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The Sopranos: The Complete First Season(TV) (1999)
Tony Soprano tries to be a good family man on two fronts - to his wife, kids and widowed mother - and as a capo in the New Jersey Mob. The pressure of work and family life give him anxiety attacks, so Tony starts seeing a psychiatrist, which is not the kind of thing a guy advertises in the circles Tony moves in - it could get him killed.
For more about The Sopranos: The Complete First Season and the The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Blu-ray release, see the The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on November 30, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Dominic Chianese
Directors: Timothy Van Patten, Lee Tamahori, Steve Buscemi, Mike Figgis, David Nutter, Rodrigo Garcia
» See full cast & crew
The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review
A mesmerizing, oft-times staggering series debut stumbles a bit in high definition...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, November 30, 2009
Normally my Thanksgiving weekends are spent bouncing between two dysfunctional families, dodging loaded questions about when, if ever, my wife and I will have a second child, watching siblings and cousins struggle to hide their contempt for each other, and taking a brief moment to be thankful for them all in spite of their flaws. But this year I had an opportunity to spend quality time with a third family: The Sopranos. More than a masterfully crafted series responsible for transforming HBO into a legitimate industry player, more than a complex ensemble drama that earned endless water cooler accolades from audiences and critics alike, creator David Chase's disquieting tale of volatile New Jersey mobsters is a powerful, unexpectedly nuanced gangland epic worthy of the high praise it's garnered since the turn of the century. Even watching it now, some ten years after Emmy-winning actors James Gandolfini and Edie Falco left a most memorable mark in our collective pop-culture conscious, I'm amazed by how much the series still resonates, still defies expectation and genre convention. The Sopranos is, without a doubt, one of television's modern classics.
While Chase has some trouble establishing a steady tone in the wee morning hours of The Sopranos' opening episodes, he also wastes little time with introductions and exposition, plunging his viewers directly into a seedy world of organized crime, back alley hits, and aggressive power plays that would slap a grin on Shakespeare's mug. It all begins in a stuffy waiting room as a high-ranking capo in the New Jersey-based DiMeo crime family, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), makes his first of many visits to a candid, somewhat temperamental psychologist named Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Goodfellas' Lorraine Bracco). Forced to sugarcoat the details of his day to day dealings due to Melfi's legal obligations, Tony tries to paint a picture of his life and uncover the source of several recent panic attacks. Sound familiar? Rest assured, the striking similarities to Analyze This (a comedy starring Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro released the same year) end there. Tony describes his family dynamic, the increasingly strained relationship he shares with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), his attempts to connect with his children (Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler), the care he provides for his elderly mother (the late Nancy Marchand), the on-the-job "waste management" training he gives his nephew and protégé Christopher (Michael Imperioli), and his mounting distrust of his uncle, Junior (Dominic Chianese).
Between appointments with Dr. Melfi, Tony attends to his real business: filling a key void left in the DiMeo family, managing its operations from the shadows, working to increase the profits of his Garden State empire, trying to say under the FBI's radar, sniffing out a snitch in his ranks, and maintaining peace with rival crime families and syndicates. Helping him are his colleagues and close friends Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri (a scene-stealing Tony Sirico), Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt in disguise as a hard-lipped, slick-haired lifer), and Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero (longtime mob-movie mainstay Vincent Pastore). But as the season barrels along, Tony also has to contend with a string of FBI indictments, his mother's meddling, his Uncle's grasps at power, attempted assassinations, a bitter betrayal, and a slew of debilitating assaults, all of which leaves Melfi to wonder why he's suffering from panic attacks instead of something far more serious. From beginning to end, the first season of The Sopranos is rife with conflict and tension, granting the series palpable momentum and a variety of enduring characters that would carry it through the whole of its six wildly successful seasons. Moreover, in just thirteen episodes, Chase accomplishes things many show-starters fail to do in an entire multi-season run.
Yes, future seasons are a tad more satisfying in that they more extensively dissect the relationships that dominate the series (particularly Tony's marital woes), but the fledgling roots of Chase's sprawling eighty-six episode opus are often more engaging simply because they elicit genuine curiosity and a desire to know what happens next. As shows age and mature, viewers are able to sense the fates of their beloved protagonists looming on the horizon. It's an unavoidable side effect that saps most series of their impact and hinders their ability to surprise. It's exactly this sort of pitfall that The Sopranos' first season is able to avoid. Tony and his cohorts have yet to be crushed by the overwhelming enormity of their coming trials; they aren't yet aware of the vicious cycle that will eventually consume their lives and everyone they love. The warning signs are certainly there -- if nothing else, the first season reveals Chase's penchant for planting poisonous seed in ever-shifting soil -- but the characters are painfully oblivious to it all. Their smug demeanor reeks of youthful whimsy; brazen arrogance befitting men who prey on the fear and addiction of others. Ironically, it's their wives and children who seem to share Chase's knowledge of the DiMeo family's fate. Carmella is hauntingly prescient, bravely standing in the path of a devastating blow she knows will come soon, and will continue to come again and again. Alas, greed worms its way into her heart as well, condemning her as readily as it does Tony and his blunt-force brethren.
