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HBO presents
The Sopranos—The Complete First Season (1999)

"I'm sure he's telling the psychiatrist it's all his mother's fault!"
- Livia Soprano

Review By: Robert Mandel   
Published: December 10, 2000

Stars: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Nancy Marchand, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese
Other Stars: Stevie Van Zandt, John Heard, Tony Sirico, Jamie Lynn Sigler
Director: David Chase, Daniel Attias, Martin Bruestle, Allen Coulter, Nick Gomez, John D. Patterson, Matthew Penn, Lorraine Senna Ferrara, Lee Tamahori, Alan Taylor, Timothy Van Patten and Andy Wolk

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, sexual situations, extreme violence, mature themes and language—lots of it)
Run Time: Approx. 680 minutes
Release Date: December 12, 2000
UPC: 026359927324
Genre: gangster

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A-B+B+ A-

DVD Review

Tony Soprano isn't feeling well. His neighbor, Dr. Cuzamano, believes Tony's ailment is psychological and suggests a psychiatrist. Despite his misgivings, Tony heeds his advice. This would be all well and good, if Tony Soprano didn't happen to be a New Jersey mob boss, whose compatriots would not take kindly to him spewing his inner soul to someone outside "the family." So, what is making Tony black out? Is it the operation of a stripclub (Badabing!), his numbers racket or tensions between members of the "family"? Or is it his dysfunctional home life (including 2 teenagers)—in particular his domineering mother who lives with a "black cloud" of gloom and doom above her head?

Originally a Fox spec script, Rupert Murdoch's TV organization, who has made many intelligent and groundbreaking choices the past few years (Ally McBeal, X-Files, The Simpsons), screwed the pooch when they passed up on the script for the pilot show of The Sopranos. And truthfully, we are better for it. By creating this show for cable channel HBO instead, producer, director and writer David Chase (Rockford Files, Northern Exposure) was allowed the freedom from constraints he would certainly have been under at Fox, despite that company's very liberal stance. "I wanted there to be a physical manifestation of his ailment," says Chase, on the supplemental pilot episode commentary track with Peter Bogdonavich. Chase, who throughout this commentary and the accompanying interview (01h:15m) asserts his utter disgust with television conventions, often complains about how derivative a shot, a take, the use of a certain piece of music is. These minor points, and the many homages to films like Chinatown, The Godfather and Chase's personal gangster mecca, Goodfellas, aside, The Sopranos is not like any other gangster film or TV show this reviewer can recall. "I didn't want to create a gangster show," Chase says, "it's all been done." With complete control, Chase started with the premise of a man who must seek therapy because of his feelings of guilt brought to him by his overbearing mother, who (like Chase's own mother) is resistant to being moved into a rest home, despite her degenerative mental stability (she forgets she is cooking and starts a fire in the kitchen). Add to this mix Tony's near angelic wife (were it not the fact that she has sold her soul to be with this man); his Russian girlfriend; his maturing big-mouthed teenage daughter and chubby, pubescent teenage son; an Uncle who is displeased at his perceived lack of respect from his nephew; a priest who "does dinner" with the parrish wives and has a bit of a crush on Tony's, and an assortment of gangster figures from the young ambitious buck to the Jewish record producer to a guy named Big Pussy, and what you have is more a collection of characters than a kill-or-be-killed mentality soap opera—not that some of this doesn't exist.

There are several things that make The Sopranos special. First and foremost is its "genuineness." When Fox passed, Chase shopped the series around to all the major networks, who, if they didn't pass immediately because of the subject matter, passed because from day one Chase, a native New Jersian, fully intended to shoot the show on location in New Jersey—and not just exterior shots. HBO, based in New York, loved the idea. The second reason is that he decided against using a music score to artificially stir the emotions; instead, Chase carefully chose a mixture of classical, pop and alternative rock music in its natural settings allowing it to become another character in the ensemble. The third and most important reason: Chases' desire to hire from a pool of local New York/New Jersey actors - perhaps the triumph of the show. While no good acting can be generated from a terrible script (and Chase's depth of focus scripts are excellent), this show, with its ridiculous breadth and depth of characters, could have been an overacted mishmosh, but instead we receive an amazingly deep and talented ensemble. Chase claims he still wasn't sure what he had in James Gandolfini until the first day of shooting, when he quickly showed an ability to glide gracefully from deep-rooted anger to angst to sentimental father figure all within the seconds of a single scene. Although her character's import to the show is undeniable, Lorraine Bracco grabs second billing despite somewhat limited screen time. An alumn of Goodfellas (remember, Chase's favorite), Bracco enjoyed the switch away from her role as Karen X to the straight, Italian-born therapist with a conflicted conscience about treating a gangster (Waste Management Consultant). In many ways Edie Falco's character—Tony's ignored wife, Carmela—is as much the centerstone of this series as Tony himself. Also conflicted, Falco embues Carmela with the fight between her faith and morality and the love of a husband who earns his wages through corruption, assault and killing. She also makes Tony refocus on his relationship with her and his family, of which he often loses track. While all of the cast members deserve similar write-ups for their excellence, the diamond in this first season is the late Nancy Marchand's brilliant and hilarious portrayal of Tony's mother, who makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I see these episodes.

