"The Sopranos" (The first season)
Created by David Chase
Starring James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Vincent Pastore, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Nancy Marchand
HBO Home Video; widescreen anamorphic
Extras: Pilot audio commentary with David Chase and Peter Bogdanovich, 77-minute interview with Chase by Bogdanovich, two behind-the-scenes featurettes, episodic index with previews and recaps
Before anything else -- before the baked ziti, the clean hits, the "Godfather" references, the Bada Bing nightclub -- "The Sopranos" is a show about family -- two of them. The amazing debut episode laid the foundation for the mirror-families theme; the next 12 pulled it apart, twisted it around, fractured it and pieced it back together. Along the way, show after show dared to be subtle and dark as it explored this audacious conceit: pointing out the way people really talk to one another, the difficulty of communicating within a family, the messy contradictions of daily life.
In brief, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a mid-level, middle-aged Mafia man. He runs a small crew of New Jersey criminals, but he's looking to move up if he can figure out what to do with his father's brother, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), his elder and also the head of his own crew of made men. The show's elegant conception, however, is that Tony isn't a Jersey City punk: Tony lives in a manicured suburb, next door to a doctor. He adores his two children and loves his wife, even though he screws around on the side. Tony's also an emotional wreck and crippled by occasional panic attacks. With the tentative help of his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Tony realizes that his cantankerous aging mother (Nancy Marchand) might be responsible for his woes.
Like the press says, nearly everything about the show is brilliant: the writing, the acting, the cast, the music, the direction, the editing. "The Sopranos" may well be apotheosis of television drama -- thanks to the benign oversight of HBO. It's not the unattractive violence, gritty slang and incidental nudity that bleed into the show; more importantly, it's the episodes that don't wrap every theme into a neat little bundle, or paint characters in melodramatic blacks and whites.
Still, HBO is a subscription-only channel; the show's available only to those willing to pony up for premium channels. For allowing the rest of us to finally start catching up with the show, now in the middle of its third season, "The Sopranos" on DVD is a gift. The extras here want to make one central point: "The Sopranos" is so good because it's real, and the show is real because so much of it came directly from series creator David Chase's life. The pilot commentary with critic/director Peter Bogdonovich and Chase, as well as the 77-minute talking-head interview tacked on to the handsome four-disc box set, both point out that Chase spent some time in therapy, lived in Jersey and gave Marchand a lot of lines directly from his old mother. In the commentary, he even points out family members (his own Uncle Junior, for example) that made it into small parts on the show and some favorite New Jersey haunts.
Chase points out during his commentary on the pilot episode that the family was the only place left to go with the Mafia -- we've already seen all the other Mob stories. We learn a lot about his writing process, and how much of the show is done on instinct. The brilliant part, however, is watching how those instinctual choices pay off in scripts several episodes later; Chase explains that having a psychiatrist as a major character makes him and the writers constantly explore the meanings of their own work. Movie buffs will also like Chase's glossings of the show's allusions to other films, notably Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" and Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas." The latter, Chase says, is "the Koran for me."