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
9.1 / 10
Above is the famous opening shot of The Sopranos, which just may be the greatest show in TV history. Tony Soprano framed between the legs of the statue in Melfi’s waiting room. In season five, she’ll 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, turning the very medium itself into an art form. Emotional and psychological themes had never been so prevalent in a scripted TV drama; the gritty realism had never been so thoroughly executed. The writing, the dialogue, the acting, etc. all started 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, like Tim Van Patten, Alan Taylor, Peter Bogdonavich, among others, but the direction in the pilot and “Made in America” really stand out (and I’m not just talking about the The Sopranos’ infamous final scene). Already, we have a visual flair and feel that is more suitable for cinema rather than TV shows. The writing and acting would turn out to be better than most films. But we’re not all the way there just yet…
The kicking off point for the entire series is Tony Soprano’s panic attack. That’s how he ends up in the waiting room to see a shrink. Some of the pilot is told via flashback, and flashback/voiceover are devices that The Sopranos will rarely turn to ever again. As far as pilots go, however, they are necessary tools to introduce us to the world and viewpoints of this show.
We see Tony’s daily routine: he’s a loving family man with a wife and two kids who doubles down as a waste management consultant…er…mob boss. He also shows a loving affection for the family of ducks that’s taken up living in his swimming pool. His family is not all too interested in the water birds, but Tony can’t bear the sight of seeing them fly away.
He passes out.
The 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 details about himself/the show to come. She’ll come a long way from the simple, pilot plot-device she plays here.
Basically every character shown in this first hour is only a microcosm of what they will become, even Tony. David Chase and the rest of the writers were still finding their voices, and the actors had yet to grow into their roles.
“The Sopranos” bears the unmistakable influence of Goodfellas and, to a lesser extent, The Godfather. The early Sopranos episodes are heavily indebted to Scorsese, the pilot owing the most.
Also, a lot of the violence and mob activities in the pilot are a tad cartoonish and over-the-top. Case in point: Tony’s bumbling chase scene through a crowded park in his SUV.
In another scene, the friendly priest, Father Antintolla (who will be recast), is actually talking aloud about Goodfellas and The Godfather I and II, as if the show is openly acknowledging its influences.
But, of course, that’s all just nitpicking.
As mentioned before, the characters aren’t fully developed yet. Even James Gandolfini is still getting used to his starring role. The Tony we see here is a tad more “polite” than the Tony we’ll come to know quickly down the line.
Likewise, Carmela is your typical, privileged housewife, for now. Basically until “College” (episode five of the season), she will remain nagging and annoying. Her dinner date with Tony is almost cringeworthy. Yet, her strained relationship with her bratty teenage daughter Meadow is already in place, and it’s in these familial hardships in which Edie Falco will shine.
Two actors who pretty much have their characters down pat are Michael Imperioli and Nancy Marchand. Imperioli plays Tony’s hotheaded nephew Christopher, while Marchand plays Tony’s mother, Livia. Her portrayal of the eternally-confused, nihilistic old granny will be a highlight of season one.
If the acting and dialogue aren’t there yet, the main themes of the show are already 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. He takes his daughter Meadow to an old cathedral that his great-grandfather helped build, a standing monument to the old ways now gone. Those were the good days, but now they’re over and the people that are left have to adapt to the changing times.
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 will never change. In all truthfulness, this is a pretty cynical show with a bleak outlook.
The Tony we see in the pilot will change because the show is still finding its voice and because this is a pilot; quick adjustments will be made to all characters. But after we truly get to know Tony, we’ll see he won’t change ever. It’s David Chase’s meta-take on TV characters/shows too: they are resigned to their circular arcs.
Aside from those austere attitudes, The Sopranos is also a show about family, with season one having the strongest familial ties. Of course, the kicker for Tony is that he has two families. But to which one does he truly belong?
I realize I haven’t talked much about the plot of the episode at all. That’s okay, since The Sopranos will hardly ever concern itself with plot or adhering to viewers’ conventional expectations. Chase’s goal for the show was to structure it as a series of standalone, one-hour movies that will add up to a greater whole by the end.
This auteurist blueprint has been an issue for debate among fans, coming down to the ones who watched for the intriguing mob violence and the ones who were more interested in the artistic flourishes, stylistic flairs and deep emotional undercurrents. The Sopranos will ultimately satisfy the needs of both, the series premiere being a perfect example.
The pilot—although it sets a lot of future plot points in motion (Tony finding a retirement home for his mother, frictions with Uncle Junior)—is ultimately about a man coming to terms with his fear of losing his family. This sense of internal fear—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, but 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. 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. The pilot is really the only out-of-place hour in the show’s entire run, if you can even call it that. This is just the beginning of 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.
- We’ll come to know that cops are pretty nonexistent on this show, as evidenced by the chase scene through the public area. Even the feds will be pretty incompetent.
- The main mob action of the pilot involves Uncle Junior planning to whack a guy named Little Pussy Malanga in Artie Bucco’s (a childhood friend of Tony’s) restaurant. Obviously, this would be bad for business, so Tony “helps” out his friend by burning down the restaurant and framing it as a gas leak. Meanwhile, Chris whacks Emil Kolar and disposes of the body.
- When Tony is seen with the ducks, it honestly might be the happiest we see him in the entire series.
- “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 for “The Sopranos” since it’s hard to exactly put words to it, but I believe that’s 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 then The Wire. Breaking Bad’s pilot was by far the best.