The Sopranos: Season 1

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There are some people who get very upset at the revelation that Star Wars didn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was nominated but Annie Hall won the award. I know, you hate Woody Allen. I love Star Wars but I think the better film won. Star Wars has become a worldwide phenomenon and Woody has become…well that’s for another blog post. The point is that the Academy in their wisdom, in 1978, gave the award to the more realistic and more human movie. In 2000, the Emmy voters had a similar choice. It was Star Wars versus Annie Hall all over again. But this time it was The Sopranos versus The West Wing.

I’m as big a fan of The West Wing as you will find. That entire show from beginning to end is one big “cup of soup” for me. The writing is spectacular which has led to a lifelong admiration of Aaron Sorkin and a lifelong dream that Martin Sheen could be the real President of America for at least one day. I love this show, but in this scenario it’s Star Wars.

Obviously it’s not set in outer space, but having said that I did give a piece of advice to my fiancée before she began watching The West Wing for the very first time last year. Which was to try not to think of the show being set in America, to try to imagine that it’s a made up country that doesn’t exist. That makes it easier to handle every “God Bless America” the show throws at you.

The Emmy voters gave The West Wing the best drama award 4 years running. Which is fine, who really cares about awards anyway?!? I have a love/hate relationship with awards and award shows. I try to forget the fact that most of the time the show or movie that I think deserves to win doesn’t ever get nominated and just enjoy award shows for what they are. This was an unprecedented stretch for top quality television and to the Emmys’ credit they did narrow it down to a shootout between the two very best shows that were on television at the time… but they gave the award to the wrong show.

That’s hard to admit for me because I’m such a huge fan of The West Wing. I tried for years to ignore the fact that The Sopranos is a better show. It had something to do with not wanting to admit that everyone else is right when they say that their favourite show is better than my favourite show. It’s a supremely childish way of thinking but I am a supremely childish person so I just avoided Tony and the gang ever since the show ended. But now that I’m a much older man, I have decided to let bygones be bygones and accept what you probably already knew.

With my West Wing tail between my legs I began the much-needed re-watch of The Sopranos. When embarking on the adventure I noted that the world this show inhabits is a much different world from the one we know today. As many people will tell you, this show changed television forever. In the late 90’s and early 00’s HBO were creating long form dramatic shows that would forever be the new benchmark for television and The Sopranos lead the way.

I began the re-watch with that in mind. This show broke moulds and smashed boundaries but when you return to it now with those moulds and boundaries broken and smashed, does the show still have the impact? Is it still as powerful? Is it still as gripping, funny and enjoyable as it was the first time? Maddon! It’s even better now!

It’s hard to believe how long it’s been since the show first aired. I’ve been having flashbacks to when I originally watched it and how it was the first TV show that I ever binge-watched because it was the first DVD box set that I ever sat and watched. It even pioneered binge-watching! I can remember going into town to change my Punt to Euro…That’s how long ago it was!

The show is focused on Tony Soprano who is a lot like my favourite character of all time Don Draper. Both are “family men”, both have lifestyles that are unsavoury, both are having trouble dealing with who they really are. For Tony, the stakes are a little bit higher. Alright, alright, a lot higher, stop busting my balls! It’s life or death in Tony’s world, all Don does is drink and come up with smart catchphrases!

Mad Men was more recently produced but set long before The Sopranos takes place but both shows now feel like period pieces. Both shows are as much about the landscape and the way the world worked in that time as they are about the people in them. Mad Men, is a more pointed version of this and much more blatant with how the writers show up the differences in attitudes towards women and minorities, but what you notice with The Sopranos is that a lot of those prejudices are still very evident.

There is an abundance of sexist, homophobic and racist language throughout the series which you would have to wonder whether or not would be allowed on television now in a show that was set in the modern age. The trick with Mad Men being set in the 60’s is that we as an audience are looking into the past and witnessing this behaviour and recoiling at how horrid it is. I found the same thing happening with this show.

President Trump has had quite a number of moments that made people recoil in horror during his time in politics. One of the more infamous moments involved “locker room talk”. This show is littered with “locker room talk” between these really old school guys and it’s a lot of what makes the show what it is because that is exactly how these guys would talk to each other. They don’t actually brag about making unwanted sexual advances though, that’s even too far for actual mobsters. They do talk about Pussy a lot though, just not for the same reasons.

Tony Soprano is an anti-hero. His behaviour isn’t supposed to be exemplary or anything close to it. The anti-hero character always intrigues me. Why do we watch these guys who may or may not be terrible people who do terrible things and still want them to win? How far are we willing to let them go before we say “that’s too much, I can’t root for this person anymore”? It’s a very thin line to walk.

Episode 5 really shows you what this character that you’ve been spending the last few episodes with, who you believe might be a good person under all the bad stuff, is truly capable of. In the episode Tony brings his daughter Meadow on a trip to visit some colleges and while on the trip he spots an ex-mob guy who is in the witness protection program after telling the FBI all he knows. Tony spends most of the episode mulling over what to do about him and decides that he must murder this man as revenge for the damage he’s caused.

As I’ve already said, it happens 5 episodes in, so at this point we’ve gotten comfortable with Tony. He hasn’t done anything too terrible…I mean he has done bad stuff, he is a gangster after all!  But the act of murder was something that I remembered from the first viewing, years and years ago, as something I found absolutely shocking. Tony up until then hadn’t shown that level of violent behavior and as a viewer it awakens you to just how dangerous a person he is.

As the moment approached in the episode I prepared myself for that shock. Tony uses a wire to strangle this guy. I found myself thinking “Is that it?” I feel like I’ve become desensitized to violence in the 19 years since this show began. Don’t get me wrong, in the context of this show it’s an outstanding moment of drama and a truly brutal act but when you consider what we as an audience have seen since this? Breaking Bad is a good example of a show where some of the deaths are so gruesome and extreme that they make a simple strangulation seem tame.

The same trick is used in Daredevil on Netflix. You know Wilson Fisk is the bad guy but you don’t witness him do anything evil until he smashes a man’s head to pieces with a car door about 4 episodes in. Once that happens, you know he is capable of truly evil deeds but he’s the villain so you know he’s going to get his comeuppance at some point. With Tony we want him to win so we’re looking at this the opposite way around, that the “rat” is getting his comeuppance instead.

I’m going to go ahead and watch Season 2 and my plan is to share with you my thoughts on each season until I reach the conclusion. So while there is so much more to mention and talk about with the show, I’m trying to save some of it. I could go on and on about Tony’s mother and the blinding white-hot rage that I feel when she speaks but I think that might be better served as part of a Season 2 round-up. Further into the series is one of my top 5 all time episodes of any TV show so we have that to look forward to also.

Season 1 of The Sopranos is a masterpiece. The characters have flaws because they’re human, they make mistakes because real people make mistakes. Its stays grounded in this world where family means everything and it looks at what it’s like to be a father and the godfather, for want of a better word! It’s funny, engrossing and shocking. Everything you want a show to be and it only gets better.

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