Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.
Today, Re-Watchterpiece Theater takes a mild departure from the norm. Rather than re-watching a film, this time I went after a TV show. Since James Gandolfini’s untimely death, HBO has lovingly honored him by placing the entire first season of The Sopranos back on OnDemand. Gandolfini’s death has caused a rebirth in interest in his tour de force role as Tony Soprano. Inspired by all of this, I’ve decided to take HBO up on their offer and revisit the first season of The Sopranos. It didn’t take long in the pilot episode for a lot of thoughts to start forming, especially deeper in comparison with my initial reaction to the show.
The First Viewing
As much as I love The Sopranos, I was actually late to the show. Its first three seasons occurred when I worked in baseball, which means that I couldn’t afford an HBO subscription and didn’t have the time to watch it even if I could afford it. It wasn’t until four seasons had passed, and I wasn’t working in baseball anymore, that my friend who met Kevin Meaney could talk me into giving it a go. That he owned the entire series on DVD made it that much easier to binge on the show.
The ironic thing is that I wasn’t as mob-crazy in 2003 as I am now. I had seen and loved The Godfather films, but I hadn’t seen Goodfellas (1990), and I certainly hadn’t tackled any of the classic 1930s gangster films with James Cagney, Paul Muni, or Edward G. Robinson. It speaks volumes for how quickly I took to The Sopranos– one might say I took to it like a duck to water and I’ll high-five you if you get the reference- and that the show kicked me into mob-crazy mode.
As for the pilot episode, I don’t recall much about the initial viewing other than (obviously) loving the tar out of it. It was merely the first step in a long, four-season binge that turned me into a super-fan.
It’s not a bad thing but it takes less than five minutes to realize how dated the show looks on second blush. Gandolfini looks young and thin. It was a cold reality when it dawned on me that Gandolfini was 37 years old when it was filmed. Or put another way, he was one year older than I am right now. The first shot we see of Tony getting the newspaper in his driveway includes Tony lifting up a headline that refers to President Clinton, and the first sequence with the ducks is decorated with a song by Morcheeba. It was without a doubt the 1990s.
Most striking about the episode is the impressiveness of the concept. Any TV show wanting to live past its pilot needs to grab the audience’s attention but also introduce its main characters and their personalities. The pilot episode achieves this brilliantly with a simple opening setting up the entire episode. A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office, and narrates his whole life. It’s not ham-fisted, and it’s rich in both character and plot development. In the course of an hour, we find out that Tony has a wife, a mistress, a son, a daughter who’s at odds with Tony’s wife, an uncle (and a conflict with his uncle), an overbearing mother, a high school friend with an upscale restaurant, panic attacks, a lazy protégé in Christopher, and a whole crew that includes Paulie, Silvio, and Big Pussy. We also learn that Rico is a part of his daily existence, that a rival Czech gang is causing him problems, Tony works in “waste management” in a hilarious wink-and-nod to his mob life, and that he and his crew hang out at the pork store.
That is a LOT of information to convey in one episode, but it never feels like anything is shoehorned in needlessly. All of that information is highly pertinent to the show moving forward, both in that season and throughout the series. It’s a tremendous framework for narrative propulsion. It’s so textbook that you could use the episode as a shining example for future screenwriters.
Nor does any of that information ever seem dry. It couldn’t be further from dry. There’s humor (Christopher’s insistence on calling Emil Kolar “Email”, amongst other things), a grisly murder, a mob-related beating, Tony’s soul-searching, a tense scene where he runs into Dr. Melfi at a restaurant, a restaurant explosion, and Tony passing out a few times. Again- knowing where the show goes from there really shows just how economical and efficient the script was, all while hitting a homerun in the entertainment department.
If I have a complaint about the pilot, it’s a small one. There’s no denying that The Sopranos drew major inspiration from classic mob films. Just look at the cast. Dr. Melfi, Big Pussy, Christopher, and Paulie Walnuts were all in Goodfellas. However, the influence of gangster films on the series is a little too on-the-nose at times in the pilot. During the Emil Kolar scene, it smash cuts from a shot of Dean Martin to a shot of Al Capone to a shot of Humphrey Bogart, all pictures hanging on the pork store walls. Throughout, the episode is scored using oldies, Scoresese-style. Carmela has a conversation with the priest about Tony’s preference between the first two Godfather films. And it’s all so obvious. Thankfully, the series found its own style not too long after that and those little jaunts into mob history became much more subtle and less glaring.
There were a few smaller things I noticed. For instance, Drea de Matteo- who would eventually become Adriana LaCerva- had a 10-second role as a restaurant hostess. Everyone looked so young. AJ was presented as the straight-from-Central-Casting annoying kid brother. Meadow was likewise the rebellious teen daughter. Both were just kids. It had been so long since I’d seen the first season that I’d forgotten how much those two grew up right in front of our eyes on the show.
It was a great experience all the way around. There really aren’t enough plaudits for the concept, and it’s easy to see how and why The Sopranos was a game-changer for television and premium cable broadcasting. It opened the door for so much- The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter… Name a successful premium cable show created at any point since 2000 and I’ll show you a program that owes a debt to The Sopranos.