnight train goin anywhere
    Just a city boy, born and raised in south detroit
    He took the midnight train goin anywhere

    A singer in a smokey room
    A smell of wine and cheap perfume
    For a smile they can share the night
    It goes on and on and on and on

    Strangers waiting, up and down the boulevard
    Their shadows searching in the night
    Streetlight people, living just to find emotion
    Hiding, somewhere in the night

    Working hard to get my fill,
    Everybody wants a thrill
    Payin anything to roll the dice,
    Just one more time
    Some will win, some will lose
    Some were born to sing the blues
    OH, THE MOVIE NEVER ENDS
    IT GOES ON AND ON AND ON AND ON (my emphasis)

    (chorus)

    Dont stop believin
    Hold on to the feelin
    Streetlight people

    I know someone who is friendly with David Chase and he often built entire shows around the lyrics or the sound of a song. By the way, the song before “Don’t Stop Believin'” was a song by my favorite group, Little Feat, entitled, “All that You Dream”:

    I’ve been down, but not like this before
    Can’t be ’round this kind of show no more

    All, all that you dream
    Comes through shinin silver lining
    Clouds, clouds change the scene
    Rain starts washing all these cautions
    Right into your life, makes you realize
    Just what is true, what else can you do
    You just follow the rule
    Keep your eyes on the road that’s ahead of you

    I’ve been down, but not like this before
    Can’t be ’round this kind of show no more

    All of the good, good times were ours
    In the land of milk and honey
    And time, time adds it’s scars
    Rainy days they turn to sunny ones
    Livin’ the life, livin’ the life lovin’ everyone

    I’ve been down, but not like this before
    Can’t be ’round this kind of show no more
    I’ve been down, but not like this before
    Can’t be ’round this kind of show no more

    I’ve been down, but not like this before

    Both of these songs represent how we all just try and make it through the day and that sometimes that is enough. And relatiionships, oh they are the stuff of such complexity and confusion. (Interesting sidenote – Paul Barrere , a friend of mine in Little Feat, wrote this song about Bonnie Raitt. Paul was Bonnie’s lover and was mystified how someone with such talent could not find happiness in her life nor in her relationship with him. Ironically, years later she became clean and sober and became a superstar, winning 8 Grammies in one year.. But, she still struggles in her personal life).

    As Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The masses of men lead quiet lives of desperation”. And so it goes. Fade to black.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on September 1, 2009 at 1:39 PM

      Thanks, doc. I’ve always generally agreed with your take on the ending, but you must admit that it certainly was cryptic, at least for a lot of people. There was always some tension with The Sopranos between people who watched to see who was going to be whacked next, and who was watching for the way the show relished the mundane. The confusion over the ending seemed to reflect this: People wanted someone to die at the end.

      The truth is, though, that none of the deaths on The Sopranos were gratuitous (they were only gratuitously gruesome). Tony being gunned down in a diner in front of his family wouldn’t really mesh at all with the portrait of him throughout the entire series: The real challenge is persevering through the everyday conflicts.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Marq Goldberg on November 12, 2009 at 12:43 AM

    I found the previous two comments pretty amusing. You guys didn’t think the ending was cryptic huh? Well maybe that’s because you don’t understand it. Which is OK because I really didn’t get it either.

    I did find a VERY detailed explaination though and having read it absolutely agree with its author. He explained about camera angles and went over every single frame and exactly why things happened as they did. Mostly it explained camera perspective and how the director puts you in TS’s perspective.

    The only thing that doesn’t really add up is why Tony chose that particular booth. I won’t go into the reasons that doesn’t make sense. Those of you who understand such things don’t need to be told and those who don’t know don’t need to know. But OK Tony sits where he sits. And he sees what he sees. And hears what he hears. And there are logical reasons why he misses what he misses. There’s not a wasted frame in the scene. Doors open and people walk in when they do because that’s the way they had to do it to make the scene work. Meadow has trouble parking the car because if she arrived only seconds earlier it would have been a different ending. And I assure you the ending is NOT about “life goes on”. What it is about and how the pieces add up to their full meaning makes this one of the greatest pieces of film ever recorded.

    Like I said, I missed it too. But I won’t explain further. So anyone reading this can either seek out the explanation like I did or watch the scene again and figure out what it means. I won’t spoil that for you here.

    Reply

  3. […] lot of that can be attributed to The Sopranos. I’ve already gone over what was so great about the first season of The Sopranos in creative terms, but maybe just as important is what the show did for television in general. For […]

    Reply

  4. […] so much about the BCS). We’ve reviewed all kinds of television, from reality shows on MTV to HBO dramas to teen soaps on ABC […]

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