“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…”
By Colin Hart
9.5 / 10
In the famous opening shot of The Sopranos (pictured above), Tony Soprano is framed between the legs of a female statue in Dr. 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-ups of the statue. Dr. Melfi opens her office door. “Tony Soprano?” He enters.
The Sopranos changed everything about television, transforming the very medium itself into an art form. Gritty realism had never been so thoroughly executed, and psychological themes had never been explored with such depth. The writing, the acting, the ambiguity — everything — begat an artistic revolution.
It all starts with the pilot, one of only two episodes directed by series creator David Chase (the other being “Made in America,” the infamous series finale). Throughout its run, The Sopranos boasted a large stable of talented directors — Tim Van Patten, Alan Taylor and Peter Bogdonavich, to name a few — yet Chase’s contributions are still the most important. His cinematic flair instantly legitimized the show’s ambitions, and his auteurist technique indicated that The Sopranos was much more than a simple crime drama.
The kickoff for the entire series is Tony Soprano’s panic attack — the reason why he’s waiting to see a shrink in the opening scene. Parts of the pilot are 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 particularities of David Chase’s vision.
We see Tony’s daily routine: he’s a loving family man with a wife and two kids, but he’s also an organized crime boss in the north Jersey mafia (“Waste management consultant,” he tells Dr. Melfi). The stark contrast makes for one of the most compelling dichotomies in television history, but the entire concept would be unoriginal if it weren’t for the performance of James Gandolfini. His portrayal of Tony Soprano is iconic — the perfect antihero.
Sure, Tony cheats on his wife and breaks some kneecaps from time to time, but he also shows a loving affinity for the family of ducks nesting in his swimming pool. The main emphasis of the series is on his humanity, or lack thereof. One day, the ducks fly away. Tony passes out at the family barbecue.
At this early juncture, David Chase and his writing staff were still finding their voices, and the actors — Gandolfini included — had yet to grow into their roles. Almost every character shown in this first hour is just a microcosm of what they’ll soon become down the line. Even Tony is a tad more “polite” than the Tony we’ll see in just a few episodes.
Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco), will play an important — albeit isolated — role later on in the series, but for now she merely serves as a way for Tony to provide exposition. Likewise, Tony’s wife, Carmela, is portrayed in the pilot as a stereotypical, crazy Italian bitch. Her dinner date scene midway through the episode is almost cringeworthy, and it isn’t until episode five that she’ll develop into a fully-formed character with ambitions of her own.
Nevertheless, Carmela’s strained relationship with her bratty teenage daughter, Meadow, is already in place, and it’s in these familial squabbles in which actress Edie Falco will shine. At times, her performance rivals that of Gandolfini.
Even though the acting and dialogue have not quite been perfected, the series’ main themes are already firmly in place. Tony says as much 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 obsessed with the past, or rather, 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 Meadow to an old cathedral constructed by his immigrant great-grandfather. It’s a towering monument to the old ways now gone.
In turn, this obsession also causes Tony to live in constant fear of the past. Living proof: his neurotic mother, Livia. Together, their complex, stressful relationship will have a major psychological impact on Tony throughout the series.
The Sopranos also plays out as a metaphor for America at the turn of the century — the future is uncertain, and the shadow of the past haunts our every move. Tony Soprano’s defining characteristic will be his inability to reform.
At its core, this is quite a cynical show, with a depressingly bleak outlook on life. But it’s all part of David Chase’s meta-take on TV itself — a series and its characters are forever resigned to their circular arcs.
Above all, however, The Sopranos is a show about family, and the series premiere is about Tony’s fear of losing it.
The closing sequence is a backyard party at the Soprano home, celebrating AJ’s birthday. Carmela shouts “Let’s eat!,” and the entire party makes its way off-screen. But Chase’s camera keeps the empty pool in view. The ducks aren’t coming back.
It’s a poignant way to end the episode, and it’s a perfect image to encapsulate The Sopranos as a whole. Has any series premiere carried greater significance? Even though the pilot has a few missteps — chief among them the all-too-obvious influence of Goodfellas — it arrives fully-formed. In fact, most of the problems here will be remedied by next episode, a testament to just how great The Sopranos truly is.
This episode not only provided the foundations for the rest of the series; it provided the foundations for modern television itself. But it’s only the start of what may be the greatest TV 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 might 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.
- Although I didn’t discuss it much, the pilot sets forth a lot of future plot points. The main mob action of the week 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 Artie’s business, so Tony “helps” out his friend by burning down the restaurant and framing it as a gas leak. Pretty dumb, but the explosion was cool.
- Elsewhere, Tony’s hotheaded young nephew, Christopher, commits his first murder. He executes a Czechoslovakian drug dealer named Emil Kolar by firing several bullets into the back of his head.
- “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 first episode of any show, I sometimes get momentary flashes of what it was like when I first saw it, a la In Search of Lost Time. It’s a hard feeling to put into words, but it’s one of the great joys of rewatching TV shows from the beginning.
- If I had to rank the pilots of the Big 4, I’d go with (in order from best to worst): Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men and, lastly, The Wire. EDIT: my rankings would now go Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Wire.
- For further analysis on the episode, read my article about how the pilot’s soundtrack shaped the world of The Sopranos.