Finally, what puts this series over the edge for this reviewer is the sometimes off-the-wall, sometimes subtle sarcastic humor, of which I am (if you haven't noticed) probably too fond. Chase plays with the tone of the show brilliantly, creating the juxtaposition between the comic and the harsh reality of the goingson onscreen throughout. The Sopranos is less about being a gangster in modern times, as it is about personal revelation and understanding that belies its setting.

Episode Summary:

Episode 01: Meet the Sopranos
With the apropos pan from the statue of a naked woman we meet Tony Soprano, anxiously awaiting his first session with Dr. Melfi (Bracco) because he has been experiencing anxiety attacks. Using an overlaid narrative style, Chase introduces us to Tony's two families. Things are not entirely well with either. His manic-depressive mother, Livia, is losing her faculties and has become a danger to herself, yet is resistant to entering a retirement home. His rebellious 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, and his wife, Carmela, are fighting over a ski trip. Meanwhile, in Tony's "other" family, his Uncle Junior is becoming angry over a perceived disrespect from Tony, who in turn is trying to control his Hotspur-like nephew, Christopher. When Carmela asks him if he'll be home for Anthony Jr.'s 13th birthday, and he says he'll be back from work, she replies, "I wasn't talking about work," implying she is aware of his extramarital activities. Fearing a negative effect on business because a hit is to take place at his friend Artie's restaurant, Tony has them torch the building. An excellent beginning, so this one rates 5 of 5 pistols.

Episode 02: 46 Long
While Jackie the Boss is in the hospital diagnosed with cancer, Christopher makes the mistake of robbing one of Junior's trucks with a druggie friend, behind Tony's back. When the friend accidentally drops the driver, Junior is up in arms. Striking a great note for us early adopters, Tony sarcastically says to Junior, "You want my DVD player? You can watch Grumpy Old Men." After his mother sets the kitchen on fire, Carmela asks her to live with them. Big Pussy and Paulie discuss how Americans ate nothing before the Italians brought us the gift of their cuisine (he's right!), while tracking down the kid who stole Anthony Jr.'s science teacher's car. In the triumphant scene, Nancy Marchand and James Gandolfini show their brilliant control of their characters and solidify the series in their wonderful argument over whether she should move to the retirement community. This episode rates 4 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 03: Denial, Anger, Acceptance
Spurred by Mikey, Junior is getting angrier by the minute over Christopher's hijacking mistake. Tony's and Mikey's distaste for each other is apparent in Jackie's hospital room. Meadow and friend (played by Chase's daughter) try to score some crystal meth off of cousin Christopher to help them stay up studying for the SATs. Tony's restaurant plan goes awry when Cinarto is put through a second arson investigation and the insurance company holds out on him. Tony then makes the mistake of getting involved with a Hassidic motel owner, whose son-in-law will not divorce his daughter without 50% of the motel's business. Jackie gets a surprise visit. Carmela uses Artie and his wife to cater a dinner party, the latter of whom has a surprise revelation for Carmela. This episode rates 4 of 5 pistols.

