Sopranos Season One

Prod. David Chase
1999
It took something like seven episodes before my better half got into the Sopranos.
(It took me three). That may be a long time for some, but understand that in learning English as a second language all those years ago, there was no week devoted to Italian-American Mafia slang and its sentence structure. Imagine getting your English down fluently and then encountering a line such as “For his mother a smoke he hires!” said in a rising tone.(Imagine you even know that a ‘smoke’ is a derogatory word ahead of time.)
No wonder she couldn’t get into Goodfellas a few years back…
So anyway, after years of people telling me that the Sopranos is essential viewing, the box set for Season One turned up at the library of all places, allowing us the leisure of watching all 13 episodes over the course of a week.
One of the great pleasures of the series is how it intersects with our shared cultural knowledge of previous gangster films. This intertextual referencing occurs within and outside the world of the Sopranos. While Tony Soprano’s crew talk about the Godfather and Silvio does impressions of Pacino, we also get a kick out of the fact that Christopher shoots the toe off a donut-shop vendor, replaying a scene from Goodfellas in which the same actor (much younger) gets his foot shot by Joe Pesci. Or how the attempted assassination of Tony is a homage to Don Corlione’s shooting in the original Godfather, with a smashed orange juice bottle alluding to Brando’s dropped bag of oranges.
That the Sopranos discusses all this marks the show as a major post-modern text, yet it’s a real drama, not diluted with snarky irony. James Gandolfini went from appearing in films as a heavy or a psycho (8mm for one) to appearing fully formed as Tony Soprano, simultaneously ruthless and vulnerable, with no winks to the audience, no grandstanding. These are the kind of breakthrough roles most actors never get.
The season arc–the taking over of Uncle Junior’s business and Tony’s mom’s plot against him–plays out slowly and satisfyingly. Once again the hour-long drama series shows itself to be the closest we get to a novel in film.
The finale sets us up for a Godfather-esque “massacre during christening” sequence, with Michael’s death in the woods, but then throws us a curve as Uncle Junior and crew are indicted. The closing scene, with the crew and family huddled inside Vesuvio during a storm was an oddly suspenseful way to round out the season, and keeps us on our toes for the next.
Favorite line: “Who do we blame for your hat?”–Paulie to Christopher, when the latter rushes in wearing a floppy fisherman’s cap.

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