“It's good to be in
something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But
lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
—Tony Soprano, “The Sopranos,” Episode 1.1, 1/10/99
The character of Tony Soprano may have come in at the end of his fictional era, but the show that introduced viewers to him 15 years ago had a ripple effect that is still moving through the waters of its medium. I have seen the influence of “The Sopranos” more times than I can count in the decade-plus that I have been covering television. The best wasn't over, it was just beginning when “The Sopranos” permanently altered the landscape. Everything that has come after it has built levels sustained by this ground floor of television. Yes, there were shows before with a major impact on our current Golden Age of cinema—“Hill Street Blues,” “Oz,” others—but this is the one that truly redefined the terms of the form. And what I find increasingly remarkable about the show is its lasting strength. I’ve watched the first season of “The Sopranos” four times all the way through, and I know I’ll do so again. Each time, I catch a different reference, a different filmmaking choice, a different narrative joy in every single episode. And so it’s a great wonder to have every episode in one massive Blu-ray set from HBO now in stores, including a bonus disc of new material and every single episode in HD. This show isn’t just timeless, it’s still current. It would win Emmys if it were on TV right now. And I’m starting to believe that fact may never change.
The legacy of “The Sopranos” has arguably been overwritten, so I’ll be brief and then focus on the special features for fans considering buying the set, or just dropping subtle hints to their loved ones this holiday season.
Why did “The Sopranos” matter? For me, it’s a turning point
in what television asked of its audience. Before “The Sopranos,” there was a
sense that television programs were designed to please the viewer in very
well-charted ways. Comedies had laugh tracks to tell when you laugh. Dramas had
heroes, often cops or doctors, who would put the bad guy away. Everything was
often wrapped by the end of the hour, giving you a nice warm feeling that there
was comfort in this world before the evening news. Underneath that is an
inherent sense of eagerness to please. Please
laugh at my comedy. Please like my dramatic hero. Please come back each week to
see the bad guys get what they deserve.
From the VERY first episode of “The Sopranos,” that desperation is entirely absent. It was a show that didn't just lead you, it respected you. Like literature. Like theater. Like film. There’s a deep well of confidence in the filmmaking that also, like the filmmakers of the ‘70s, includes a willingness to experiment. Dream sequences, anti-heroes, dark humor, a protagonist who is a murderer, drug use, rape—there was nothing that David Chase feared narratively. And his willingness to leave loose ends, to leave character motivations murky, to redefine audience loyalty, has led to “Breaking Bad,” “True Detective,” "Boardwalk Empire," and really any other drama you currently enjoy in all likelihood. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, it’s about damn time.
As for the Blu-ray set, it’s a nice-looking package given how much it contains, which is all 86 episodes in HD (many for the first time), digital copies of the same, and five hours of bonus material, including a star-studded retrospective featurette called “Creating a Television Landmark.” The 45-minute featurette includes interviews with David Chase, Brad Grey, Elvis Mitchell, Steven Soderbergh, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Daniels, and our very own Matt Zoller Seitz, along with archival interviews with James Gandolfini and Nancy Marchand. It’s a bit unstructured at times, jumping around in subject matter from the start of the show to specific episodes to the legacy of Gandolfini to “Tony & Carm” and so on, but there's still enough interesting insight here that fans will want to take a look. Despite feeling a bit unfocused, it hits all the necessary beats, including commentary on what I consider the best hour of television history—“Whitecaps,” from season four. We had never seen acting like that before on TV, readers, and we haven’t since. It’s a masterpiece. I get chills thinking about it and can vividly remember the tension watching it live. Other masterful episodes like “College,” “Pine Barrens” and the finale get a bit of devoted commentary as well. And it’s interesting to hear luminaries like Soderbergh define what the show meant to them. The bonus disc also includes previously-available material like round tables with the cast and crew and a stunning 25 audio commentaries.
The fact is that if you own a TV, “The Sopranos”
meant something to you too, whether you’ve seen it or not. There are very few
inarguable facts in criticism. One writer’s influential film is another’s
overrated canon entry. One music lover’s seminal album is another’s overrated
junk. The influence of “The Sopranos” is one of the rare things in
entertainment that is considered fact and not opinion. From that opening
episode to the controversial ending, “The Sopranos” never begged you to like
it, never apologized, never cut corners. And there’s no better way to
appreciate its legacy than with this set.