Let's start with the credit sequence.
It's a relatively simple set of images. Yet it speaks volumes about the world of the show that the credits preface.
It's the world of Tony Soprano, and as A3's "Woke up This Morning" plays in the background we are with Tony in his SUV as he comes out of the Holland Tunnel and into New Jersey. The words "Woke up this morning" coincide with a "coming into the light," emerging from out of the tunnel with its fuzzy view of white tiles and ceiling lights into the industrial sprawl of the Garden State.
Tony is driving. The first bit of him we see is his cigar. He appears to be in the kind of mood that we often see him in during a season—irked about something. As he drives, Tony passes the Statue of Liberty. The Twin Towers appear in his read view mirror (will that image be retained in the fourth season's credits?). We see him pass through the Jersey Turnpike's tollbooth. Airplanes pass by. He sees bridges, churches, flat wetlands. He sees a lumberjack statue, a graveyard, and the meat shop that figures in the show (Satriale's). Then row houses, succeeded by more expensive houses with driveways, then woods through which no houses are visible, then finally his own driveway. Basically, we are offered a guided tour of Tony's whole life, from his early days in a poor neighborhood all the way up to suburban ease, from the depths to the heights.
Yes, let's start with the credit sequence because a lot of the genius that is the Sopranos starts with that credit sequence. It contains in brilliant summary the worlds that Tony has passed through to get where he is. And another thing about that sequence—it never gets boring.
Season Three suffered a little criticism from some for being a "come down" from the previous two seasons. In fact, Season Three was the best so far (for me, anyway; Season Two was the one that struck me as a bit of a come down, though I still watch it over and over again, too).
The third season began with the brilliant episode "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood," in which the FBI makes several attempts to plant in bug in Tony's house. By throwing the weight of observation into the lap of the FBI, the episode opened itself to a strain of humor that was often gone from Season Two (in favor of bitter critique of society and the mob's place in it). What was also funny about the first episode is the fact that we can see how the FBI knows very little of what really goes on, not only in the Soprano family but in the real world. When at the end the FBI finally gets its bug installed, they are privy to the mundane aspects of Soprano life, like Tony complaining, "I've had a hair stuck in my teeth for two days."
With the second episode the producers had to write Tony's mother out of the series, but that was fine by me. Objectively speaking, Nancy Marchand was probably great in the role of Tony's manipulative mother, but for me she was a continual bore. To me, her lines and character were fundamentally repetitious and tedious. Once she was out of the picture, however, things perked up. Now, The Sopranos could concentrate on things that were changeable: Tony and his two families.
What's great about The Sopranos is what's great about series television at its best: multiple variations within a bedrock foundation. The brilliant changes in the third season include: Carmela joining Tony in session (when I opened the Sunday New York Times the day the paper previewed the third season and saw that huge photograph of Tony and Carmela sitting next to each other obviously in Dr. Melfi's office, I knew then that the third season would be great); Joe Pantoliano entering as this season's thorn, Ralphie; Meadow having her first sexual experiences; and A. J. showing signs of having the same anxieties as his dad; and Tony getting in deeper with the Russians.
The genius of The Sopranos can be summarized by analyzing a sample episode. Take as an example number five, titled "Another Toothpick." This is the one where Tony and Carmela have their first joint therapy session. It's also the one in which Vesuvio owner Artie is revealed to be in love with Christopher's girlfriend Adriana, Tony is pulled over by a hot-headed cop, and Meadow's relations with her dad are explored. The main thrust of the episode, however, is what to do about a crazy guy nicknamed Mustang Sally, who beats into a coma a friend of the Family for no reason at all. Tony decides to let Bobby Baccalieri, Sr. (Burt Young in an effective one-shot cameo), the dying father of the man babysitting Uncle Junior, to do the hit on Sally: he is Sally's godfather and can get close to him without suspicion. This, of course, upsets his already emotional son. One of the running themes of the third season is the idea of sticking with your own kind (as the theme of the second season was "old school" gangsterism versus new school"). That's Tony's advice to Meadow, who is dating a half-black fellow student. But this episode, like many others, shows just what happens in a mafia family if you stick with your own kind.
Death and change permeate this episode. The title comes from a saying of Tony's mom whenever she saw another cancer victim. Analyze the episode carefully and you can see how every plot point is not only carefully set up (Tony and wife in therapy argue, which makes him drive too fast going home, which means he is pulled over, which means…) but provides a set up for moments in later episodes (Uncle Junior reveals that he has stomach cancer). The series, unlike other shows, benefits greatly from being thought out as a whole. Not just from show to show, but from season to season.
Other great episodes in Season Three include "Employee of the Month" (the one where Melfi is raped, a very hard to take episode), "University" (the one where the stripper gets killed), "The Telltale Moozadell," and "Pine Barrens," arguably the best written episode in the season. The weakest episode is "'To Save Us All From Satan's Power'" which has a Christmas theme of memory and regret, but which just didn't work for me. It was confusing, and there just felt to be something off and coarse about it.
