Last week, I began re-viewing “The Sopranos” from the beginning, for the first time since I originally made my way through the series – not in real broadcast time but on Netflix DVDs (remember those?) as they became available. And I’m here to tell you two things: the show is even better – way better – than you remember it, and watching it again is an entirely new and different experience from watching it the first time.
Probably the single-most different aspect of watching the series again is how the characters take on much more nuanced yet clear definition from the get-go. While I was hesitant even to undertake this project of watching the series again, fearing that knowing what was going to happen would take away a large part of the enjoyment – what made me stay up into the wee hours watching episode after episode in some cocaine-like-induced frenzy of appetite for more – in fact that foreknowledge is liberating, allowing you to sit back and appreciate the artistry that went into this watershed program – the one that really ushered in the era of the great cable TV series that has now proliferated and become perhaps the apex of pop culture in America, certainly trumping movies and broadcast TV and rendering most else wan or irrelevant.
Blessed with that foreknowledge, you focus with laser-beam acuity on the characters, whose definition is now highly nuanced yet crystal-clear. I have no memory of even noticing what a total screw-up Christopher, Tony Soprano’s nephew, is from the get-go, his Sonny Corleone-like appetites and impulsiveness and lack of restraint propelling much of the early plot points. Tony’s mother is cruel and devious from day one – she’s a character out of Shakespeare (indeed, the whole program is a Shakespearean drama recast and reset in mobbed-up Northern New Jersey) – feigning dementia while whispering into people’s ears and pulling strings to make the unspeakable happen.
Tony’s wife, Carmella, is almost utterly unsympathetic. While she has some valid complaints against her husband, whom she knows has dalliances (although one suspects this is a world of male behavior into which she bought when she married a mobster), she is remarkably unsympathetic most of the time to the incredible pressures and stresses that nearly cripple him. Dr. Melfi, while mostly a force for good, helping Tony overcome his anxiety and even giving him good strategic advice (“let the children think they are in charge,” prompting Tony to cede, nominally, leadership to his uncle, the aptly named Junior Soprano), is a bundle of unprofessional nerves, uttering Freudian slips (“If you asked me that, I’d have to plead the Fifth”) and showing more leg with each session, unconsciously leading on Tony (or, in psychiatric lingo, engaging in countertransference).
What’s probably most striking – besides the dialogue, which is even sharper and smarter and wittier than I had remembered – is how — with the exception of the minor character, Hesh, who functions as a kind of father figure to Tony (very much unlike, as we will learn, Tony’s own father), providing a ghost-like moral center to this universe — Tony is, in fact, utterly sympathetic and likable, utterly good, from the beginning, while nearly everyone around him is either bad, wrong, selfish, hateful, corrupt, or evil. As he tries to keep his crew together in the wake of acting boss Jackie Aprile’s death at the young age of 44 and a changing criminal culture weakening his old-fashioned mob ways, he also is striving to change, reform, and redeem himself. Sure, he still beats people, cheats on his wife, and runs illicit businesses, but the real Tony Soprano, as we see him and as no one in his universe, except perhaps Hesh, sees him, is the last good man standing.
The only question remaining, halfway into Season One, is can his innate goodness overcome the evil of his environment and the corrupt ministrations of all those around him. Stay tuned.