For six seasons, millions of viewers loyally tuned in to HBO to watch the drama unfold as modern-day mob boss Tony Soprano juggled responsibilities between his family and his other "family." Hailed as "a remarkable achievement" by the Wall Street Journal and "the greatest show in TV history" by Vanity Fair, David Chase's drama stars three-time Emmy winners James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Edie Falco as Tony's wife Carmela, plus Lorraine Bracco as therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Emmy winner Michael Imperioli as Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti and Dominic Chianese as Uncle Junior. Other series regulars include Robert Iler as Anthony Soprano, Jr., Jamie-Lynn Sigler as Meadow Soprano, Tony Sirico as Paulie Walnuts, Steven Van Zandt as Silvio Dante, Aida Turturro as Tony's sister Janice, Steven R. Schirripa as Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri, John Ventimiglia as Artie Bucco, Vincent Curatola as Johnny Sack, Frank Vincent as Phil Leotardo and Ray Abruzzo as Little Carmine.
Early in the first episode, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) remarks to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), the therapist he recently began seeing, how he feels as though he got in at the end of things. Obviously, he's talking about how the mafia's glory days were over, that he and everyone else still clinging to an outdated concept of organized crime were just fooling themselves. It would never again be as good as it was before he got there. Dr. Melfi's response was, mafia aside, a lot of Americans felt the same way.
This was back in 1999, when HBO launched its newest original series, 'The Sopranos.' And while the sentiment of its in-treatment protagonist may have been true with regard to his affiliation with La Cosa Nostra, David Chase's remarkable, poignant, poetically beautiful landmark television drama, set in and around the personal and (un) professional lives of the titular Soprano family and their associates was anything but. The series would be hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest television series of all time, sparking off a small-screen revolution many have dubbed "The Golden Age of Television" that, without it, the likes of 'Mad Men,' 'Breaking Bad,' and countless other outstanding works of dramatic and comedic fiction might never have been realized.
'The Sopranos' not only elevated the medium, but also illustrated some of television's distinct strengths over feature films, especially when it came to exploring the lives of its characters and delivering subtlety and nuance over bombast. Moreover, it helped TV to solidify itself as a writer's paradise, a place where those crafting the stories, building the characters, and giving them voices were the creators and supreme masters of their own microcosms. Directors – though some helmed magnificent episodes – came and went throughout the season, but the showrunner always remained. The popularity of the series and recognition of the level of its craft, then, gave rise to the age of the showrunner (or, at the very least, the concept of the showrunner as auteur), making celebrities out of the grand overseers of everything from a New Jersey crime family to a philandering Madison Avenue advertising executive in the '60s to a man literally and metaphorically riddled with malignancy, determined to leave his mark in the world.
From the pilot episode on, it was clear this wasn't going to be your run-of-the-mill gangster show. With its heavy focus on the family within "the family," 'The Sopranos' often dealt with common issues of marriage, infidelity, and emotional violence. But by introducing the idea of a gangster in therapy, Chase took a one-note gimmick and transformed it into the ethos for an entire program. Dr. Melfi was the lone moral voice in an exquisitely wrought morality play. By examining and taking seriously concepts like self-analysis and self-delusion, the series was afforded a vast range of subtextual notions it could explore in variety of creative ways – which it often did through things like dream sequences, such as the one in 'Funhouse,' when Tony discovers (in a 'Twin Peaks'-like moment) the identity of who in his crew has been informing to the FBI.
The complex undertones of the storyline would often be configured in way that allowed for stretches of contemplative, often challenging tinkering on a character level, while the plot simmered in the background. Of all the subtextual layering the show frequently engaged in, none was more resonant than the idea Tony has of getting in at the end of things. And it's no wonder, starting with the pilot and continuing straight on until the finale, each episode began with A3 (or Alabama 3) singing 'Woke Up This Morning' as Tony drives from New York to New Jersey, shots of rusted, decaying industry gracing the overcrowded landscape outside his car windows.
The opening sequence is more than just the song that will forever be linked to the series; it serves as a template for what the show was about: A world slowly eating away at itself from the inside out. It wasn't just an indictment on morality and greed, consumer and corporate culture, and the franchising and branding of everything down to slightest minutia; it was a heady insight into American life enraptured with the world as it once was, and unable to reconcile itself with the world as it is now.
