The Sopranos season one (1999)
Wrap-up and Final Thoughts
- “The Sopranos” 9.1
- “46 Long” 9.2
- “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” 9.2
- “Meadowlands” 8.7
- “College” 10
- “Pax Soprana” 8.7
- “Down Neck” 9.3
- “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” 9.2
- “Boca” 9.0
- “A Hit is a Hit” 8.3
- “Nobody Knows Anything” 9.2
- “Isabella” 9.4
- “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” 9.6
By Colin Hart
First-time doing anything is hard. Usually you’re first effort is a total piece of crap, even if you go on to become a master at it later. Look, Stanley Kubrick’s first film was Fear and Desire. I’d say go watch it, but don’t waste your time. And even Genesis had to go From Genesis to Revelation (terrible debut, 1969) before literally going from Genesis to Revelation (masterpiece song “Supper’s Ready”, 1972).
Likewise, we shouldn’t fault TV shows for starting off shitty if they become brilliant soon afterwards—but season one of The Sopranos kinda ruined that for everyone. The debut season of David Chase’s landmark crime drama is such a great and monumental beginning that now every series that intends to be a masterpiece is expected to get out to an equally iconic start. The hard truth, though, is that it’s damn near impossible to equal The Sopranos’ debut because The Sopranos Season One is, probably, the greatest first season of any show.
First you have the influence factor. It’s been talked about time and time again and it’s become a bore, really: “The Sopranos changed everything!” “Prestige TV!” “Golden age!” “TV is art!” etc. You’ve heard the praises sung. Yet they’re all true. I guess I’ll say it again—The Sopranos elevated the medium of TV into its own art form. It did this by taking the traditional format of TV storytelling and inserting its own style. A Kubrick film, for example, doesn’t adhere to normal film convention—plot, pacing, etc.—but instead stands uniquely by itself and distanced from all the rest because of the artist’s personal vision. This is the same sort of genre-busting philosophy that creator David Chase brought to premium cable.
The Sopranos tells a story but doesn’t tell it coherently like typical mob genre-fare would. It digresses into metaphysical discussion, deep character study, hilarious dark humor, and surrealism, while side-stepping typical plot conventions. But it is still as action-filled as it needs to be, this being a mafia TV show after all. And it’s that titillating action that keeps the motor running.
To wax philosophical is one thing (see: Malick, Terrence) and to deliver addictive action is another (see: Tarantino, Quentin), but to combine the cerebral with the seductive—as The Sopranos does better than anyone—now we’re talking.
The Sopranos is a show about family. It’s all there in the title—it’s not Tony Soprano, it’s The Sopranos (emphasis on the “The”). In season one, the theme of family was never more clear. This manifests itself in Tony’s trials with his mother and uncle, who both are “f”amily but end up threatening him as “F”amily.
This first season of the show, then, is by far its most coherent. Later seasons would be more freewheeling, often leaving plot by the wayside. Even though The Sopranos made its bones in 1999 as a groundbreaking show that broke conventions, the story told throughout season one—Tony’s increased psychological duress due to budding tensions with his mother and uncle—is perhaps the show’s most tightly-written and linear season-long arc.
The final three episodes— “Nobody Knows Anything”, “Isabella” and “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”—make up a finale trio that stands as one of the most pulse-pounding climaxes to any season of television. And the beginning of the show is just as strong, immediately building up a realistic and immersive world in no time. The pilot, “46 Long” and “Denial, Anger, Acceptance” are—I’ll go on the record here—the best start to any TV series ever.
All-time great start, all-time great finish, influence factor, etc. What’s more is that The Sopranos first season has an all-time great episode—the greatest episode, in fact. “College”, the fifth episode of the show and a standalone installment, is probably the best TV episode of all time, bar none.
The other Great Shows, it took them a while to reach an achievement like “College”. Mad Men didn’t have “The Suitcase” until season four and The Leftovers didn’t have “International Assassin” until season two. The Sopranos hit the all-time high watermark in only its fifth hour.
But “College” is only part of the tapestry, as there are plenty of other endearing memorable moments too. Chris Moltisanti, a favorite of mine, has one of his best episodes when he tries to write a movie script in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”. And “Down Neck” has some of the show’s greatest moments of introspection.
Even with a relative dud like “A Hit is a Hit” (you won’t be missed, Massive Genius!), the comfortability we as viewers feel inhabiting The Sopranos world makes even a rare misstep feel like time well-spent with characters we love to watch.
In comparison with the rest of the Prestige Big Four, The Sopranos surely has the greatest start. Yeah, The Wire season one was good, but I haven’t seen it in a while and I remember it took me like four episodes to “get it”. Mad Men, too. Breaking Bad’s truncated first season was, well, truncated. The only threat to Sopranos S1’s throne might be Twin Peaks season one. I’ll have to rewatch soon.
The first thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are masterful, among the best batch of ‘sodes that David Chase and crew would ever give to us—not that he felt like he “owed” us anything anyways. Cynicism will be key going forward and the foundations for bleakness are already strong.
But the hopeful ending, with Tony and his family taking shelter from a storm at Nuovo Vesuvio’s, is one of the most uplifting season-enders in the show’s run. “Remember the good times.” Like the time when Tony made fun of Junior for eating out, or the time when the ducks swam in the pool, or when Tony garroted Febby Petrulio. The Sopranos season one is chock full of good memories.
Now bring on Richie Aprile and Season Two!