If you flip around the dial on cable today, in my opinion, you probably won't find much. Today's sitcoms have a few bright spots (the new "Scrubs") and a decent drama or two ("X-Files", which is starting to go on beyond its borders), but there's really nothing that compares in the slightest to what David Chase has done with "The Sopranos", a remarkably well-crafted and marvelously acted series that has rightly walked away with awards when Emmy season comes around.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it stars James Gandolfini (previously seen in films like "Get Shorty" and currently seen in films like "The Last Castle") as Tony Soprano, the head of a New Jersey family and, at the same time, the head of a Mafia family. The show's greatness is due in fairly large part to Gandolfini's tremendously dynamic performance, but Chase has rounded up a large legion of fantastic supporting players, such as Edie Falco as Carmela, a strong, intelligent character who stands up for herself and detects when she's being lied to, but also cares about Tony and her family. Chase gives even the smallest of characters a defined personality and great character details, making every individual a piece of the larger puzzle and each character great depth. Chase also often does an amazing job moving between dark drama and dark comedy without being jarring. The tension that the directors, Chase and the cast are able to maintain is often remarkable; we know that something is major is going to happen and we sit on the edge of our seats just waiting for something to go down.
Chase's decision to also shoot on location gives the show a further feeling of reality and atmosphere, as well. Further adding to the experience is the selection of music, most notably the opening theme, "Woke Up This Morning", which really provides a superb introduction to the show. Above all of it, it's really impressive that Chase was really able to push the elements of the show and characters further in the second season. Where many shows and movies suffer from a "sophmore slump", "The Sopranos" really was able to move even further into greatness, continuing to be one of the strongest and most well-crafted programs that television has to offer.
And one note - the opening of "Commendatori" offers the scene about the "Godfather DVD" that was added as a hidden extra in the DVD set of the "Godfather" trilogy that was recently released by Paramount.
14.Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist's Office
15.Do Not Resuscitate
18.Big Girls Don't Cry
19.The Happy Wanderer
21.Full Leather Jacket
22.From Where to Eternity
25.Knight in White Satin Armor
VIDEO: The series is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen by HBO. I'm thankful that HBO has presented the shows in widescreen, because the original compositions are so terrific. Also, HBO's presentation of the first season did have some minor concerns - a little shimmering at times, a few slight instances of pixelation - which don't appear again here. Sharpness and detail throughout the episodes is excellent; the picture remained well-defined even in some dimly-lit moments. Again, flaws are kept to a bare minimum. I noticed no shimmering, edge enhancement or pixelation. All that I spotted was the occasional very slight instances of grain.
Colors remain natural and accurate - as the show is filmed on location, colors really depend on where the scene is at the moment. There's an episode that mostly takes place in Italy, for example, that offers brighter and more vibrant colors. Otherwise, the film's (I keep wanting to say "film", because that's what each episode feels like) color palette is mainly subdued. Overall, "The Sopranos" looks terrific and the few concerns that I had with the image quality of the original season DVDs don't re-appear here. Very nice, HBO.
SOUND: As with the first season, the shows are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The show's sound design isn't quite up to the level of films that are released in theaters today, but, at the same time, the surround mix is certainly better than expected for television material. The interior scenes are generally subdued, with the audio focused from the front. Exterior scenes open up slightly more and use the surrounds nicely for some minor ambient sounds. Audio quality remained excellent throughout, as the music sounded rich and strong, while dialogue and ambient sounds came through clearly and crisply. As with the video quality, very nice.
MENUS:: HBO has again delivered outstanding menus for this second season, which are generally the same as the menus that they provided for the first season. "Woke Up This Morning" plays in the background and there's some sleek animation with show-themed images and great transitions between menus. The menus for specific shows are excellent, as well, as they provide summary text and other details about that particular episode. The discs come in the same great fold-out case as they did with the first seasion; the fold-out case rests in a larger, sturdy case.
Commentaries: On the first disc, there is a commentary for "Commendatori", by director Tim Van Patten, who contributes an enjoyable and detailed discussion of what it took to produce the episode and what the show's production process is like in general. He opens the track in an enthusiastic and energetic manner and continues in that fashion throughout, with only a minimum of pauses.
On disc three, "From Where To Eternity" offers a commentary from director Henry Bronchtein and line producer Ilene Landress. The two offer a very good track, but they mainly discuss the show at hand and talk about the filming style of this particular episode. There are a few small comments about the process of making the show in general, but they mainly talk about the technical and story/character details of this particular episode.
Finally, on disc four there are two episodes with commentaries, "The Knight in White Satin Armor" features commentary from Director Allen Coulter, who is paired with Line Producer Ilene Landress and "Funhouse" comes with commentary by Director John Patterson. Both tracks provide an entertaining and informative experience, but Patterson's comes across as the more in-depth of the two.
Featurettes: "The Real Deal" is a short (4 min 50 sec) featurette with various reporters and law officers who discuss how realistic the show is. "A Sit-Down With the Sopranos" is a 13 min 36 sec featurette where the actors discuss what attracted them to their roles and their thoughts on the series.
Also: Nicely done cast/crew bios and awards text, up next/previously promos, DVD-ROM (weblink) and I even spotted an additional promo hidden at the bottom of the "Special Features" menu on the 4th DVD.
Final Thoughts: "The Sopranos: Season Two" continues the show's offering of remarkable writing, great performances and tense atmosphere wonderfully. HBO's DVD set also continues their terrific efforts, with informative and interesting commentary tracks and very good audio/video quality. Fans of the show should definitely seek out the set.