And because of that, it all comes down to people clinging to the idea of a "better time" and maybe even a "better place," even though doing became yet another destructive force. It consumed the individual (and, in this case, the violent, insular community he's a part of) faster than the unavoidable tide of change – or, in the case of 'The Sopranos,' the inevitable end of it all.
But before we tackle the end, we should probably start at the beginning.
The pilot for 'The Sopranos' comes fully formed, a rarity for most television dramas, with but a few exceptions. There is so much going on in the first episode that has become much of what we think of when we think of the wonderful dynamic between James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, looking back, it's almost shocking to see that it was all in place from the get go. It was an episode that nailed almost everything it attempted to do. From Tony wading into his pool in his bathrobe to feed the ducks he'd become obsessed with, to his first panic attack with Puccini playing, to his and Christopher Moltosanti's (Michael Impirioli) assault of the soon-to-be-great Michael Gaston, the pilot didn't just know what it was doing, it new exactly what kind of a show this was going to be.
The pilot also introduced Nancy Marchand as Tony's mother, Livia – seemingly the living embodiment of all his anxieties and troubles. What's more, although Chase didn't explicitly address the kind of things Tony was capable of until, say, 'College,' Livia came on like a freight train. She was wholly lived-in by Marchand, a brilliant character of multitudes – strong, confident, and duplicitous one moment, frightened of a telephone call after dark the next. Although Marchand's untimely death would ultimately cut short what Chase had planned for her character, her work during the first two seasons is a large part of why 'The Sopranos' was as immediately successful as it was.
Season 1 (and, for the most part, season 2, as well) would go on to be as consistently close to brilliant as possible. With the aforementioned 'College,' audiences got a glimpse of what the series would ultimately ask of them: To love and root for a character undeserving of such sentiment. Tony was a cold-blooded murderer, a man of multitudes and contradictions who was capable of truly despicable things. And yet there was genuine warmth in his character that proved difficult to ignore. Much of that is due to Gandolfini's inspired performance that would see him carousing with the likes of Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt), or battling it out with his uncle, the desperate-to-a-Don Corrado 'Junior' Soprano one minute, then having a family dinner with Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and AJ (Robert Iler) the next.
To its credit, however, 'The Sopranos' didn't slide by on Gandolfini's likeability or the visceral pleasure people continue to get out of seeing mob violence unfold on-screen. Instead, the series focused on the people committing these acts of violence, to understand why they did the things they did and, more importantly, what it means to have done them. And as the series went on, it tested that warmth in Tony by placing him in colder, more cynical circumstances wherein he would have to kill his friends and even his family. But that's not all that died, relationships – especially his marriage to Carmela in 'White Caps' – would blow up with more fury than a car bomb, leaving Tony (and his kids) to sift through the emotional wreckage the following (penultimate) season.
And through it all, through the unforgettable and memorably ambiguous episodes like 'Pine Barrens,' or the emotionally devastating 'Long Term Parking,' 'The Sopranos' excelled in crafting moments of genuine art and genuine emotion that contrasted (or was perhaps enhanced by) the gruesome violence and other prurient details lingering around the edges of any given episode. Perhaps, though, the series is best remembered for its consistent dreamlike quality – and love of dream sequences, for that matter. The sixth and final season begins with Tony spending the better part of two episodes in a coma, living the life of another man and ultimately being welcomed to accept death. He declines.
That refusal to step into the absolute would carry through to the very end, as the series culminated with one of the most brilliant, thought-provoking, and debatably ambiguous endings the world is ever likely to see. But 'Made in America' is more than its ending, it is a result of 85 largely inspired episodes that came before it, coalescing into an experience that should be venerated for being the perfect ending to a series certainly deserving of one. That uncertainty of the final shot is the uncertainty of Tony Soprano during his first session with Dr. Melfi. It is also why 15 years after the series first graced televisions everywhere, 'The Sopranos' remains something you will hunger for again and again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Sopranos: The Complete Series' comes from HBO Home Entertainment as a box set that includes 27 50GB Blu-ray discs containing all 86 episodes, 25 commentaries and a variety of special features. There is also a single bonus disc (bringing the disc total to 28) that contains a look back at the legacy of 'The Sopranos,' two roundtable dinners with cast and crew, a two-part interview with David Chase, and lost scenes from all six seasons. Each season comes in a slightly oversized keepcase with a character's image on the sleeve. All eight cases fit inside a large box that then slips into an outer sleeve with an image of the cast and the show's tagline: "Family. Redfined."
