Friday, February 17, 2006

The Sopranos - Season 1

I'm rewatching The Sopranos to get ready for the big start to the final season in March. I haven't seen all of the episodes, and I don't remember some of them all that well either (my HBO subscription was patchy at best, and I had to rely on various girlfriends and coming home for the weekend from college).

I had long mythologized Season 1 as one of the best seasons of television ever, and I was not disappointed by it. It really IS nearly perfect, taking so very few missteps. The pilot sets up Tony Soprano's world perfectly, introducing nearly all of the characters with memorable bits. College, of course, is one of the best episodes ever, but there's a lot of great stuff here. On the HBO shows, it's tempting to do non-season finale finales where not a whole lot happens (I disagree with this principle, thinking that serial narrative depends just as much on plot as on character, unlike other forms of narrative). Fortunately, that's not the case in this first season.

And yet, the finale provides a perfect bookend. One could see this as a little novella is one wanted to, a perfect little encapsulation of one story. And yet, everything changes in the finale from relationships to community standing to legal statuses. So we're compelled to go on and watch Season 2.

I've loved the other seasons of The Sopranos, but I still don't think they've ever topped season 1. Now, it's easy to forget just how revolutionary the show was (the other networks, of course, took the wrong lessons from The Sopranos, thinking what made it successful was its violence, nudity and language; indeed, compared to other shows on now, even on broadcast networks, the first season seems almost tame -- take out a couple of naked breasts and a few F-words and you could show this on Fox easily).

Here are some of the things The Sopranos did early.

--It ramped up the complexity of narrative that people were willing to follow (well, it and Buffy). The show had dozens of characters, and some of them would drop out for episodes to seasons at a time. When they came back, we were expected to catch up. Due respect to 24 and Lost, but Sopranos and Buffy got there first.

--It allowed for more introspective scripts. The first season provides lots of discussion about an America that has grown lazy and self-indulgent, an America that has lost its golden age. It's a perfect encapsulation of the late 90s, and creator David Chase and his writers were able to adapt it perfectly to our age of anxiety.

--It allowed an indie-film aesthetic in ever so slightly. There are scenes here that don't really NEED to be here. On a broadcast network, they would have been cut. Additionally, there are long, slow stretches where we just get to know the characters. When you see a show like (again) Lost unfurl an episode devoted to the backstory of a character that isn't completely necessary to the plot (like Sun), you can thank Sopranos for opening that door.

--It gave former E-Street Band members reason to hope. Can it be that long before Clarence "Big Man" Clemons joins the show?

To all of you catching up with The Sopranos again, you're in for a ride.

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