Directed by David Chase | Written by David Chase | 60 min
“For as long as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…”
By Colin Hart
9.5 / 10
Above is the famous opening shot of The Sopranos, the first scene of what may be the greatest show in television history. Tony Soprano is framed between the legs of a statue in Dr. Melfi’s waiting room. In season five, she will mention that therapy is like giving birth. “No,” Tony will reply. “It’s like taking a shit.” He’s hesitant to be there, the camera zooming in on his face, intercut with close-up shots of the statue. Melfi opens her office door. “Tony Soprano?” He enters.
The Sopranos changed everything about television, transforming the very medium itself into an art form. Emotional and psychological themes had never been so prevalent in a scripted TV drama, and gritty realism had never been so thoroughly executed. The writing, the dialogue, the acting, the symbolism—everything—begat an artistic revolution.
I won’t bore you with retellings of The Sopranos’ great feats. We’re here to discuss the pilot episode. It is one of only two episodes directed by series creator David Chase (the other being the series finale, “Made in America,” eight years later) and, quite honestly, he was responsible for some of the finest directing on the show. The Sopranos would implore a large stable of great directors—Tim Van Patten, Alan Taylor and Peter Bogdonavich, among others—but Chase’s directing in the pilot and series finale manages to stand out above the rest (and I’m not just talking about the series’ infamous final scene). Already we have a visual flair and feel that is more familiar with cinema than TV. In turn, the writing and acting would eventually surpass most films.
The kicking off point for the entire series is Tony Soprano’s panic attack. It is why he is waiting to see a shrink in the opening scene. Some of the pilot is told via flashback and voiceover, which are narrative devices that The Sopranos will rarely turn to ever again. However, as far as pilots go, they are both necessary tools to introduce us to the ins and outs of David Chase’s vision.
We see Tony’s daily routine: he is a loving family man with a wife, Carmela, and two kids, Meadow and AJ, who just so happens to double down as a high-ranking mafia associate (“Waste management consultant,” he tells Dr. Melfi). Yet the main emphasis is on his humanity—Tony shows a loving affection for the family of ducks that are living in his swimming pool. His wife and kids don’t show much interest in the water birds, but Tony is enamored.
The ducks end up flying away, which Tony can’t bear the sight of. He passes out at the family barbecue.
Basically every character shown in this first hour is just a microcosm of what they will quickly become, including Tony (he is a tad more “polite” than the Tony we will come to know). David Chase and his writing staff were still finding their voices, and the actors—James Gandolfini included—had yet to grow into their roles.
Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco), will develop into an important character in her own right, but for now she is just a way for Tony to give some exposition about himself and the events to come. She will come a long way from the pilot plot-device that she plays here.
Likewise, Carmela is your typical, privileged housewife. Basically until “College” (episode five of the season), she will remain an annoying nag. Her dinner date with Tony is almost cringeworthy. However, her strained relationship with her bratty teenage daughter Meadow is already in place, and it is in these familial hardships in which actress Edie Falco will shine.
If the acting and dialogue are not quite perfected yet, the series’ main themes are already firmly in place. Tony says it to Melfi in his first voiceover: “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
Tony is in love with the idea of the past. He shows great admiration for his uncle, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, and speaks in reverence of his late father. Later in the episode, he takes his daughter Meadow to an old cathedral that his immigrant great-grandfather helped build, a towering monument to the old ways now gone. Those were the good days, but now they are over. And now we must struggle to adapt.
David Chase’s show also plays out as a metaphor for America at the turn of the century: the future is uncertain, the shadow of the past haunts our every move and people refuse to change. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is a pretty cynical show with a bleak outlook on life.
The Tony we see in the pilot will change because this is a pilot and the show is still finding its voice; quick adjustments will be made to all characters. But after we truly get to know Tony, we will notice that his defining trait is his stark inability to transform. It is all part of David Chase’s meta-take on TV itself—a show and its characters are resigned to their circular arcs.
Aside from those austere outlooks, The Sopranos is also a show about family, with season one having the strongest bonds. Of course, the kicker for Tony is that he has two families—the marriage and the mob. But to which one does he truly belong?
I realize I haven’t talked much about the actual plot. That’s okay, since The Sopranos will hardly ever concern itself with adhering to viewers’ conventional expectations. Chase’s goal for the show was to structure the show as a series of standalone, one-hour movies which would add up to a greater whole by season’s end.
This auteurist blueprint has been an issue for debate among fans, coming down to the ones who watched for the exciting mob violence and the ones who were more interested in the artistic flourishes, stylistic flairs and deep emotional undercurrents. The Sopranos would ultimately satisfy the needs of both, with the series premiere being a perfect example.
The pilot—although it sets a lot of future plot points in motion (Tony finds a retirement home for his nihilistic mother amidst frictions with Uncle Junior)—is ultimately about a man coming to terms with the fear of losing his family. This sense of internal anxiety—at grasping for things that can’t be attained—drives the series. The closing sequence is a backyard party at the Soprano home, celebrating AJ’s birthday. Carmela yells out “Let’s eat!” and the entire party makes its way off-screen, yet Chase’s camera keeps the family pool in view. The ducks aren’t coming back.
The first episode of any show you love is always fun to revisit. I’ve probably seen “The Sopranos” nine or ten times now and I still love it. But a lot of that is because I love what the show would become. The pilot still has its missteps—the dialogue and acting not at the level we’ll become accustomed to, the all-too-obvious influence of Goodfellas, minor plot tweaks, etc.—but it is still a very solid episode, as far as pilots go. In fact, most of the problems here will be fixed and remedied by the next episode, a testament to how great this show is and what a great ride season one will be.
You can call “The Sopranos” out of place, but this is still one of the most important moments in TV history. This is just the beginning of what is possibly the greatest television show ever made. The ground floor, if you will.
-Tony will continue to show an affinity for nature throughout the series, actually having more empathy for animals than humans. When Tony is with the ducks, it honestly may be the happiest we see him in the entire series.
-We’ll come to know that cops are pretty nonexistent on this show, as evidenced by the over-the-top chase scene through the park. Even the FBI, when they are introduced, will be largely incompetent.
-The main mob action of the pilot involves Uncle Junior planning to have a guy named Little Pussy Malanga whacked in Artie Bucco’s (a childhood friend of Tony’s) restaurant. Obviously, this would be bad for Artie’s business, so Tony “helps” out his friend by burning down the restaurant and framing it as a gas leak.
In an unrelated plot, Tony’s hotheaded young nephew Chris commits his first hit by taking out Emil Kolar.
-“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type? Now that was an American.” This line will be referenced many times throughout the series and is a significant part of Tony’s worldview.
-When watching the pilot of any show, I sometimes get momentary flashes of memory of what it was like when I first watched it. I can’t really explain those feelings since it is hard to exactly put it into words, but I believe that it is one of the great joys of rewatching TV shows from the beginning.
-If I had to rank the pilots of the Great Shows, I’d go with (in order of best to worst): Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men (haven’t seen this one in a while though) and, lastly, The Wire. Breaking Bad’s pilot was by far the best, but I’ll have to rewatch that one too.