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer presents 'The Sopranos' with a mostly pristine picture that is often full of fine detail, background elements, and bright, vivid colors. What's most interesting is how many scenes (especially exterior scenes) were filmed using a filter, and how that filter, along with the slightly skewed angles the cinematographer would use during these moments help to augment the dreamlike quality of the show. There are a few moments when Tony and his crew are gathered outside Satriales's Pork Store and the scene is infused with a golden hue that gives the sky behind, say, Silvio's immaculate pompadour the sense of a heightened reality. It looks great.
Fine detail is strong in most cases, revealing plenty of facial features and textures on everything from clothing to background elements. Close ups are generally loaded with fine detail. Wider shots tend to maintain a similar level for the most part, but can sometimes be a little off. Aside from the opening sequence, the image is free from grain of any kind, resulting in a strong, resonant image with clean, firm edges almost all of the time.
Along with the vivid colors that generate bright hues of red, blue, and especially green, the contrast is terrific throughout. Black levels are strong and robust; delivering inky shadows that can run from slightly murky to full-on pitch black. Whether it is a slight shadow or the dead of night, the image does not contain a trace of banding or of crush. Similarly, white balance is handled very nicely throughout. Here, the show plays with blowing the picture out a bit more, so some scenes are deliberately brighter or hazier than the rest, but it's clear when the scene is intended to do so. The rest of the time, white balance is quite nice, rendering the image bright and clear without any obstruction.
There are a few episodes here and there that are uneven. The most blatant is in the brilliant 'College.' While the Tony and Meadow scenes look tremendous, and may even be some of the best on the disc, the scenes between Carmela and Father Phil (Paul Schulze) tend to run red, and green. Now, granted, Carmela was just getting over the flu in the story, but even then, it is a little off putting.
Overall, though, a few questionable moments in 86 episodes are like drops of water in the ocean. This is a very sound, very nice looking image throughout. It is also one that manages to be truly surprising in its detail, depth, and richness of color.
The DTS-HS Master Audio 5.1 track handles the two things that made 'The Sopranos' special (amazingly well-written and often profane dialogue, and musical cues) by presenting them with tremendous clarity and strength. Dialogue is rich throughout; every character is crystal clear, whether they are having a quiet conversation or yelling in someone's face. Moreover, the dialogue is balanced so well, and presented with so much emphasis on directionality and imaging, even the most casual conversations in the back room of the Bada Bing sound like they're emanating around your living room.
The same goes for the musical selections, which are balanced wonderfully with the dialogue and sound effects. Music is robust, but not overbearing; it wants to be heard and enjoyed, without completely taking over the scene. The only song that does dominate the soundtrack is the one accompanying the opening sequence, and that one comes with the expectation of being more aggressive than the rest.
Other elements are balanced nicely throughout the discs as well. Sound effect come in a variety of immersive and straightforward moments that are either subtle and nuance, or blunt like a shotgun to the face. Rear channels often generate strong sense of atmosphere and immersion by bringing large and small elements to the listener's ear. As such, the main floor of the Bada Bing sounds completely different from, say, Dr. Melfi's office or Artie Buco's (John Ventimiglia) Nuovo Vesuvio. In other words, the mix delivers a convincing atmosphere filled with many different components, regardless the location.
And with a little LFE here and there to round things out, the mix on 'The Sopranos' is about as good as these things get.
Episode commentary with series creator. David Chase and Peter Bogdanovich
David Chase Interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich (SD, 75 min.) – In this lengthy and in-depth interview, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich chats with series creator David Chase in the Sopranos' kitchen set. As it progresses, the interview gradually works its way into a comfortable conversation about the creative process, how 'The Sopranos' came to be, and what Chase's real ambitions are.
Family Life (SD, 4 min.) - A behind-the-scenes look at 'The Sopranos.'
Meet Tony Soprano (SD, 4 min.) – This is similar to the 'Family Life' featurette with a short look at the character of Tony Soprano.
Audio Commentary on Episode 4 with Director Tim Can Patten
Audio Commentary on Episode 9 with Dorector Henry J. Bronchtein and Producer Ilene Landress
Audio Commentary on Episode 12 with Director Allen Coulter and Producer Ilene Landress
Audio Commentary on Episode 13 with Director John Patterson
The Real Deal (SD, 5 min.) - A featurette with critics and writers discussing the importance of The Sopranos.
