Ten episodes into the first season of “The Sopranos,” I’m comparing it to binge-worthy dramas that came after the show ended … and the comparisons aren’t as good as I might have thought.
“The Sopranos” was, of course, the Show That Changed Everything. It premiered on HBO in January 1999, and for its time, it was groundbreaking. Here was a show that combined GoodFellas — the Martin Scorsese mob movie — with, I dunno, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the CBS sitcom about the Italian-American family that is a little too close. It opens with a mobster, Tony Soprano, talking to a shrink. That hook, or gimmick, would continue throughout the series’ run, ending (abruptly!) in 2007. “The Sopranos” was the first cable television show that “had everybody talking.”
In the decade since “The Sopranos” ended, we’ve seen multiple series (many of them now streaming) that were obviously inspired by its mixture of dark humor, violence and domestic drama — most notably, “Breaking Bad,” which I loved. I understand that “The Sopranos” operates on a very high level of writing, acting, etc., but here’s the thing — I don’t love it. Not yet.
In 10 episodes, I don’t yet know where the show is going. It is very obviously trying to do something new (for its time), and today it plays like a combination of American Beauty, with its suburban middle-aged dad in dire need of psychotherapy, and the mob movies its characters revere, including (and most especially) The Godfather. Yet this is not an ironical show. The characters all know that they are mobsters, and they have all their favorite Italian-American movies memorized (and worship Scorsese, De Niro, et al) … but the show doesn’t seem to do anything with this very meta-knowledge. It’s not spoofing the mob movie, and yet it sometimes seems hard to take anything on the show very seriously. These guys know they are mobsters, they know how it usually ends for mobsters (with someone sleeping with the fishes) … and they’re OK with it?
At least in “Breaking Bad,” Walter White didn’t consciously revere or emulate arch-criminals in other works of fiction for whom things ended badly. No, he came up with an original idea and pursued it to its logical (fatal) conclusion. People who got in his way either became complicit (including his wife!) or got killed (his brother-in-law!). He didn’t set out to imitate his heroes; he became an anti-hero on his own. In “The Sopranos,” all the mobsters seem to be consciously imitating guys like Michael Corleone (or Sonny or Luca Brasi) or Henry Hill or Tommy DeVito. But they have to know that all these guys ended up on the wrong end of a gun or a prison sentence, right? So doesn’t that bother them? Don’t they feel at least some incentive to pick up another trade? No one thinks they’re going to lead a successful life if Tony Montana from Scarface is their role model, right?
Tony Soprano (played brilliantly by the late James Gandolfini) attends therapy sessions after having a panic attack over some ducks. The therapist, Dr. Melfi, is portrayed with sexy sensitivity by none other than Lorraine Bracco, who played Karen Hill in GoodFellas — which, again, all the characters in “The Sopranos” love. Now, is this casting some sort of meta-, ironic commentary on the mob genre? Bracco plays it straight — her Jennifer Melfi might be the most compelling character on the show, precisely because she is not part of the mob. But doesn’t this rich and crafty mob guy know for a second that Dr. Melfi strongly resembles Mrs. Henry Hill? Will there come a time when Tony pipes up with, “Hey, you know who you remind me of…?” Because that would be hilarious, and add another layer of self-awareness to a show that is already self-aware but doesn’t seem to know that it is self-aware.
I’m coming to the show late, having binged on “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones,” and newcomers like “Bosch” and “Goliath,” shows that were not, by definition, self-aware, but willing to take as many chances with narrative and the constraints of their own genres as “The Sopranos.” It is clear to me that all these programs were inspired by the depth of characterization in “The Sopranos,” in the way they transform genre into soap opera and bring a rich depth of psychology to their scenarios. And make no mistake, “The Sopranos” was one of the most psychologically involving shows ever created.
