All In The Family
Tripwire completes its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. here’s its first choice, HBO’s The Sopranos…
1. The Sopranos
Creator: David Chase
Stars: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Jamie-Lynn Siegler, Lorraine Bracco, Tony Sirico, Steven Van Zandt, Robert Iler, Drea De Matteo
With sincere apologies to all Sweeney fans who thought that their favourite show should occupy the top spot, I’m afraid that The Sopranos is the Daddy. The Daddy of long-form television that ushered in what is now known as the Golden Age of American TV., and it is almost by rote (and utter predictability) that it is the shoo-in number one on our Top 30 list. So what is there left to say about a show so revered, so discussed, so interpolated on and above all so influential over the last 20 years?
What it brought to the table was an extensive cast of mostly unknown players and writers who together would create an exhaustive and slyly ambivalent appraisal of the New Jersey Italian gangster experience, in all its warts and all brutal glory, employing satire, black humour, irreverence and an inexorable momentum towards the engorged and ruthless heart of La Cosa Nostra. And of course one of the key themes of the series was how characters and their relationships could devolve or deteriorate, either over time or on a whim – this was turbocharged real life, with radically shifting tones and allegiances, where everyone involved in the Family knew the stakes and the rules, and anyone was expedient. It was everything that previous gangster shows and movies had been, but better and writ large – the unbridled, unapologetic tribalism, violence, archaic values, and the superficial duality of the made men’s lives, pretending to be normal while merging as they often did with polite society. And there were the chintzy clothes, dated haircuts, acres of food, and ripe, somewhat colourful slang terms that most viewers were not familiar with. In short it was compulsive, off-kilter and the series that many had been waiting for, even if they weren’t immediately sure it was this one. And with it being produced by HBO and canny veteran David Chase, it would surprise, blindside and shock with alacrity. This was the breakout show that put crime television not just back on the map, but centre stage. And yes indeed, the bar was raised.
The series, as everyone knows, revolves around Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) a captain (and then street boss) in the New Jersey Dimeo crime family and his balancing act between domesticity and amoral abandon as a lifer gangster, his crew of misshapen deputies, rival button men and deeply dysfunctional mother a constant source of aggravation for the drowning capo. This course of action leads him to seek psychiatric help, which catalyses an attempted takeover from his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese).
The first two series were considerably lighter in tone than what was to follow, with the accent on non-judgemental, dark humour – the crackling script was rich with lines that were imbued with the spirit of Ring Lardner or Damon Runyon, the gallery of grotesques under Tony’s command positioned as roguish, at times incompetent knaves, despite their indifference to the murder and violence that they meted out regularly. And then there were Tony Sopranos’ attempts to hide his true self from his family, which was crystallized in series one’s College episode, when Tony spots a rat (former made man who turned states’ evidence) in a rural area near where he is taking his daughter Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) to visit the nearby university. His deftness in masking his intentions while seeking out and efficiently dispensing with his former colleague is a masterful storytelling device which summarizes his life perfectly. His conflicts with Uncle Junior, his mother, the preternaturally horrible Richie Aprile (David Proval) and his perfidious close friend Pussy Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) are, despite the odd moment of pathos, handled with a vein of scabrous humour – when Aprile or Mikey Palmice (Al Sapienza) for example are killed, you find it amusing despite yourself.
Series 3 onwards act as a corrective of sorts by David Chase regarding the light-hearted approach to Tony and his cohorts. In series one, Tony’s protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) kills Emil Kolar (in the show’s first onscreen murder) to the sound of Muddy Waters, lending the act a machismo that vindicates the brutality, but by series 3, when Ralph Cifaretto (joey Pantoliano) beats his girlfriend to death, the message is that Chase no longer wishes to treat these self-styled honourable soldiers with kid gloves. They may be compulsive characters, but they are psychotic, self-deluded and mostly beyond redemption, and to fecklessly wander into their toxic orbit (such as the hapless David Scatino, played by Robert Patrick) means ruination or death. And it gets bleaker still when the doomed and hopeless Jackie Aprile Jr. (Jason Cerbone), despite his closeness to the Soprano family, is murdered on Tony’s orders.
From Season 5 on, the series approaches endgame, with the arrival of Soprano nemesis Phil Leotardo (the reliable seething morass of anger courtesy of Frank Vincent) who wants to destroy Tony and his crew. The marked changes in relationships between the lead characters are all in keeping with the series’ remit to echo the random chaos of normal events, such as Tony’s decision to finally get rid of his once-beloved but now heavily burdensome nephew Christopher. There are still deliriously funny scenes, but there is a palpable darkness to the show, as more and more cast members fall foul of the omerta, or foolishly get into debt with the mob. Perhaps the most tragic of these would be Moltisanti’s fiancée, Adriana (Drea De Matteo).
Underpinning everything beyond question is James Gandolfini’s era-defining performance – a polymorphous, nuanced tour de force of such energy, verve and intensity you wonder how he managed it so consistently for 86 programs, and where he’d been prior to then. As it turned out this was once in a lifetime role, but it is to his eternal credit that he made his habitation of it so seamless and naturalistic. For a character who deserved little or no empathy, Gandolfini often managed to evoke two conflicting emotions at once, drawing the viewer in, such as when he despatches his best friend Pussy Bonpensiero. A remarkable feat to delineate that in such an overgrown adolescent in constant need of gratification, whose self-awareness is faintly visible but steadfastly refuses to develop.
Ultimately the producers and directors of this series were painstaking in their portrayal of this slice of decidedly skewed and hermetic Americana, making it as cinematic as cinema, with world-beating, endlessly quotable scripts, a muso-level soundtrack, scathing parody of the mob’s capitalist pretensions, and a tremendous cast all at their career, award-winning best. The main women characters in the series, especially the mob wives such as Edie Falco’s Carmela, are all exceptional in their combination of humanity and co-opted, moral bankruptcy. This was the show that brought wilful ambiguity to the forefront of crime dramas, its broad sweep and depth encompassing the history of all the mafia-based shows and movies (and many of their actors!) that came before it, rendering it for the most part unsurpassable, with a vast backstory and canon of character arcs and subplots that have stoked the fires of many, many chatrooms. Despite the distinguished competition on our list, it’s still the best.
The Sopranos is on Amazon Prime in the UK and on HBO in the US now