If you care about TV, you should already know that The Sopranos started in 1999, ended in 2007, and essentially invented the idea of modern prestige television: semi-serialized, devoted to nuanced and ambiguous fleshing out of characters, and deftly experimenting with form and narrative. It did this on the fly, and somewhat by accident, though it did have the benefit of a veteran TV writer as its showrunner, as well as the influences of seminal cop/crime shows and movies. In its wake, the super-popular “antihero drama” flourished, not to mention the fact that it artistically legitimized original cable series.
I went in to this show knowing many of the plot twists and fates of the characters, which didn’t really help. Because of its dreary nihilism and frequent subversions, it probably would have been a ton more exciting with no foreknowledge. I was bracing myself for two things: 1. This was supposed to be the greatest show of all time. 2. It also had a reputation of being somewhat discursive and difficult, especially for TV novices like myself. (I still can’t help but think that tightening the average episode length from around 55 minutes to the now standard 45 would have done wonders for this series.) Did it deliver? On the first count, I have to say, not entirely. The second, though, that’s a different story.
One of my favorite writers, Todd Vanderwerff, likes to call the Sopranos and Mad Men (two of his favorite TV series ever) “short story shows”, meaning that despite the presence of overarching storylines, each episode takes a few characters and gives them isolated plots to examine their thoughts and actions. These impressions then add up with the big picture to give it depth and added context. Although the Sopranos pulls that off sometimes, I think it benefits a lot from being recategorized. Honestly, it certainly wasn’t even close to being as narratively focused and intense as Breaking Bad, nor was it as formally organized or thematically broad as Mad Men, to name the two shows it most directly inspired.
The latter series had clear, delineated arcs and episodes which centered on a few stories that subtly contributed to them. It was a robust and complete saga, albeit with its own meandering course and anticlimaxes of sorts. On the other hand, the former show progressed in discrete linear chunks, akin to concurrent chapters of a pulp novel, whose pieces formed one holistic plot with complete serialization and an unparalleled sense of urgency. But back to the subject at hand.
For better and worse, the Sopranos came first. That means it certainly deserves sympathy points for some rough patches in the early going, as all shows have when finding their voice. Its ideas and execution were revolutionary, from the modern antihero archetype being solidified in College to the psychoanalytical focus throughout season one to the underrated aspects of dysfunctional family drama it brought into the 21st century (Whitecaps!). The problem arises when that inconsistency in quality and storytelling remains until the endgame of the series. To me, it merely hinted that you could do those things and explore this kind of pedestrian evil and fascinating imperfection, only gradually approaching the level of meaning and quality its descendents would regularly achieve from the get-go.
Because of its brash disregard for the TV and storytelling norm, tumultuous changes in production that had to be adapted to (season three is an absolute mess, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), and the learning curve of being so cutting edge, the Sopranos was ultimately A DECENT SHOW. As a collection of “short stories”, some of its entries are inadequate or blandly acceptable. And in the aftermath of its many, many imitators, a handful are even a little embarrassing. If you’re looking for something to put in the pantheon, pick out the 20 or so best episodes and call it a day.
But I shouldn’t get too hasty. I mentioned forever ago that the series improves when placed in the proper context. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and lower our expectations, and suddenly it does come within range of greatness. First off, one should prepare for some dated references and cinematography in the first few seasons. It also helps to hammer it home that there are a lot of plot dead ends and anticlimaxes – the creators are huge trolls sometimes, to the show’s detriment – so don’t get too excited about those so that if they do resolve, it’s a fun surprise. But the real thing we have to change is the definition of this program.
The Sopranos is a failure at being a “short story” show. What I propose is that it was a show of snapshots, of chaotic and obscure moments in time strung together out of context. Some amateurish, some beautiful; sometimes graceful, sometimes blatant and crass; some pieces work together and others are incoherent. Like the pages of a photo album, they more or less give you the general idea of a life and its story. But so much is missing. It’s both a blessing and a curse that the focus of the show is squarely on Tony Soprano, impeccably exploring his inner and outer lives yet discarding the importance of others the instant they gravitate away from him. Many potentially wonderful characters float through the background, and only become memorable through gradual, frustrating accumulation of minute detail rather than the specific actions or vivid stories you’d find on other shows. These people, these photographs, are not always three-dimensional. And because of the small frames their images inhabit, inferences only get you so far in interpreting them. As I said, sometimes the show hits you over the head with The Message, and other times it’s so muddled it may as well not be there. The viewer stand-in, Tony’s therapist Jennifer Melfi, isn’t always used effectively, as she’s artlessly recapitulating the show’s metaphors and symbolism half the time. (Her character arc is also abruptly and gratuitously brought to a close in season three, thereby reducing her usefulness in the show’s second half.)
Another reason for my new categorization is that photos usually lack words, and this is another niggling thing about The Sopranos: it could really use more poetry and purposefulness to its dialogue. Not enough to strain credulity or anything, but so much of the action is subconscious and so little changes narratively that it would add so much power if the exchanges weren’t just terse, mundane back-and-forth gabbing. There are indeed some instances of silence and repose here, which can be effective, but would be doubly so if bookended by some pontificating. Furthermore, it’s given too much credit for being a laugh-out-loud funny show, when that would really counteract the tone it’s going for. Yeah, there are good one-liners, but the overall feel is pretty doomy, and its attempts at satire are broad and facile.
And yet there’s something charming and illuminating about these pictures nonetheless. After all is said and done, certain images stand out for their profundity, even though the show was rarely flashy in its direction or staging (another thing it could have loosened up on, in my opinion). Granted, this is a low bar to clear, but in the absence of normal character development or tonal mastery or visual fireworks or heady scripts or even a salient plot, the Sopranos boasted something different.
It undeniably had MOMENTS. Moments of exceptional power and significance, for its world and ours. Every once in a while they’d coalesce into a phenomenal TV episode, and other times there’d be an annoying, stupefying dry spell. Any critic will tell you that this isn’t by any means a mathematically perfect work of art. Its batting average is middling. But, all things considered, I wouldn’t say it’s completely not worth watching.
Because these images, good and bad and everything in between, add up to something really significant. Some of them stay with you, even as others fade away. When you think about it, photo albums don’t solely consist of life’s biggest events; they comprise the smaller things too. A quiet dinner. A lovely landscape. Tableaus of friends goofing off. As with the characters, all the frankly tedious individual details accumulate into something better than its discrete parts. A good deal of this power hinges on the exceptional finale, which upon analysis, really recontextualizes all the shortcomings and wheel-spinning that came before. (Although especially after the plot surprises have been revealed, I don’t know if rewatching this show would be all that entertaining. Insightful, I’m sure, but exciting? Eh….)
Overall, I’m in a frame of mind to be kind about this series’ shortcomings and intermittent boring spots. I would be quite grateful if the hype around it eventually died down a bit to let people better enjoy it for the flawed but interesting work it is. Once you’ve enjoyed its far superior heirs, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, I would hesitantly recommend at least watching selected episodes of the Sopranos. Yes, it’s confounding and defiant and dreary, but its one unwavering aim is to argue that the existence it depicts – the modern American family in a state of spiritual disarray and moral decay – is all of those things and more.
It’s not necessarily a pretty picture. But it’s one we needed to see.