Writer David Chase once said in an interview that Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) was his source of inspiration for The Sopranos, one of the three outstanding TV series that marked the turn of the century. However, The West Wing and Six Feet Under never had to put up with complaints about turning mobsters into heroes and creating the impression that every Italian-American is a Mafioso. The Sopranos was controversial to some degree, but all that criticism withered entirely in the shadow of the show’s brilliance.
It began with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the head of a New Jersey crime family, experiencing panic attacks and trying something very bold for a mob boss – visiting a shrink. It was however necessary, figured Tony, since the attacks were threatening to undermine his position. He started seeing Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) who found her new patient highly interesting and also someone she might be able to help; it was obvious that Tony suffered from the stress of leading his organization and also from his unhappy childhood including unhealthy influence from an overbearing mother (Nancy Marchand).
Tony stayed in therapy with Dr. Melfi throughout the entire series (until she realized that her work was probably only making him stronger in his criminal ventures), giving him an opportunity to ventilate his feelings toward his wife, children and underlings. Those conversations gave an insight into what made him tick; Chase never pretended like he was writing about a person whose mind was interesting, but he made frequent and successful attempts at explaining how a brute like Tony Soprano functioned. The show also focused on the ambiguities of his life. Whenever Tony was at home he was a loving and fairly normal father and husband, but whenever he went to work with his “other family” he became a cold manipulator who killed people who posed a threat to his business. It was also a normal thing for him to bang the strippers at a local club he was running and then go home and kiss his wife.
Of course, Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) was hardly innocent. She had been married to Tony for many years and knew how things worked in these circles; she usually turned a blind eye to the infidelity and violence, although the fourth season ended with the couple almost divorcing. Viewers also followed their children through adolescence and the show painted rich portraits of Tony’s capos, including the hot-headed drug addict Christopher (Michael Imperioli).
Impeccable acting and location work
The Sopranos benefited from people’s never-ending infatuation with the Mafia. A few of the highlights throughout the show include an episode from the third season where Christopher and Paulie (Tony Sirico) get lost in the woods in the dead of winter (an uncharacteristically funny episode); Joe Pantoliano’s appearance (and eventual demise) as the unstable Ralph Cifaretto; and Drea de Matteo’s arc as Christopher’s girlfriend who becomes an informant and subsequently faces a sad end.
The acting and the location work were always impeccable, with the cast delivering unforgettable performances on every episode, not least Gandolfini and Falco.
The show concluded with Tony seemingly winning an all-out war between his family and Phil Leotardo’s (Frank Vincent) branch. However, the much talked-about closing sequence (accompanied by Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, no less) leaves us thinking that here endeth the saga of Tony Soprano once and for all. Unlike Scorsese, Chase had an entire TV show to develop all his themes, thereby leaving a greater mark on pop culture than GoodFellas ever had.
The Sopranos 1999-2007:U.S. Made for TV. 86 episodes. Color. Created by David Chase. Cast: James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano), Lorraine Bracco (Jennifer Melfi), Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Dominic Chianese, Robert Iler, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Steve Van Zandt, Aida Turturro (00-07), Drea de Matteo (99-04), Joe Pantoliano (01-02), Steve Buscemi (04), Joseph R. Gannascoli (99-06), Frank Vincent (04-07), Vincent Pastore (99-00), Nancy Marchand (99-00), John Ventimiglia.
Trivia: Bracco, Vincent and Imperioli all have roles in GoodFellas.
Emmys: Outstanding Drama Series 03-04, 06-07; Directing 06-07; Writing 98-99, 00-01, 02-03, 03-04, 05-06, 06-07; Actor (Gandolfini) 99-00, 00-01, 02-03; Actress (Falco) 98-99, 00-01, 02-03; Supporting Actor (Pantoliano) 02-03, (Imperioli) 03-04; Supporting Actress (de Matteo) 03-04. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 00; Actor (Gandolfini) 00; Actress (Falco) 00, 03; Supporting Actress (Marchand) 00.
Quote: “You’re only as good as your last envelope.” (Van Zandt)
Last word: “People have said that the Soprano family’s whole life goes in the toilet in the last episode. That the parents’ whole twisted lifestyle is visited on the children. And that’s true — to a certain extent. But look at it: A.J.’s not going to become a citizen-soldier or join the Peace Corps to try to help the world; he’ll probably be a low-level movie producer. But he’s not going to be a killer like his father, is he? Meadow may not become a pediatrician or even a lawyer, but she’s not going to be a housewife-whore like her mother. She’ll learn to operate in the world in a way that Carmela never did. It’s not ideal. It’s not what the parents dreamed of. But it’s better than it was. Tiny, little bits of progress — that’s how it works.” (Chase, Entertainment Weekly)