Episode 04: Meadowlands
Tony begins having sexual dreams about Dr. Melfi. Juxtaposed to this is his fatherly playfulness with Anthony Jr. Brendan takes the brunt for their hijacking screw up. Anthony gets into a fight, but when the other kid walks away because his father fears Tony's reaction, Meadow begins to clue in Anthony on Tony's real business. Tony gets nervous after he sees someone he knows in the medical center where Melfi's office is. Tony hires a dirty cop (John Heard) to follow Dr. Melfi and find out about her private life. Tony and Junior go at it, and are on the brink of a war. Junior finally receives the respect he feels he deserves. This episode rates 4 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 05: College
The episode Chase considers the best, it is indeed a good one. While Tony drives Meadow to a college tour, Carmela and the Parrish priest are getting cozy over Ziti and a DVD—all night. On the way to school, Tony comes across an old mob rat, who Tony must track down and repay for his friends' incarceration; that is, if Febby doesn't find him first. Meadow comes right out and questions Tony about being a gangster. I'll agree with Chase, and rate this episode 5 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 06: Pax Soprana
Tony receives a report about Melfi from the cop, while Mikey is going around making sure everyone knows Junior is the new boss, including Hecht. A visit to his Russian girlfriend proves fruitless—Tony seems to only be able to get it going in his dreams about Dr. Melfi. Business interrupts Tony and Carmela's anniversary dinner, and the dutiful wife complains but doesn't break. Tony makes an unrequited move. So does the FBI. This episode 5 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 07: Down Neck
Anthony Jr. and his friends partake in the Church's sacramental wine, and get - uh, caught by the gym teacher. The Principal and school social worker believe Jr. has Attention Deficit Disorder, which Tony has a problem buying. This brings back memories of his own father, and through flashbacks we see how Tony learned that his dad was in the mob. Anthony Jr. goes through testing, and when he mentions he's been at the psychiatrist, he spills the beans that Tony's been to one too. Christopher steals some watches from a Fedex truck. Tony lies to Anthony Jr. about being in the mob. Tony confronts his mother about not letting his dad get out of the business, and she replies, "Mr. Sensitive. If you have a problem, why don't you go see a psychiatrist?" This is a solid episode, earning it 4 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 08: The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti
Christopher ponders his life, as his depression over both not being a made man and his inability to write a screenplay about life in the mob, manifests in bizarre daydreams. To make matters worse, when an impending FBI raid is leaked, Christopher is disturbed because he isn't mentioned. One of the great wiseguys scenes from any show or movie takes place when a teenage bakery worker passes him over and then disrespects him: he pays the price in more than bread. Meanwhile Tony and the gang are rounding up their money, guns and other incriminating info and slowly move the lot into the nursing home for safe keeping. At the end, Livia discloses to a shocked Junior that Tony is seeing a psychiatrist. The FBI pays a visit. This show rates a 4.5 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 09: Boca
This is by far the most amusing show of the first season. Uncle Junior takes off with his girlfriend Roberta to Boca Raton, where she opens her big mouth about a certain sexual prowess he has that stereotypically gumbas—along with black men—aren't supposed to be interested in. When word gets back through Carmela to Tony, he uses it to his advantage. The other twisted plotline involves Meadow's soccer coach wanting to leave but Tony's guys not wanting him to, and one of Meadow's friends who attempts to kill herself. All of this wrapped in a tortilla of mistrust because of the federal indictments being handed down in the background, and that fact that Junior is unsure what or who Tony is really talking about . One of my favorites, this show rates a 5 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 10: A Hit is a Hit
Adriana wants to be a music producer, and Christopher makes it so. They hook up with rapper Massive Genius, but truthfully he's more interested in her than her ex-boyfriend's band. Massive is also interested in reparations for an Aunt from Hecht, who basically cheated his dead cousin out of money by putting his own name down as a co-writer. Meanwhile, after being prompted by Dr. Melfi, Tony tries to hang out with people outside of the gang, but golf with his supposed friend and neighbor Cusamano turns into a disaster when he is the butt of gangster jokes and stupid gangster questions. This show rates a 3 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 11: Nobody Knows Nothing
Tony's dirty cop discovers someone in the gang is wearing a wire. When Big Pussy shows up after days without calling, Tony thinks it's him, but has to know. Tony has Paulie take Big Pussy to the baths but when Pussy won't get undressed Tony feels certain. When the Feds come for the cop, he takes a leap of faith. Mikey thinks he's on the way up because a hit has been put out on Tony. This episode contains enough back and forth to keep everyone wondering. This one rates 4.5 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 12: Isabella
With the FBI tearing down everything around him, having to take care of business with the stoolies and his mother in his head, Tony falls into a drug induced depression, and begins hallucinating about a beautiful Italian dentistry student. Havoc ensues because Tony can't tell reality from dreams, and neither can the audience. When the hit goes down and is botched, the life comes back to Tony. Now he has to find out for sure who ordered the hit, and whether the doctor had anything to do with it. This one rates 4.5 out of 5 pistols.