In many ways the show is textbook, traditional series television. As David Chase explains in the forward to the selection of published screenplays (The Sopranos: Selected Scripts from Three Seasons, Warner Books, $16.95, 323 pages, ISBN 0 446 67982 8), the basic template of the show is founded on threes. Each episode tackles a new crisis found in one of the three areas of Tony's life: his family, his Family, and therapy. It's the same formula that john Mortimer uses in his masterly series Rumpole of the Bailey and in that true sit-com, Seinfeld. The best episodes of The Sopranos, as with these other two series, integrate the three strands in a way that can only be called aesthetically pleasing, in the Nabokovian sense. The series also has roots in Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob, which takes a similar look at the vulgarity of upwardly mobile middle class life, and the weird coincidence of the films Analyze This and National Lampoon's Mafia.
As I write this, Season Four is about a week away. There are certain things that we know about it already. First, we know that the first episode will begin with Tony walking down his driveway to get the New Jersey Star (just the way the first three seasons began). And we know that the show will climax with the next-to-last episode (4.12, or number 51), just as in the previous three seasons the real climax came with the penultimate show. The Ralphie story will continue to evolve, and perhaps resolve. Then there's Patsy Parisi, the guy who peed in Tony's pool and later is shown talking about wearing a wire to Tony's mom's funeral and whose blabbermouth twin brother Tony's associate Gigi killed in a previous seasonwhat's he going to do next? (Though I may be mixing him up with another character named Raymond Curto.) And what about Carmela and her crisis of faith and her real estate interests? Who will be her romantic crush be this time around (rumor has it that it's the long haired Italian-import Furio)? And what about Meadow and her rebelliousness? What will become of the esplanade waterfront theme park that Tony and the NY mob are collaborating on? Then there's that decorated Russian hero out in the woods gunning for Christopher and Paulie. And the last time we saw Paulie, Johnny Sack was laying temptation before him to come to the New York side, something he had explicitly denied Ralphie (apparently, Paulie ends up in the slammer on contrived charges). What will Rosalie think when she learns that her boyfriend Ralphie ordered the hit on her own son? More speculation, and a complete three-season episode guide can be found in David Bishop's Bright Lights, Baked Ziti: An Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to The Sopranos (Virgin Books, 285 pages, $9.95, ISBN 0 7535 0584 3).
I can't wait.
VIDEO: On a technical, transfer level, the four single-sided, dual layered discs in this set offer a view of The Sopranos that is even better than the one you get on digital cable. Cinematographer Alik Sakarov's work continues to impress with its subtle shadings and precise framings. He is a master, and God knows he needs to work fast. The image is in widescreen (1.85:1), enhanced for widescreen televisions.
SOUND: The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is adequate to the needs of The Sopranos, but it also comes in DD 5.1, and in French and Spanish. Close captioning is also provided.
MENUS: The animated, musical menus offer a lot of nested screens to get to in order to access the shows. Each episode is divided into six chapters and comes with "Previously On" and "Next On" teasers.
PACKAGING: The four discs come in a foldout gold hued cardboard and plastic digi-pak festooned with studio shots of the Soprano gang. Each disc's label is illustrated with a shot of a lonely boardwalk, a recurrent and poignant destination for Tony.
EXTRAS: Given that this is a four-disc set, the supplements are surprisingly minimal. But that is consistent with the previous two seasons' s worth of discs. The first set had an interview with David Chase conducted on the set by Peter Bogdanovich, and the second set had two featurettes and three episode audio tracks. There's about the same here. Given that one of the tracks is by indie god Steve Buschemi you'd think that the features would be some good stuff, but Steve puts forward a rather dull and inconsistent yak track. Michael Imperioli, who wrote the episode 3.9, "The Telltale Moozadell," does much better, though when talking about the credits at the start, he has Tony driving to work instead of driving home. Mostly he talks about how he got his part and what David Chase brings to the series. His psychological analysis is also fairly obvious stuff. He tells us things we already know about the relationships among the characters. Nevertheless, he is an insider and not without insight, and he notes rightfully for example that Chase and his staff are experts at casting. The whole cast is fine, of course, but as the lead, James Gandolfini is a particularly good catch. He's a man who must have about 400 facial expressions in his repertoire, and can look like everything from a hardened and enraged killer to a little kid.
Finally there is an audio track from the Master himself, David Chase. In a calm, cool voice that belies the fact that he is the Godfather of one of the greatest shows ever put on television, Chase walks us through aspects of the show he likes. In talking about the writing process (as he does in the forward to the script book) Chase indirectly confirms one of my suspicions: that the obliqueness of the series, the subtlety with which way characters and certain plot points are introduced and come and go (note for example the way Jackie Aprile, Jr. was introduced in Season Two), may actually result from last minute cuts to shorten individual episodes. This approach may also explain why there are so many more unfleshed out tangents in Season Three (but then again, Chase is said to have plotted out seasons three and four together).
Other supplements include a four-minute on-location featurette made for HBO, which is slim but does let you hear what Furio actor Federico Castelluccio really sounds like. It also confirms that they shoot the show in 35mm. Plus, there are credits for 17 cast and crew members, a series index on each disc, and DVD-ROM web-link for Windows PC users. One little bit of supplementary material the disc could have included would be Fairuza Balk's two scenes as the FBI plant Deborah Cicerone. After the first airing of that episode, Balk was replaced by Lola Glaudini of NYPD Blue and these two scenes were re-shot with her. Glaudini's scenes are the ones you get on this set (so those of you who taped the series the first time around, hold on to that episode!).