The mob life, a middle-aged Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) comes to learn inside his northern New Jersey enclave, isn’t the good life anymore. There’s a breakdown in the system, within the Soprano family and in Tony’s personal definition of manhood; it manifests itself in anxiety attacks that have Soprano making regular trips to psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). From these visits spin every Soprano tale — some morose, some wickedly funny, all uncommonly personal — and their distinctive tone will capture a patient audience looking for an intelligent episodic that isn’t sex and shoot-’em-ups.
Soprano proves Joe Fox, Tom Hanks’ character in “You’ve Got Mail,” was clearly onto something when he theorized that all of life’s troubles can be solved with a quip from “The Godfather.” One thug, for example, starts to lose his cool when another can’t comprehend “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” — a sign that HBO’s team has not only done its homework but come up with clever twists on one of the most saturated film subjects of the last 30 years. Foremost, this 13-seg series fleshes out the family side of wiseguys in the waste-management and food-service businesses.
Series begins with Tony Soprano curiously embracing the arrival in the swimming pool of a family of ducks. Wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and their kids, Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler), figure dad has cracked and belongs at a nut farm; unbeknownst to anyone, he’s already seeing a shrink, a secret that has its own code of silence.
Expository nature of the first two segments allows characters to enter and develop. Once the characters are drawn, director and writer David Chase travels through the mundane and average (touring nursing homes, attending a school musical, visiting a friend in the hospital) before making the de rigueur mob stops: dumping a body, roughing up the non-cooperatives, making peace with an opposing force. For review, the first four episodes were watched in marathon fashion and the four flowed nicely, texture giving way to action as the series develops.
Chase acutely composes each individual with nuance: hotheads hoping to become “made men”; Soprano’s elderly mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), who can’t quite care for herself anymore; the Bucco couple (John Ventimiglia and Katherine Narducci) fighting mob ties and then rebuilding their business and relationship.
The innocence and ignorance of son Anthony pasted against oh-so-knowing daughter Meadow, who’s trying to grow up as fast as possible, enhances this definition of the insularity of a mob household. Carmela longs for greater social standing and more understanding from her husband, and her sharpness in picking her spots is am-plified by each episode’s script. When she treats an “old friend” the way she does her household help during a benefit party, the obviousness with which Chase frames yields a lasting impression about her character.
Gandolfini plays Tony Soprano introspectively but without the hushed tones that generally signal a personal crisis in these sorts of roles. He appears out of step with the modern world — virtually every action and reaction around him follows no code of ethics or respect, or at least any that he can comprehend. Gandolfini does a lot with body language, and his mood is nicely limned in virtually every scene; it can be summed up as a midlife crisis, yet it feels like so much more; life will never be the same. Eventually, Tony Soprano’s only comfortable with a handful of friends and his psychiatrist.
Dr. Melfi is kept smartly cold in Soprano’s presence. Bracco plays her with a sexy sophistication in his presence; away from her celebrated patient, she has a liveliness that perks up in episode four.
Michael Imperioli gives impassioned perfs throughout as the impetuous Christopher, Tony’s nephew who’s angling for made-man status but just can’t help himself when it comes to crime. His demands mirror those of the outside world for Tony Soprano — out of character for the mob, too removed from the family’s own sense of right and wrong and still, somehow, a worthy confidant who may someday ascend to a powerful position.
Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) coldly balances his roles as family friend, boss-in-waiting and Tony’s chief threat to his fiefdom. Guitarist and former E Streeter Steve Van Zandt makes a very Jersey, very Italian-American acting debut as one of Tony’s henchmen.
Pace of the series is very deliberate, with few tricks of the camera. Lighting, however, seems erratic as the filmic hue of the darker scenes doesn’t necessarily translate on the small screen.
Series takes a page from “Casino” in using vintage rock ‘n’ roll rather than a score, dropping in Link Wray, doo-wop and Booker T. & the MG’s. Running Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” over seg 1’s closing credits is deliciously apropos.