But the true soul of the series lies in Tony's panic-stricken chest. Gandolfini imbues his stocky capo with all the distressed bile and innate insecurities someone under such constant pressure would feasibly have to endure, but takes the time to make him a believable human being as well. He never allows Tony to become a caricature, a predictable product of a troubled childhood, or a thinly veiled rehash of the many war-torn mob bosses Hollywood has handed us over the decades. His character is a creature of contradiction; a man perpetually at odds with himself, both physically and psychologically. Everything from Gandolfini's nasally voice to his distrusting demeanor is in stark contrast to the family man that frequents his kitchen and the spittle-slinging mobster who inspires fear in his enemies. His interactions with his soldiers, fellow captains, children, and extended family are equally unstable, making it clear he's on the verge of losing control at any given moment. Thankfully, Gandolfini calls upon all of these disparate qualities and produces a very cohesive, very convincing protagonist. Don't get me wrong, Chase, his writers, and the rest of the cast deserve just as much credit, but it's Gandolfini (particularly in season one) who gives The Sopranos its temperament, identity, and potency.
At such a low introductory price point, the Blu-ray release of The Complete First Season will hopefully help HBO expand the series' already sizable fanbase and give television writers further incentive to be as bold, inventive, and unorthodox as Chase proves to be in this opening salvo. Seeing as future seasons only get better as the show progresses, TV addicts should take full advantage of this release (in spite of its technical shortcomings... more on that momentarily) and get to know The Sopranos over the holidays.
The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Sopranos: The Complete First Season features a notably inconsistent 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer; one that looks substantially better than its DVD counterpart, but falls far short of expectation (as well as the quality previously established by HBO's two-stage Blu-ray release of The Sopranos: Season Six). I suspect little was done to accommodate the first season's move to high definition other than to trust in the inherent upgrade the format would offer. Sadly, the only consistent thing about each episode's presentation is the obvious edge enhancement visible in nearly every frame. Colors are more vibrant and stable, but fleshtones sometimes suffer from unnatural hues. Black levels are deeper than ever, but noise sometimes invades the image, delineation is hit or miss, and crush is an issue (albeit a minor one). Detail, though greatly improved, can be just as unreliable and unwieldy. The pilot offers crisper textures than later episodes, but fails in most other regards. The next six episodes look a tad softer -- mushy faces and smeared skin litter establishing shots and close-ups -- but boast a slightly more satisfying appearance. The last five episodes are more akin to other recent high definition television presentations, but falter due to a variety of prevailing anomalies (shimmering, aliasing, and intermittent artifacting, among others) that give the image a digitized, over-processed appearance. Although these problems gradually surge and relent over the course of the season (it's not exactly as cut and dry as my episode breakdown might imply), distractions abound at every turn. There isn't a single episode that warrants a high video score.
Is the entire presentation a disappointment? Not quite. As I mentioned before, the transfer is noticeably stronger than the DVD's dated image, and still looks fairly good considering the age of its episodes and the production limitations of the series' first season. As it stands, those who own the DVD set will net a solid upgrade, but videophiles will be underwhelmed with the results.
The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Matters improve with HBO's faithful DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. While it isn't as refined or aggressive as the LPCM mixes that accompany the studio's Season Six Blu-ray releases, most any difference should be attributed to the first season's original sound design, not the technical proficiency of its lossless track. Once again, the pilot comes up a bit short, but the remaining twelve episodes offer fans well-prioritized dialogue, weighty LFE output, and suitably involving rear speaker activity. Tony and Carmela's arguments sound as crystal clear as their hushed conversations, and interior acoustics, though two-dimensional on occasion (primarily throughout the pilot), are on point. Moreover, crowded restaurants, bustling parties, and busy nights at the Bada Bing effectively envelop the listener, injecting subtlety into everything from clanking silverware to blaring club music. If I have any complaint it's that I found myself tapping the volume up and down, typically from episode to episode, but also whenever a chaotic hit would be followed by a mumbled line of dialogue. Still, it's a negligible problem that hardly warrants concern. All things considered, The Complete First Season sounds great and should easily please both fans and newcomers.
The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The 5-disc Blu-ray edition of The Sopranos: The Complete First Season includes the same slim supplemental package as its DVD counterpart. First up is a "Pilot Commentary" in which filmmaker Peter Bogdonavich (Dr. Elliot Kupferberg in the series) interviews writer/creator David Chase. Unfortunately, it's a dry, underwhelming chat that doesn't go anywhere. Chase seems downright annoyed by some of Bogdonavich's questions, and struggles to elaborate on many of the topics he addresses. A meandering "Interview" between the two (Disc 5, SD, 77 minutes) is a bit better, but covers a lot of the same ground. As is the case with the commentary, Chase is either incredibly uncomfortable with the setup or bothered by the fact that he has to answer so many pedestrian questions. Finally, a pair of awkward EPKs -- "Family Life" (Disc 5, SD, 4 minutes) and "Meet Tony Soprano" (Disc 5, SD, 4 minutes) -- fall flat, offering fans little more than a peppy jazz soundtrack, the thoughts of a smarmy narrator, and a point-by-point overview of season one.
The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Even though the Blu-ray edition of The Sopranos: The Complete First Season isn't the top tier release I was hoping for, it is a fairly strong, smartly-priced title that bests its DVD counterpart. Yes, the video transfer leaves a lot to be desired and the special features are short and awkward, but the series' opening thirteen episodes are engrossing and HBO's DTS-HD Master Audio track is excellent. Sopranos fans and videophiles won't rave about this 5-disc set, but they won't be entirely disappointed with the overall results either.
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