By now, The Sopranos is regarded by many as the finest show on television. While people may argue the merits of such excellent shows as The Shield or Dexter, the fact remains that The Sopranos is the highest profile show on television today. With mountains of critical acclaim and commercial success, it was difficult for HBO to accept creator David Chase's decision to pull the plug on the show after its fourth season. In fact, they refused to accept it, and threw gobs of money at Chase and the show's cast to keep the show on the air for a few seasons more. Chase eventually agreed, and the show now nears its conclusion, as is evidenced by splitting the sixth season into two. However, what we're getting here is one episode short of a normal HBO season, twelve, to be exact.
This episode of The Sopranos proved to be very divisive among fans. While the series has always spent a healthy portion of its runtime delving into the minds of its characters, this season spends so much time analyzing character decisions that many people complained about a lack of activity in the season, something with David Chase jokes about on a commentary. And while it's quite true that a lot happens in this season, it is by far the most introspective season of the show to date. The show gets so internal that we actually spend the better portion of two episodes in a hallucination Tony has. For many fans, this was simply too much. Rewatching the season, however, reveals just how much does happen to change the lives of the characters we've grown to love (or hate, or love to hate).
As the season opens, we're re-introduced to the cast. As season five drew to a close, everything was in a state of flux. The FBI had captured Johnny Sack, head of the New York family, Adrianna revealed herself to Christopher and Tony "dealt" with her. Nothing seemed to be going right. However, as we see in the opening montage for the season's first episode, "Member's Only," life goes on for fictional TV characters just as much as it does for us in real life. With the exception of Johnny Sack being in jail, most of the characters seem to be doing just fine. Some, such as Vito, have actually improved their lot in life. Overall, things seem pretty good.
Of course, that won't last. I'm going to warn you, spoilers are ahead, so if you haven't seen this season yet, skip down to the technical section.
At the end of the first episode, Tony is shot in the gut by Uncle Junior, leaving him in a coma. The following two episodes deal largely with a coma-induced dream, where Tony believes he is a businessman who has accidentally switched wallets with another man who looks like him. The conceit works for an episode. By the second, however, it wears very thin, especially since we know it's a dream. More interesting in this section is how the rest of the family reacts. Carm and Meadow stay by Tony's side day and night, while AJ lashes out at anyone who cares for him, and even attempts to kill Junior, who by now has been declared incompetent and is being housed in a mental institution. The rest of the family start to show their true colors, with some trying to raise their stakes in the family, and others wishing they didn't have all the responsibility laid upon them.
Tony actually recovers rather quickly, but the experience changes everyone in the show to some degree, which is what sparks the introspective nature of the season. Make no mistake, however, the actual events that take place this season are far more serious than they might seem. Alliances are strained and broken, the aftermath of past consequences comes to light, and several characters begin a descent from which they might not come back. This was a contentious, surprising, and thoroughly uncompromising season of The Sopranos. But having stuck with the show for six seasons, I've come to expect nothing less.
The HD DVD:
I've watched The Sopranos in HD for several years now, so the idea of watching the show on HD DVD is utterly natural. What's wonderful, though, is that the image on these discs actually looks better than the cable broadcasts I've seen. Granted, it's not a night and day difference, but this is the best I've ever seen the show look. Every detail is there, every blood splatter, every dirty look, every line in Lauren Bacall's face. Beautiful.
As good as the video looks, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound is even better. I don't know how many times I've heard the show's opening theme song, but watching this set, I heard things in the song I've never heard before. That's how good the track is. Wonderful directionality in the action scenes, with a lot of oomph when the physical violence occurs. This is some of the best audio I've heard outside of a lossless track.
Sadly, the extras don't live up to the sound and video quality. For a set that costs almost $130, you'd think every disc would be loaded with features. But no, all we get are commentaries, and not even on every episode. On episode two, "Join The Club," there's a commentary by Edie Falco (Carmella), Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow), and Robert Iler (AJ). The three have extraordinarily little of interest to say. For a while Iler cracks mildly amusing jokes, but those quickly get tiresome. A very uninteresting commentary.
Episode seven, "Luxury Lounge," (my favorite episode of the season) has a commentary by writer Matthew Weiner. Weiner does a great job of discussing various aspects of the show and the episode, switching from specific events in the episode to larger concerns when working on a series such as this one. It's fitting that the show's best episode should get the set's best commentary.
Episode nine, "The Ride," has commentary by writer Terence Winter, Michael Imperioli (Christopher), and Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts). This is another strong commentary, with especially insightful analysis by Sirico, who clearly has spent a lot of time thinking about his character and how the various relationships in the show work. The other contributors are no slouches, either, making for a very listenable commentary.
The final commentary comes from series creator David Chase on the season finale, "Kaisha." As I mentioned earlier, HBO had to cajole Chase into making these later seasons, and it shows on this commentary, where Chase sounds very tired. His comments are perfunctory and tell us nothing we don't already know. Very disappointing.
The Sopranos on HD DVD is an exciting prospect. The show is daring, intelligent, and often hilarious. It's one of my favorite shows currently airing, and this set does a tremendous job with its presentation. It has stellar video and even better audio, topping the broadcasts on HBO's HD channel. The only two downsides are the lack of solid extras and the hefty price tag. But the strength of the content, and the extraordinarily high quality of the audio/video presentation is more than enough to make this set Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.