But to me, each individual episode is TOO LONG and slow to make it binge-worthy, and it is neither as funny or exciting as any of those programs. Each episode of “Breaking Bad” was a tiny masterpiece of pacing, character development, technological detail, and criminal intrigue. It contained enough “holy shit” moments to fuel three other series. Likewise, “Bosch,” which is straightforward in its telling of the life of an LAPD homicide detective, uses everyday details to make its stories compelling. (It is not meta, it is not ironic, and it is all the better for it.) “The Sopranos,” in breaking such new ground back in 1999, is both too meta and not meta-enough. If you’re going to cast Lorraine Bracco in a show where everybody knows GoodFellas, do something with it, otherwise, you are distracting me. (And she’s great in the show — yes, cast her!)
Also, whereas “Breaking Bad” really went places with its criminal behavior (who knew Albuquerque was such a hive of “scum and villainy”?), in “The Sopranos” … there really isn’t that much criminality. Yeah, Tony whacks a couple guys, and yeah, there are a few scenes of “illicit business,” and yeah, the characters are all mobbed up, but … all of that seems beside the point. Tony goes to see Dr. Melfi a lot, but they don’t get anywhere. She wants to remain completely outside the realm of his business, which makes her attractive to him. He falls in love — rather too quickly, very early in the first season. But because Dr. Melfi can’t hear anything about guys getting whacked without becoming complicit in the mob, she and Tony never discuss anything specific. They talk about symbols and feelings and his mother and father, but she never asks him, “Hey, how did you feel about garroting that guy to death?” Or, “how can you exhibit mob behavior when you’re taking your kid to a college visit?” Or, “who was your first murder victim?” Yet, nine times out of 10, Tony gets pissed off during their sessions and storms out, sometimes throwing money at Jennifer and telling her to stick it up her ass. What’s he so angry about? They haven’t even talked about anything!
The character who really should be in therapy is Carmella, played with gentle, matronly charm (and a foul mouth) by Edie Falco. Now here is an interesting character. Does she know Tony is a mob boss? And if so, how does she feel about it? The show never explores this. Carm seems to feel guilty about something, but most of the time, it seems like she’s just worried about raising their two bratty teenagers. Seriously, now — does Carm know the truth about Tony? Doesn’t she need to be in therapy? She encourages it for Tony, but what about her needs? Does she realize that her husband is either going to end up dead or in prison? Does she understand the dire threat to her own safety and that of her children? Maybe the show goes on to explore these questions, but so far, there’s none of that on the horizon.
Here’s an idea: instead of making Dr. Melfi your garden-variety psychiatrist, who cannot afford to get her hands dirty, create a boutique therapist who specializes in analyzing Mafia hitmen. That way, they can talk business and do some good. There’s no pussy-footing around the real topic, which is murder and violence. And have the mob wife go for a session or two, just to air her feelings. “The Sopranos” seems to want to talk too much in code about things it otherwise vividly portrays. Why? Is it trying to protect its characters from the evil that they do?
The show otherwise has some small frustrations. The underling mob guys are not very well developed, though it seems they would have make some interesting contributions. And some scenes are too soapy for their own good. Michael Imperioli, who was also in GoodFellas(!), plays a whiny mob killer trying to write a screenplay based on his life. In one episode, he complains about “not having an arc.” Really? A show whose characters want arcs can’t recognize Lorraine Bracco in their midst?
Overall, I like “The Sopranos.” It just isn’t binge-worthy. It was made before bingeing was a “thing,” and I think in the aftermath of shows like “Breaking Bad,” it pales just a little in comparison. The acting, writing, filmmaking, etc., are all first-class, some of the best I’ve ever seen. There’s no denying it’s a quality show. It just doesn’t speak as loudly, clearly and plainly as I would like, and if it’s going to be a show that knows it’s about mobsters, it needs to do something with its own self-awareness, otherwise, it just seems to be full of needless distractions.
I’m going to say that, if things don’t improve over the course of the next couple of seasons — which I plan on slowly getting around to — I’m going to suggest an alternate title to this GoodFellas knockoff: WannaBes.