Episode 13: I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano

While Jimmy is now considered the rat, the truth is later revealed to Tony. Meanwhile Livia escapes from the nursing home and ends up at Tony's house in a state of ill mental health. When Tony threatens her, Dr. Melfi blocks the door in fear. Carmela feels spurned by the Priest when he has lunch with one of her friends. When Artie visits Livia, she spills the beans about Tony torching the restaurant causing Arthur to shoot up one of Tony's cars. Tony doesn't feel rage as much as he feels belittled and embarrassed. Tony tells Dr. Melfi to take off on the lam. Mikey runs into some trouble. Then the FBI comes for a visit. Carmela may be the dutiful wife, but she sure gives it to the priest. Then Tony gives it to his mother. The season finale rates 5 out of 5 pistols.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There were days when if one would speak of a Cable TV show it evokes images of horrible video and shoddy production work, but this is a new age. Created on film, HBO presents The Sopranos in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with 13 episodes over four discs. Bitrates are a little on the medium side overall, generally between 5 and 7, but outside of the pilot, most of these shows are rich in color, with sharp detail without extreme edge enhancement. There is occasional color bleeding, especially the color red, but black levels are very good and shadow delineation is excellent. The first episode contains the worst amount of the aliasing distortion and dot crawl, which gets less and less as the series progresses. Overall, a very nice job by HBO.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is almost a tale of two tracks. The majority is center channel-based, with the dialogue mostly clear despite dialects. But Chase's choice in music often comes across the 6 channels very well, with the title track giving a workout to the subwoofer—and when shots ring out in a forest, alarming birds from their nests. I really wasn't expecting much from this transfer, and was very pleasantly surprised.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 52 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
25 TV Spots/Teasers
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Creator/Writer, Director, Producer David Chase and Peter Bogdonavich for the pilot episode only
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. DVD-ROM content and weblinks
Extras Review: First, the case design is pretty nifty, and preferable to the clunky X-files—Season sets. Pictures ensconced in a red and silver foil fold-out similar to the X-files; the four discs rest nicely into a black and silver cigar box-like enclosure, fit with ribbon for easy extraction. This does contain the hubs most don't like, but a gentle lift and turn works every time. Patience. There is not an outlandish amount of extras for the set, but what is here is worthwhile or better.

Each episode has a "Next on" and "Previously On" teaser for the previous and next show. They are done up with titles in between.

BiographiesArmed with theme music, biographies are included for David Chase, as well as the main stars. Chase's biography is extensive, and not entirely derivative of what we learn about him from the interview and commentary. The other biographies are shorter but interesting, including James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Nancy Marchand, Lorraine Bracco, and Dominic Chianese.

Two fluffy but not-suitable-for-children pieces with actor interviews. The 2nd includes Chase. (04m:12s and 03m:30s, respectively.)

The pilot episode contains a running dialogue between director David Chase and Peter Bogdonavich (director, The Last Picture Show) that wanders in and out of being screen-specific, and is chock full of interesting behind-the-scenes information. Chase is very candid here and in the accompanying interview, particularly about scenes or music or situations that he found his writing or direction to be derivative. This is a good listen, although I wonder about Bogdonavich sometimes. For instance, there is a scene where Tony passes out while barbequeing and the lighter fluid can explodes. Bogdonavich says, "How'd you do that? You just blew it up?" To which Chase replies, "No. We had a rig." I don't know. Perhaps I've seen too many behind-the-scenes featurettes to think that a director of as many films as Bogdonavich could ask such a question. But I digress.

Interview w/ Peter Bogdonavich
The piéce de résistance is this interview (01h:17m:29s), whereby Bogdonavich extracts tidbits from the somewhat shy and reserved Chase, in between fawning over Chase's artistic choices of words and imagery, even though we find out many of them are "happy accidents." There is much to be learned here about the origins of the show (as mentioned above, originally created for Fox, who balked), the casting and characterizations. This alone really brings in the extras grade.

Although the absence of subtitles is noticed, and deleted scenes would have been interesting, this is still a nice set of supplements from HBO.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

The Sopranos is the best that TV can offer. HBO has done this set up beautifully, from the clever cigar box packaging to the excellent audio and fine accoutrements. This DVD set is dOc tested and approved!


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