Thursday, October 9, 2014

Idiot Boxing: The Sopranos, Seasons 1, 2, and 3 (1999 to 2001)

Season 1 (1999)

Meet the fellas. These four guys, as well as a host of other
relatives, friends, and rivals, will frighten and amuse you
for the foreseeable future. Problem with that?
Yes, I apparently was that one guy in the English-speaking world who had not seen the Sopranos during its original airing. I finally had some time to go back and give it a shot.

The first season is certainly good. It sets up the tone immediately, and you know you're going to be watching a show in the gangster genre that scratches every itch you have for the more sensational and entertaining elements of it. If you have the slightest appreciation for the New York mafia films of Martin Scorsese, then you know right away that you're going to like The Sopranos. From first episode to last in this inaugural season, you have the Greek-tragedy style family conflicts, acted out by narrow-minded but terrifyingly violent criminals. This, of course, is tempered by a steady dose of hilarious goombah dialogue. 

The first season basically sets the main characters into place, and it gives us the general story arc of Tony Soprano taking over the local "family," from the deceased former head. Of course, as Johnny Caspar famously said in Miller's Crossing, "Runnin' t' ain't all gravy." As he tries to juggle the many street soldiers and stresses of keeping his crime syndicate organized, Tony attempts to deal with his wildly dysfunctional family. The stresses in his life ultimately cause him to start having fainting spells brought on by panic attacks. And so, Tony starts seeing a psychiatrist. 

There's very little that's weak or boring about the first season. The only things that I found to be a drag were the three unlikable and/or vapid characters: Tony's self-absorbed sister Janice, his malevolently miserable mother Livia, and his inconceivably dull son Anthony Junior, or A.J. Whenever these characters got any sort of major screen time, I found myself hoping the scene would end as quickly as possible.

This first season was a great start to the series, ending with an assassination attempt that could only happen in the world of mafia mythology. After finishing this inaugural set of episodes, I jumped rather quickly into season 2...

Season 2 (2000)

Richie April - the signature character from the second
season. And yes, he is as psychotic as he looks. Tony refers to
his "Manson lamps" in one hilarious exchange.
Things picked up right where they left off, with absolutely no waning of entertainment value. In truth, the second season improved upon the first. The best addition is that of the character Richie April, a psychopathic ex-con who, soon after his prison release in the first episode, starts to go on various rampages throughout the Sopranos family territory. The other major story line follows one of Tony's main lieutenants, Big Pussy, who has been informing  to the F.B.I. on the family's doings for years. 

The writing in this season gets even sharper, and the confrontations between the stronger characters become more intense and compelling. And blessedly, the humor is ever-present. Whether it's Richie making a proud gift of a hideous leather jacket to Tony, Tony's bemused harangues of his deadbeat sister Janice, or Big Pussy's delusions of being a real-deal G-Man, the characters and their words offer plenty of levity to take the edge off of the brutal intensity that runs through the series.

The finale of the series is a strong one, with Big Pussy's informing ways bringing things to a serious head. It's yet another example, not unlike Henry Hill in Goodfellas, of how the delusion of friendship completely dissolves when those "friends" sense themselves or their profits threatened in any way.

Season 3 (2001)

This is probably my favorite season so far. It had very few dull moments, and some extremely tense and uncomfortable ones to boot.

This season seemed to be even darker than the first two, featuring some of the outright nastiness of organized crime. Personifying much of this is newcomer to the series Joe Pantoliano as Ralph, a loudmouth wise-ass with self control problems. Between constantly razzing other guys in the Sopranos crew and committing horrendous acts such as killing a stripper who's carrying his unborn child, Ralph is a stick of slimy dynamite rolling through the season.

For the most part, Ralph is scum. In the latter part of the
season, though, he is given a surprising touch of depth. At
least, depth in terms of a mafioso 
The series also used Meadow to explore some shadier areas. Tony's blatant racism rears its head at Meadow's first college boyfriend, a Jewish African-American who Tony physically threatens. Even more frightening is Meadow's relationship with Jackie Junior, the son of Tony's former best friend and family boss, Jackie April. Junior, however, is not his father, and his narcissism, selfishness, and misguided desire to follow in his father's footsteps spell doom for him.

The most abysmal place that this season goes to, though, is when Doctor Mefli is brutally raped by a stranger as she goes to her car in a parking garage. It seems a strange non-sequitur within the context of the show, but the episode in which it unfolds is a truly excellent one. When Tony extends an offer to help, seemingly giving a clear chance to have Mefli exact brutal revenge on her attacker, she pauses, and then coldly refuses it. This closing moment is about as impactful as any I've seen in the series so far.

This season does, as expected, continue the wonderful humor of the show. This is probably best exeplified by the now-classic episode Pine Barrens, in which Christopher and Paulie end up stuck in the Jersey pine barrens trying to track down a Russian with whom they have run afoul.

These first three seasons were strong, and I'll definitely keep watching. I am, however, a little bit Soprano'd out for the moment, so I'll take some time off to watch a few other series that I'm itching to see. More to come, though.