August 13, 2009

The Sopranos

I felt compelled to write something about The Sopranos Series. Yes, I realize I'm two years late, but I sort of missed the boat on the whole series. I'd casually see an episode here and there over the last 8 years, I could tell it was high quality stuff, however, I simply never got the chance to watch them all consecutively. Well, when I saw the entire series was up for half-price on Amazon, I had to get it, with tons of bonus features and all that jazz, I purchased the entire series and went on an 8 week binge to watch all 86 episodes.

Wow! It was mind-blowing, now I knew what all the hype was about, the critical acclaim, the dozens of awards, the brilliant writing, character development, story arcs, cinematography, everything... top notch. It far exceeded my expectations, no wonder this put HBO on the map, no wonder everyone was going nuts over it when it came to a close with an extra-long 6th season.

The standards were high, and the casting was brilliant. I had seen James Gandolfini in numerous films through out the years, but he was the foundation of this show, he carried the entireseries and he carried it well.

James Gandolfini discusses his acting career:

There was great moments of drama, humor and unexpected philosophy through out the show, you could tell the actors relished the scripts they were given and that the creator and producers had lots of creative freedom to make this the epic series that it came to be.

The tension and the build-up to the finale was impeccable. The creator of The Sopranos (David Chase) really set up his audience in the mob series’ finale. Let's put in this way: The final installment, titled: Made in America, certainly wasn't made in Hollywood. Or at least not yet.

The man who thumbed his nose at TV conventions -- making a hit series centered on a brutal thug who required psychotherapy to come to grips with his tinges of humanity, as well as maintaining two upper-middle-class families -- did it big-time with the beautifully-executed finale.

Chase who always left story lines unfinished -- the fate of Dr. Melfi's rapist, Carmella's and Furio's unrequited lust and the robust Russian still roaming the Pine Barrens, among them -- also largely steered clear of sentiment. After all, the final run of episodes saw Tony's self-pity and self-loathing fester into resentment for most of his longtime crew; his embarrassment quotient over his suicidal son escalate; and a heretofore taste for gambling burst into compulsion. After snuffing the nostrils of Christopher, who had outlived his usefulness, Tony flew west to his inform nephew's mistress about The Cleaver producer's demise before engaging in an interlude of sex and peyote hallucinations.

Indeed, as this season progressed, there weren't many reasons left to like Tony, whose consultations with Dr. Melfi also abruptly ended after research convinced her that her brand of therapy only emboldened the criminal mind.

There was also a rather large target on Tony's back that already claimed his brother-in-law, Bobby Bacala, and left consigliore Silvio Dante on life support. Heading into the 86th and last episode, our antihero had to evacuate his family from the mansion as a precaution, while he was left holed up in a safe house, an automatic weapon his companion in sleep.

But as the final hour unfolded, Chase was seemingly pushing the story to a relatively happy conclusion. Through the cooperation of an old family friend, peace was brokered with New York, as Little Carmine was finally ready to assume the leadership role. Tony's nemesis, Phil Leotardo, got his comeuppance with a slug and a tire over his noggin. (As Frank Vincent added another entry to his beat-downs in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull and Goodfellas, we salute Linda Moss for digging out the dirt on Phil's demise.)
Meanwhile, Tony and Carm were able to move their malleable mope of a son away from an aspiring army career in Afghanistan to fetching coffee as the development executive on Little Carmine's expanding slate of movie projects.

Plans were also being drawn for wedding bells to sound for Meadow, who found her soul mate and perhaps a future partner in a law firm with the progeny of one of Tony's own crew, Patsy Parisi.

Paulie Walnuts -- with a little cajoling, a threat of nepotism and presumably the blessing of a haunting feline -- reluctantly accepted a big promotion from Tony. Paulie was my personal favorite character through out the series, he was sort of the comic relief for me, very consistent in his portrayal, and just a very likable guy.

In this last episode, Tony even went to see the estranged Uncle Junior, who showed few moments of lucidity -- a reference to "this thing of ours" sparked only a question of his past participation -- and little chance to emerge from his dementia.

Still, an indictment loomed over Tony's head.

