The Sopranos — Killer TV No 2

the-sopranos-blu-ray-finally-arrives

HBO, 1999-2007 (six series)

‘What fucking kind of human being am I, if my own mother wants me dead?’ – Tony Soprano

James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano), Lorraine Bracco (Dr Melfi), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante), Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano), Peter Bogdanovich (Dr Kupferberg)

Identikit: A mobster in therapy balances problems at home with running a New Jersey crime empire.


CREATOR David Chase had worked in network TV for 20 years (Rockford Files, Northern Exposure and others) before pay channel HBO came along offering the freedom to make this bold and multilayered chunk of television brilliance. The Sopranos was the first of the non-network series to show that TV could be better than the movies given the artistic scope and freedom from network TV’s puritanism and advertiser-sanctioned wholesomeness. From its opening moments it was clear The Sopranos would break and toy with mobster-genre conventions. Tony Soprano – the late James Gandolfini was shrewdly and bravely cast – has a panic attack and secretly starts seeing a shrink, a chink of potentially lethal vulnerability in a mob boss, but one allowing viewers to watch him go on to balance his criminal empire with the demands of family life – troublesome kids, ballsy wife and psychotic mother. Brilliant writers (Terence Winter, Robin Green and others), directors (Tim Van Patten, John Patterson) and guest stars (Annabella Sciorra, Ben Kingsley, Annette Bening, Steve Buscemi, Lauren Bacall) came together to magic up a drama that was controversial, parodied, analysed by academics and given a glut of awards – including 21 Emmys and five Golden Globes. The Sopranos became the show everyone in the mainstream networks wanted to work on, but despite the great talents who came on board, the prime influence was always David Chase’s. Tony’s monstrous mother, being in therapy, the New Jersey setting – all reflected the showrunner’s own experience. The result was a series of extraordinary episodes, such as College (Tony is shown to be no hero when he brutally strangles a former wiseguy), Pine Barrens (Paulie Walnuts and Christopher lose a ‘dead’ Russian and get lost themselves in the snowy forest), and Whitecaps (Tony and Carmela’s toxic break-up). It had superb dialogue and direction, surreal dreams, great music, tears and black humour – but ultimately The Sopranos served up a radical new style of weekly TV drama. It also finished with a dazzling, ambiguous flourish, with Tony and his family in a diner after a mob war has just concluded, causing the death or injury of his top lieutenants. A man who’s been staring at Tony in the diner then goes to the Gents, and daughter Meadow Soprano enters the restaurant as the screen abruptly cuts to a long black silence – and an unknown fate for the Sopranos. The fate of TV was known, however. It could be more complex, audacious and involving than it had ever been.

Classic episode: Long Term Parking – Adriana, Chris’s wife, was developed throughout the series. However, when she was forced to become an FBI informant, Chris was tempted to run away with her, but finally decided to tell Tony about her new friends. This led to her heartrending demise at the hands of Paulie.

Music: Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) by Alabama 3

Watercooler fact: The Sopranos shared 27 actors with Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, including Lorraine Bracco (Tony’s shrink Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos, and Karen Hill in Goodfellas), Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo/Billy Batts), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti/Spider), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts Gaultieri/Tony Stacks), Suzanne Shepard (Mary DeAngelis/Karen’s mother).

Oz — Killer TV No.34

1997-2003, HBO
‘The worst stab wound is the one to the heart. Sure, most people survive it, but the heart is never quite the same.’ – Augustus Hill
Christopher Meloni, Ernie Hudson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau Jr, Eamonn Walker, Rita Moreno, John Lurie, Terry Kinney, Betty Buckley, Kathryn Erbe, Lee Tergesen, B. D. Wong, JK Simmons, Dean Winters, Scott William Winters, Edie Falco
Identikit: At the Oswald State Correctional Facility, the Homeboys, Muslims, Wiseguys Aryan Brotherhood, Latinos and other groups mark out their territory and live on their wits, while the authorities try to keep control.

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The revolution wrought by subscription TV in the US has its roots here, with HBO’s first one-hour drama series in 1997. Set in Oz, aka the Emerald City, a penitentiary turned ‘correctional facility’, it follows the daily machinations of dangerous and lesser criminals just trying to get by, told in stark, brutal detail. The story is cleverly opened up when the usually law-abiding Tobias Beecher finds himself behind bars for a drink-driving killing – a lamb among slavering wolves, forcing audiences to think, ‘There but for the grace of god…’ Having been roomed with one of the more vicious inmates, he is then ‘saved’ by Aryan inmate Vernon Schillinger, and his life goes from bad to worse under the thumb of the predatory racist. Episodes are narrated by wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill (shot by police during his arrest), who offers insight and some wry humour, and the style is gritty cinéma-vérité. The show took advantage of the freedom in storytelling offered by premium cable, creating plots that were taboo on mainstream TV – male rape, drug use, ethic/religious intolerance, violence and homosexuality, while featuring full male nudity and bad language. The show was raw and gripping, but never captured the haul of gongs that later successes from HBO would – The Sopranos, The Wire etc. However, it lasted for six seasons and won a devoted fan base of viewers who were captivated by its freshness and honesty.
Classic episode: A Game of Checkers (season 1, episode 8) – first series finale during which an argument over a board game flares into a full-blown riot in seconds. Breathtaking episode that put all the tensions and conflicts among inmates and staff into hyperdrive.
Watercooler fact: Luke Perry, Eric Roberts, LL Cool J all made guest appearances, while cast regular Edie Falco went on to some great performances as Carmela in HBO’s The Sopranos.

More of the Killer 50

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