A Sit-Down with The Sopranos (SD, 14 min.) - The cast members of the Soprano family discuss the how and why they wound up doing the show, and what makes it so great. There is a great deal of attention paid to the show's humor and how it is balanced with the violence and drama.
Audio Commentary on Episode 9 with Writer/Actor Michael Imperioli
Audio Commentary on Episode 11 with Director Steve Buscemi
Audio Commentary on Episode 12 with Series Creator David Chase
Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (SD, 4 min.) - Another entertaining behind-the-scenes featurette that catches up with he cast and crew in the third season.
Audio Commentary on Episode 4 with Writer Terence Winter
Audio Commentary on Episode 6 with Writer/Actor Michael Imperioli
Audio Commentary on Episode 9 with Writers Robin Green & Mitchel Burgess
Audio Commentary on Episode 13 with Series Creator David Chase
Audio Commentary on Episode 4 with Director Rodrigo Garcia
Audio Commentary on Episode 6 with Director Peter Bogdanovich
Audio Commentary on Episode 7 with Director Steve Buscemi
Audio Commentary on Episode 10 with Director Mike Figgis
Audio Commentary on Episode 12 with Drea De Matteo
Season Six: Part One
Audio Commentary on Episode 2 with Edie Falco, Robert Iler, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler
Audio Commentary on Episode 7 with Writer Matthew Weiner
Audio Commentary on Episode 9 with Writer Terence Winter, Michael Imperioli, and Tony Sirico
Audio Commentary on Episode 12 with Series Creator/Writer David Chase
Season Six: Part Two
Audio Commentary on Episode 1 with Steven R. Schirripa
Audio Commentary on Episode 3 with Dominic Chianese
Audio Commentary on Episode 7 with Robert Iler
Audio Commentary on Episode 8 with Stevie Van Zandt and Arthur Nascarella
Making Cleaver (HD, 8 min.) - A behind-the-scenes look at Christopher's adventures in Hollywood.
The Music of The Sopranos (SD, 17 min.) - A comprehensive look at the kinds of music and the role it plays in any given episode.
Special Features Disc
Defining a Television Landmark (HD, 45 min.) – With some archival footage featuring the late James Gandolfini and the late Nancy Marchand, mixed with film critics, scholars, actors, and filmmakers, this lengthy featurette takes a look at the legacy of 'The Sopranos' from its very first episode to the finale that still has people talking. The list of those commenting on the series and its impact is quite extensive. Matt Zoller Seitz, Elvis Mitchell, Steve Buscemi, Steven Soderbergh, and Chase himself. The scholars involved help to legitimize the show's already massive legacy and cement it as a true television landmark.
Supper with the Sopranos (HD, 74 min.) - n this two-part round table discussion, didn't chases joined by Terence winter, Alan Coulter, Aida Toturro, Dominic Chianese, Robert Iler. They tackle A wide variety of subjects about the show, but the ending seems to dominate the early parts the most. There's some intelligent and intriguing insight into how people think about the show now and what that experience has meant for them in their lives. Chase is particularly candid throughout the dinner and it's enjoyable to see him talk about the show having had some distance from it.
Season 1 (SD, 2 min.)
Season 2 (SD, 8 min.)
Season 3 (SD, 2 min.)
Season 4 (SD, 2 min.)
Season 5 (HD, 2 min.)
Season 6, Part 1 (HD, 5 min.)
Season 6, Part 2 (HD, 1 min.)
Alec Baldwin Interviews David Chase (HD, 43 min.) - Alec Baldwin Interviews David Chase in this 43-minute interview cut into two parts. Baldwin sits next to David Chase and discusses Chase's desire to be a filmmaker and how he wound up in television. It is a lengthy discussion that somehow manages to offer even more insight into Chase's creative endeavors and how he works.
'The Sopranos' is the kind of television series that is built to be pored over again and again, not to seek a definitive answer (especially to the ending), but to examine and parse, and hopefully discuss with likeminded individuals who are interested in exploring the layered complexity of a dynamic and engaging series that always had more to say than it led on. With terrific video, wonderful sound, and piles of tremendous extras, 'The Sopranos: The Complete Series' is nothing short of a must own.