Was Chase going to have Meadow's inability to parallel park -- oh, for the suburban inadequacy -- leave Tony like Michael Corleone, grieving over a bullet meant for him? Would Tony get whacked by some hitman? Would the Soprano family have a quiet dinner together and end the series on a neutral path?

Playing on all the foreboding, the gossip and, for many, the want of some kind of happy ending for this essentially evil character, Chase played it well, it played it in such a way to make you think, to make you wonder, and to make the audience draw their own conclusion. Not in that cheesy, artsy, abstract sort of way. He would never show Tony's brains get splattered all over the table in front of his own family. That's not his style, he played it cool, he setup the last sequence with tension, suspense and leaving clues as to who might be giving Tony the final blow.

Instead of some solid, unmistakable resolution, every moment seemed to foreshadow disaster: Suspicious-looking people coming in the door or seated at a table nearby. Meadow on the street having trouble parallel parking her car, the tires squealing against the curb. With every passing second, I was primed for tragedy. It was a scene both warm and fuzzy yet full of dread, surely setting every viewer's heart racing for no clear reason.

Then, with a jingle of the bell on the front door, to the accompaniment of the words, "don't stop," from Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," Tony looked up, apparently seeing Meadow make her delayed entrance. The screen then went suddenly black for a few seconds before the credits rolled.

Could he have seen something awful, something he certainly deserved, about to come down? Probably not. Almost certainly a false alarm. But we'll never know. With that, "The Sopranos" cut to black, leaving us enriched after eight years. And flustered. And fated to always wonder what happened next.

I truly believe it was a way to show Tony's death without actually showing it, his time had come, too many hints were being dropped that his time was coming to an end.

Do story lines finally play out when the credits open on a theatrical coda to The Sopranos several years from now? No doubt many will look to chase down those answers.

I cannot recommend this series enough, it shattered my expectations, and cracked my brain wide-open, I could tell I was going to enjoy the series based upon the 3 or 4 episodes I had seen long ago. But watching them all back to back, seeing how the writers kept track of every little plot point, and made this into a very entertaining gangster show... made it all a real treat to watch. Seeing references in the 6th season to events that occurred in the 2nd season, and the rich tapestry of story lines that was carefully woven to create such lovable and hateable characters within a structure that allowed them to evolve and progress to whatever direction they were meant to go was highly enjoyable to watch.

Trivia: Six of the regular cast members appeared in Goodfellas (1990): Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore, Frank Vincent, and Joseph R. Gannascoli. Ten recurring cast members also appeared in the film: Nicole Burdette, Tony Darrow, Tony Lip, Frank Pellegrino, John 'Cha Cha' Ciarcia, Suzanne Shepherd, Paul Herman, Marianne Leone, Daniel P. Conte, and Frank Albanese. Eleven one-time guest stars also appeared in the film: Nancy Cassaro, Anthony Caso (as Martin Scorsese), Chuck Low, Tobin Bell, Gene Canfield, Gaetano LoGiudice, Vito Antuofermo, Frank Adonis, Anthony Alessandro, Victor Colicchio and Angela Pietropinto.

In the Sixth Season, Part 1 the word "fuck" is said 758 times. Apparently the total number for the entire series is 3539. So if you don't like cursing (or realistic hits on people) then this isn't the show for you.

This was first cable-television series to win the Emmy award for Outstanding Drama Series. It's not just a delightful modern-day mob movie put to television, It's about a North Jersey mob boss, self-described "waste management consultant," reluctantly seeks a psychiatrist's help after blacking out. Lest he appear weak, he must keep his therapy a secret from the rest of the Mob. He's stressed: his teenage daughter is giving his wife fits; his mean-spirited mother refuses to move to a retirement community; his aging Uncle Junior, jealous of Tony's rise to the top, won't stay in line and engineers a plot to kill Tony; and the feds are always circling. In therapy, Tony must come to terms with his father's example, his mother's manipulations, and his own fears of death and loss of family.

Buy it download it, whatever it takes, watch a few episodes of the first season, if you're not hooked, then forget it, it's not your thing. But I'd recommend it to anyone who loves quality television, because this is as good as it gets.

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