Friday, 15 April 2016
The Sopranos, Season 1 (1999)
If you're anything like me, the fact that the first season of The Sopranos came out 17 years ago will make your brain hurt a little. It's always been a "recent" show in my mind, but the fact is that it began in a world before smart phones, Facebook, or 9/11. There's a mild dissonance in watching it now, and seeing a world that looks so like today but is so different in many ways.
When mob "captain" Tony Soprano collapses one day, he's shocked and offended by the suggestion he's the victim of a panic attack. Machismo and toughness is a core part of his self-identity. And given his career, a vital character trait if he wants to survive.
The second time it happens though, it's hard for Tony to ignore. He reluctantly begins seeing a psychiatrist, to whom he talks - often in euphemistic terms so she won't be forced to speak to the police - about his life. Obviously this is a pretty useful technique for the show to have a character clearly state what they're thinking and feeling. We get a much more clear view of Tony than we otherwise would.
We also get a clear view of the stresses and challenges of Tony's life: his conniving mother (an expert in playing the victim and sowing discord in those around her), his rivals within the mob (and sometimes his allies too, when they do stupid things), as well as the ever-present threat of the authorities, and his relationship with his children, his wife, and his lover. Now obviously some of these - especially the last - are of Tony's own making, but the show does a deft job of making us like and sympathise with a man who is a caring father and friend, while also being a dangerous mobster who will calmly order a building burned down or a man murdered.
Season one of the show focuses on Tony's efforts to get his mother settled into a retirement community - a move she regards as an unforgivable betrayal on his part - and the uneasy negotiations he must go through with his uncle when the leadership of the family unexpectedly falls vacant. It's well-acted, generally well-written stuff (I say "generally" because I sometimes feel like the psychiatrist character is delivering exposition for the audience, not talking to Tony). I particularly like how it has characters make bad choices in ways that actually make sense for them to do. I have yet to roll my eyes at anyone for carrying an "idiot ball", which is pretty good going for a show where so many bad decisions get made!
It's easy to see why this was quite the phenomenon when it first aired. If you missed it like I did, and don't mind bad guy protagonists, you should check it out.