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 female 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-ups 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, one of only two episodes directed by series creator David Chase (the other is the series finale, “Made in America”). The Sopranos boasated a large stable of talented 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. Already we have a visual flair and feel that is more at home in the cinema than on TV.
The kickoff for the entire series is Tony Soprano’s panic attack. That’s why he’s 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 also doubles 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 nesting in his swimming pool, enamored with what they represent.
But the ducks soon fly away. Tony passes out at the family barbecue.
Basically every character shown in this first hour is just a microcosm of what they will soon become. Even Tony is a tad more “polite” than the Tony we’ll see in a few episodes. 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 provide exposition. She’ll come a long way from the first-episode plot-device she plays here.
Likewise, Carmela is portrayed as the stereotypical privileged housewife. It won’t be until “College” (episode five of the season) that she becomes a fully-formed character. Her dinner date with Tony in the pilot is almost cringeworthy, as is her bedside manner. However, her strained relationship with her bratty teenage daughter, Meadow, is already in place, and it is in these family squabbles in which actress Edie Falco will shine.
If the acting and dialogue have not quite been perfected, 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 Meadow to an old cathedral that his immigrant great-grandfather constructed, 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 shadow of the past haunts our every move, the future is uncertain, and people refuse to change. At its heart, The Sopranos is quite a cynical show, with a bleak outlook on life. Tony’s defining trait will be his inability to reform. It is all part of David Chase’s meta-take on TV itself — a series and its characters are forever resigned to their circular arcs.
Aside from these austere outlooks, The Sopranos is also a show about family, with season one having the strongest bonds. Tony essentially has two families. But to which does he truly belong?
I realize I haven’t talked much about the actual plot. That’s okay, since The Sopranos will rarely concern itself with adhering to viewers’ conventional expectations. Chase’s goal was to structure the episodes as a series of standalone one-hour movies, which would all come together to a greater whole by season’s end.
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 drives the series. The characters are constantly grasping for things which can’t be attained.
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 family pool in view. The ducks aren’t coming back.
The first episode of a beloved show is always fun to revisit. I’ve probably seen “The Sopranos” nine or ten times now and I still cherish it. But a lot of that is because I cherish what the show will become. The pilot admittedly has its missteps — chief among them, the all-too-obvious influence of Goodfellas — but it is still a masterful episode of television, 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 just how great The Sopranos is.
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 is 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. Pretty dumb, but the explosion was cool.
-In an unrelated plot, Tony’s hotheaded young nephew, Christopher, commits his first murder by executing a Czechoslovakian drug dealer named 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 what it was like when I first watched it, some real In Search of Lost Time shit. It’s hard 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 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.