Has it taken me more than 20 years to watch the greatest TV show of all time? Maybe: I’ve only watched the first season of The Sopranos. Now, in December 2021, it’ll be hard to find anything new to say about the show.
I’ll discuss various aspects of the show, putting each aspect in the contexts of time and of other highly-praised shows.
First, it’s more like the movies than the TV of its time (late 1990s in to the 2000s) in terms of cinematography, production values, and so on. In this, it reminds me of an earlier show: The X-Files. In some ways, each episode is more like a (half-length) movie than it is like an episode of a TV show. These shows have established a tradition: for example, each episode of Breaking Bad is like a well-produced movie.
Second, let’s consider the question: is this a show about its central character, or about an ensemble? My favorite answer to this question is: yes! Tony Soprano is of course the central character, superbly played by James Gandolfini, and his role is surrounded and enhanced by many other well-written and well-performed roles: his wife, his uncle Junior,… (I am yet to be as impressed by his psychotherapist, Dr Melfi, but that’s for another post, after watching more seasons.)
My favorite example of a central/ensemble show is Breaking Bad. Brian Cranston’s performance as Walter White deserves mention the same breath as James Gandolfini’s as Tony. The ensemble around Walter is similarly impressive. The Breaking Bad team have been effusive about their debt to The Sopranos. You can do central/ensemble well without live action: take a bow, Bojack Horseman!
Third, let’s recognize that the show deals in stereotypes. It’s about Italian-American mobsters who know and love The Godfather and similar movies. A Jewish character, Hesh, can be considered part of the ensemble. A rapper, Massive Genius, is central to episode 10 of the season; he has a collection of people and weapons as stereotypical as it is striking. MG demands that Hesh pay what he owes to the families of African-American musicians he used to manage.
So, the Sopranos is stereotype soup. I think it’s a very well-made stereotype soup. I wonder if it could be made as well, or in the same way, in the “woke” 2020s.
Talking of soup, food is prominent and vital in the Sopranos… but that, along with technology, belongs in another post. This one is long enough already. Thanks for reading this far.