Every time I want to finish, they keep throwing technical glitches at me…I’ve been racing through The Sopranos for the first time—it’s been at the top of my watch-list since I plunged into the world of Prestige Television three years ago with Mad Men; it was just a case of finding the whole series at a decent price—but a defective DVD has put everything on pause two episodes into Season 3. This is the second time I’ll try to work an exchange with the flea market kiosk where I found sealed copies of the show’s entire run for $10 each a few months ago. Last time, season 1, I had to exchange for something else and re-order online. The proprietor’s a good guy, but I think he (and therefore I) got screwed over on this purchase. It may be touch-and-go trying to get through all seven seasons.
Anyway, I’ll use the break to jot down some early impressions of the first two. A couple of questions have been at the forefront of my mind as I’ve been watching, although for me the two are inseparable: is The Sopranos, as often cited, the greatest television show ever (more specifically, how does it compare to Mad Men), and what about the music?
Short answer to the first: I like some of it a lot, I’m definitely hooked, but so far I prefer Mad Men with room to spare. (Truthfully, The Larry Sanders Show sits at the top of my list anyway.) Uncle Junior makes a great Roger Stirling, Carmella is as well shaded as the coach’s wife on Friday Night Lights, and Nancy Marchand as Livia (singled out by Kael in one of her last interviews) is amazing—just to look at, she doesn’t even have to speak. Lots of other great characters: Dr. Melfi, Pussy, both kids. Richie Aprile is—was—scary. But Tony’s non-stop harangues can wear on me. That’s the biggest thing I’ve had to navigate my way through: Tony’s non-stop harangues. (Come to think of it, there was a certain sameness to Don Draper that would wear on me at times too.)
Still getting a feeling for the music. I’ve had one friend promise great things; I know “Moonlight Mile” is on the way, for one thing, and I’d already peeked at the famous ending even before I started. (Hoping those two scenes still hit me full-force anyway—undermining the element of surprise is never a good idea.) There’s been a lot of music so far, but only twice has anything really reached me viscerally. The key episode thus far from a musical standpoint was Season 1’s “Down Neck,” where Tony repeatedly flashes back to his earliest recollections of his father’s criminal double-life. You’re back to the mid-‘60s here, so dropping in great music automatically becomes exponentially easier. My favorite Animals song, “Don’t Bring Me Down,” plays as the seven-year-old Tony watches his dad and Uncle Junior beat the living hell out of some guy on a street corner; later on, Them’s “Mystic Eyes” as Tony hides in the trunk so he can figure out where his dad and sister are always sneaking away to. “White Rabbit” plays twice: the first Prozac-induced flashback, and then, right at the end of the episode, when Tony tries to smooth over some familial tension with his own 14-year-old son by fixing up ice cream sundaes for the two of them. It’s a complete non-sequitur (unless you see the ice cream as the drug of choice for two obviously overweight characters) and it’s fantastic, the most Mad Men-like moment in the series thus far.
My other favorite musical cue is purely subjective: Cream at the end of “Isabella,” the episode where Tony fantasizes a stunning foreign-exchange student into existence over at his neighbor’s house. After a botched hit on Tony, the episode ends with Tony on the phone with Dr. Melfi: “I feel pretty good, actually—when I find out who took a shot me, I’m gonna feel even better.” Cut to the indelible opening of “I Feel Free” and a long shot of Tony standing in his backyard. As thrilling as “Sunshine of Your Love” in Goodfellas—but, like I say, I’m not to be trusted when it comes to Cream. (David O. Russell really wasted “I Feel Free” in Joy, so its appearance here made me extra happy.)
Also of interest: “State Trooper” to end Season 1, Sinatra to start Season 2, and Johnny Thunders and the Rolling Stones towards the end of Season 2. The Springsteen disclaimer again: if I were a fan, I’d probably be writing a few hundred words on “State Trooper.” It felt like Springsteen was as ever-present in Season 1 as The Godfather and Goodfellas, even if his name was never actually mentioned (I don’t think—maybe in passing), so having him come up right at the end, and with a song so minimal and un-arena-like as “State Trooper,” even I was able to appreciate the timing and inevitability. Ditto with Sinatra and “It Was a Very Good Year” to open Season 2—one of those collages where the camera keeps moving-moving-moving and you check in with all the main characters—although in this instance it was something I love. Compliments for using the entirety of the song. Finally, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” provided a really nice, bittersweet ending to Season 2’s “House Arrest,” the camera pulling back on a street scene where Tony’s back at work and everyday life resumes. I’m not sure why they decided to basically repeat the scene two episodes later, this time with the Rolling Stones’ “Thru and Thru”—granted, the mood’s darker now—but that works well too, and is probably as close as I’ll ever come to the Rolling Stones in the 1990s. Good song.
I’ll check in again when I finish the next couple of seasons.