Toronto Sun - - SHOWBIZ -

If you have some free time over this week­end, I sug­gest that you spend it in New Jersey — specif­i­cally, North Cald­well, New Jersey, long­time home of An­thony and Carmela So­prano.

This sum­mer marked the 10th an­niver­sary of the show’s in­fa­mous “blank screen” ending, and so, not hav­ing tuned in for a while, I set my­self the task of watch­ing the en­tire se­ries, in or­der. What be­gan as a project swiftly be­came a labour of love, and then I had to force my­self to slow down, lest I fin­ish too fast.

I had for­got­ten what a truly mag­nif­i­cent work of art showrun­ner David Chase achieved. The So­pra­nos is widely cred­ited with kick­ing off the era of “prestige tele­vi­sion.” It’s easy to see why. The writ­ing was witty yet earthy (re­ally, re­ally earthy), the char­ac­ters were be­liev­able, the act­ing was uni­formly out­stand­ing, and the nar­ra­tive it­self be­gan as en­gross­ing and swiftly be­came com­pelling.

With its cen­tral tale of a trou­bled mob boss see­ing a psy­chi­a­trist to un­der­stand why he suf­fered panic at­tacks and was so an­gry all the time, The So­pra­nos sounds like a dark com­edy. That’s how it was orig­i­nally con­ceived, and even as the story be­gan to get se­ri­ous, the hu­mour was al­ways there. The fam­ily re­la­tion­ships were trag­i­cally fa­mil­iar: Tony and his mon­ster of a mother, Tony and his wily un­cle, Tony and his re­bel­lious chil­dren, and, most im­por­tant, Tony and his wife, who grew in the course of the se­ries from the en­abler who loved the jew­els and large house that her hus­band’s busi­ness pro­vided to the trou­bled, de­fi­ant moral cen­tre of the tale.

The So­pra­nos fa­mously pi­o­neered both the gore and the ex­plicit sex that have become the norm on prestige TV, and pre­cisely be­cause the show was first, all that blood and sex seems a lit­tle tame. The show also pi­o­neered the will­ing­ness to kill off fa­mil­iar and even beloved char­ac­ters, of­ten with no warn­ing, and un­like so much of to­day’s tele­vi­sion, kept on killing them as the end drew near.

But what cen­trally drove the fan ob­ses­sion was the rich and re­mark­able nar­ra­tive, and the rich and re­mark­able peo­ple who in­hab­ited it. As Tony So­prano, the late James Gan­dolfini gave us as com­plex and fully re­al­ized a char­ac­ter as has ever graced the small screen. He was an enor­mous pres­ence, not just phys­i­cally (al­though he was large and grew larger through the se­ries). Few tele­vi­sion faces have ever been so ex­pres­sive. Tony’s strug­gle to live as the 1950s-style fa­ther he avowedly wanted to be while se­cur­ing his crim­i­nal em­pire against in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal enemies had us whip­sawed. We rooted for him one mo­ment, only be re­pulsed by his vi­o­lence or phi­lan­der­ing the next.

Fully equal to the chal­lenge of play­ing op­po­site him was Edie Falco, who dur­ing the show’s sev­enyear run won three Em­mys and two Golden Globes for her role as Carmela. It’s as­ton­ish­ing she didn’t win more. Don’t be­lieve me? To see her work in White­caps, Col­lege, Proshai, Livushka or dozens of other episodes is to rec­og­nize that we’re in the pres­ence of one of the finest tele­vi­sion ac­tors ever.

And then there was the spec­tac­u­lar Lor­raine Bracco, who was nom­i­nated along­side Falco for many awards for her por­trayal of Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s ever-pa­tient psy­chi­a­trist who strug­gled with her own fas­ci­na­tion with her pa­tient’s world — and, at the end of the first sea­son, found her­self briefly and fright­en­ingly drawn into it. Her ses­sions with Tony bub­bled with ten­sion and threat, yet one had the sense that un­der her care he was get­ting bet­ter. So per­sua­sive was Bracco’s por­trayal that she re­ceived a spe­cial award from the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­an­a­lytic As­so­ci­a­tion.

The show was vi­o­lent, but the So­pra­nos were a fam­ily. Tony and Carmela, in love and in hate, felt like a gen­uine cou­ple; the screen chem­istry was re­mark­able. The par­ents among us had our teeth set on edge when the chil­dren, Meadow and A.J., acted out. The in-laws, on both sides, were so deftly drawn that they might have been our own.

The fam­ily’s McMan­sion, at the imag­i­nary ad­dress of 633 Stag Trail Road, was it­self a char­ac­ter. Fans learned ev­ery nook and cranny, and slowly came to know and love North Jersey as well. Chase was adamant that ex­te­ri­ors should be filmed roughly where they were re­ally sup­posed to be, and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to get the images right was a part of the show’s de­li­cious charm.

The So­pra­nos was never at its best when it left the neigh­bour­hood. An ex­po­si­tion-heavy trip to Naples, Italy, and a cou­ple more to Florida, never quite car­ried the snap of the rest of the show. The stun­ning and heart-wrench­ing fi­nal-sea­son episode Kennedy and Heidi broke down when Tony took him­self off to Las Ve­gas.

On the other hand, Chase worked small mir­a­cles with bot­tle episodes. A par­tic­u­lar gem was Pine Bar­rens, which lands on ev­ery­body’s list of 10 best episodes, and many crit­ics think was the show’s ab­so­lute finest. My own favourites — in the sense that I would watch them over and over and stay on the edge of my seat — were the emo­tion­ally drain­ing Long Term Park­ing and the afore­men­tioned White­caps. Un­like many other fans, I also loved the show’s con­tro­ver­sial finale, Made in Amer­ica. But I would be happy to drop in on any episode. I would still be en­grossed.

The So­pra­nos birthed more prestige TV. Matthew Weiner, who would go on to cre­ate Mad Men, was schooled there. So was Terrence Win­ter, who would cre­ate Board­walk Em­pire. The show served as a train­ing ground for some of the great tele­vi­sion di­rec­tors, among them Alan Tay­lor, a fa­mil­iar name to fans of Mad Men and Game of Thrones. Will Ar­nett and Paul Dano were among the the­nun­known ac­tors who had nice turns in small parts. Then there was a 15-year-old named Ste­fani Ger­man­otta who showed up in an un­cred­ited role as a friend of A.J., and would later become slightly bet­ter known as Lady Gaga. Sure, The So­pra­nos had its weak­nesses. The cast never achieved the diver­sity some of us would have wished (but then nei­ther did Mad Men or Game of Thrones). The fi­nal sea­son, like ev­ery fi­nal sea­son, felt rushed, as the showrun­ners hur­ried to wind up sub­plot af­ter sub­plot, and even squeezed an en­tire gang war be­tween the So­pra­nos and a pow­er­ful New York fam­ily into the last two episodes. But those were hic­cups in the show’s over­all bril­liance.

“Mix it with the rel­ish!” cries Tony’s friend Paulie Wal­nuts in Pine Bar­rens, as he and Tony’s nephew Christo­pher, lost in the snow, try to sur­vive overnight with noth­ing to eat but a few pack­ets of condi­ments from a fast-food restau­rant. And that’s what the showrun­ners did. Year af­ter year, episode af­ter episode, they mixed it with the rel­ish. The re­sult was the great­est show in the his­tory of tele­vi­sion.

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