The Sopranos has forever left a benchmark in television history. The gritty character study introduced a new form of the protagonist, The Antihero, and managed to become one of the most compelling pieces of entertainment to ever grace the landscape of television. The show made its debut on January 10, 1999, and after six seasons, it put the nail on the coffin in 2007. The finale is a divisive piece that is still talked about until this day, but what about the pilot? It’s been over 20 years since The Sopranos made its debut on HBO. Times have changed and so has the world of movies and television. Edgier and dark content has since come out following the end of The Sopranos, does the pilot still entice you to watch the next episode? Or has time gotten better of the first episode and is now an out-of-touch piece of entertainment? Let’s dive deeper into the very first episode of The Sopranos.
The opening of The Sopranos was pretty clever. This is a show about a New Jersey mobster, and it could’ve opened up with Christopher murdering Emil Kolar in the back room of Satriale’s Deli in cold blood and retraced the events that led to the shocking moment. Or even the sequence of Tony tracking down Alex Mahaffey, a compulsive gambler, and hilariously running him over and beating him down with his nephew Christopher. But it doesn’t. Instead, David Chase opts to start out with Tony’s first day at the psychiatrist and the two discuss the events leading up to his collapse at the family barbeque. This opening is brilliant because it establishes that The Sopranos isn’t some gangster-orientated series that follows him and his crew. Yes, the show is about Tony and the business practices of the DiMeo crime family, but it’s also a deep character study and family drama regarding Tony Soprano’s lifestyle and how it’s affecting him as a human being.
The first few minutes of the pilot are there to showcase that Tony is a decent guy, who happens to love ducks. It establishes his family and the overall dynamic, but more importantly, the ducks represent what Tony truly wants out of life: love. He’s surely not getting that from his mother, who consistently berates the mobster any chance she gets. The reason we don’t particularly hate Tony is that he’s presented as a decent guy who doesn’t exactly have much of a happy upbringing. You don’t get many scenes with Tony and his mother, Livia, but you understand the gist of their relationship and how she may have shaped the man that he’s become. Tony is a kind man who you can have beers with at the bar, but he won’t hesitate to put a bullet in your head if you dare cross him. He’s the boss and has no problem flexing his muscles, but he’s not a crazed psychopath like Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas.
The entire first episode is paced very well. The shows introduce the characters organically and nicely establishes their personality. You understand that Tony is the boss. Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero is the wise and loyal (at least for now) solider, and Christopher is a bit of loose cannon. Granted, we don’t get the exposure of the entire crew, but we get a strong sense of Tony’s world and the rules and morals that he abides to. As I previously mentioned, this also a family drama, so in addition to understanding Tony Soprano, we get various threads involving his wife and kids, who are given a distinct personality. Sure, the mother/daughter drama doesn’t do much for me as a viewer, but in terms of characters, it’s an essential moment that helps define the type of parents that Tony and Carmela are. Meadow is clearly a dad’s girl type based on her interactions with the mob boss, and Carmela is kind of the stereotypical, tough no non-sense mother who obviously loves her daughter but doesn’t treat her like a friend. It’s an integral part of a larger story and it’s great that the show took the time to focus on the important aspects of Tony’s life other than the gangster side. He’s a man that can feel love, happiness, sorrow, pain, and it opens up numerous avenues on where to go with Tony Soprano following the first episode. The pilot manages to balance the comedy and drama together effortlessly. Tony’s wild car chase was obviously played for laughs, whereas Christopher’s kill was a serious endeavor. The tones never clash because Chase understands his world, thus the narrative never loses sight on the overall direction of the show. The pilot episode of The Sopranos still does a masterful job of throwing you into the world of the DiMaeo crime family. It’s smart, funny, and compelling, and comes to as close as perfect as possible.