Monday, June 11, 2007
Me and Tony
By Edward Copeland
I actually lived in New Jersey when I first met Tony Soprano. Courtesy of a friend with video screeners (Yes Virginia, there was a time when screeners came out on VHS), I got to see the first season just as the phenomenon was beginning to take root. It didn't take me long to get hooked. Through the course of the series, I've lived in four different residences and in two different states. I can't remember the exact moment where I knew the series had me: It was either when Livia ran over her friend in her driveway or when an outraged Paulie stole antique coffee equipment from a Starbucks-like store. Either way, I was sold. I actually saw The Sopranos before I saw Analyze This, which appeared around the same time. There was no contest. Not only did The Sopranos have more depth, it was much funnier than the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal comedy.
In that first season, I felt as if I were part of an exclusive club, since most hadn't caught on to the series yet. By the time the second season rolled around, I had my own video copies of the first two years and became very popular with those without HBO. (I was in another state and another apartment by then and had HBO myself.) The second season was disappointing to me, but then it almost had to be coming off Season 1. There was so much time spent getting characters back in place: re-establishing Tony's visits with Melfi, the rift between Tony (James Gandolfini, who just got better the longer the series went on) and his mom and uncle. It seem to take a lot of time to get things in place. Sure, there were some great things (such as the addition of Aida Turturro as Janice), but it seemed obvious from the beginning where Richie Aprile was going to end up. It was just a surprise how he got there. It also seemed pretty obvious that Pussy's role as rat would be uncovered, especially after his disappearance and reappearance. While the dream elements of "Isabella" worked in Season 1, when we got to "Funhouse" and the damn talking fish, it was a clear sign that this was a series that should avoid dream sequences. Unfortunately, there were even worse ones to come.
When Nancy Marchand died after Season 2, I feared that the show would be unable to recover (I still can't believe she didn't win the Emmy for Season 1). In fact, I inadvertently was among the first to let HBO know about Marchand's passing. I was sitting at home (my first house) watching CNN when the news broke. I immediately called my friend who wrote about television for a living and when he called his HBO contact for a comment, they hadn't heard yet. Aside from the first two episode missteps (most significantly, virtual Livia, perhaps the most ill-advised use of CGI ever), Season 3 turned out to be the series' finest hour. It hit nearly every episode out of the park. It only grew stronger without Marchand, unbelievably. While episodes such as "Employee of the Month" and "Pine Barrens" are the ones most frequently cited, there were so many good ones that season: "Fortunate Son," with its great punchline that A.J. suffers from the same panic attacks as his father; "Another Toothpick" with its great guest turn by Burt Young as Bobby's dying father; "University" with its sad tale of the stripper Tracee; "Second Opinion" where the medical establishment mistreats junior and someone finally tells Carmela to face up to her life; "Amour Fou," finally bringing the affair with Gloria Trillo to a close. Then came the first insanely long wait for a new season.
The final episode of Season 3 aired May 20, 2001. We didn't get Season 4 until Sept. 15, 2002. By then, I lived in a new house, the one where I still reside. No wonder reviews were mixed, but it was an extremely bumpy season. Really, only "The Weight" stood out among the first eight episodes as something extraordinary as Johnny Sack was ready to kill Ralphie over a joke and Carmine was ready to take Johnny out as well over something that at its base was about a man's love for his wife. Then came "Whoever Did This" and Ralphie's death and Season 4 kicked into high gear, with only the awful "Calling All Cars" marring an otherwise great finish through "The Strong, Silent Type," "Eloise" and "Whitecaps." Then came yet another ridiculously long hiatus.
"Whitecaps" aired Dec. 8, 2002 but Season 5 didn't bother to show up until March 7, 2004. That's really trying your audience's patience. When contract complications, threatened to delay Season 5 (and perhaps the series) from ever returning, I was almost resigned to ending the show with "Whitecaps." Carmela kicking Tony out seemed as good a place to stop as any. Things worked out and it did return. The show was still good, with some standouts such as "Irregular Around the Margins," "Unindentified Black Males" and "Long Term Parking," but it also gave us "The Test Dream" and a lot of episodes that just seemed to be spinning their wheels to keep the story going. It didn't help that there was an influx of new characters that kept us from our favorites with the release of many gangsters (unknown to us) released from prison. Then came the worst wait of all: Season 5 wrapped up on June 6, 2004. Season 6 didn't show up March 12, 2006.
At least this time though, they started off with a bang with Junior's shooting of Tony and the Costa Mesa sequences that for a change (for the dreamworlds) actually worked. Then "Luxury Lounge" seemed to break the spell, and the remaining episodes in that batch seemed like placeholders. When Season 6 continued (I still don't buy that these final nine episodes are the "same" season), for the first time since the early years the wait was not more than a year and almost all of these first eight episodes were among the best the series ever produced. Only "Chasing It" was a little iffy. I'll miss the gang at the Bing and while I think at times they didn't live up to the high quality benchmarks in which they created, it's best that they leave now.