In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, a family of ducks turns out to be an important key to unlocking anxiety-ridden mobster Tony Soprano’s psyche. His therapist brings him to tears suggesting that watching the ducks fly away from his pool triggered his fear of losing his family.
I was dazzled by this pilot. I had not expected to like The Sopranos. I thought it would be “cool” in the way that action movies with some degree of experimentation are cool. I did not expect it to be a family drama with a knack for nailing every convention of storytelling with a degree of subtlety rarely seen on T.V. Now that I’ve finished the whole series, I’m ranking it #1. Best show. Best golden era show. Best everything. Here is why. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)
1. Nothing is pointless on The Sopranos
Rarely is there drama for drama’s sake or experimentation just to be edgy. Every explosion of anger, car wreck, death or panic attack is tied to a deep motive or frustration of a character.
2. The Sopranos isn’t “smart”
The show does not need to make oblique references to philosophy or literature every thirty seconds to prove that it’s good. At two distinct points, badass mobsters have a deep guffaw at a Big Mouth Billy Bass. It knows it’s smart so it doesn’t have to beat you over the head with it.
3. The Sopranos understands women
I expected a very male dominated show when I started The Sopranos. I did not expect a character like Carmela Soprano to make me think so hard about how religion and money can cause a marriage to fester. I did not expect scenes like mob wives praising Hillary Clinton not for her politics but for making the most of getting publicly cheated on. This might not seem like a big deal but some other “golden age” shows offer little in terms of female characters, including Breaking Bad and The Wire. (Loved Jane but she was gone too soon.)
The Sopranos uses animals to unlock deep parts of people’s characters or as catalysts for action in a masterful way. The ducks. Tony’s dad giving their family dog to his girlfriend. Tony’s anger when his horse dies. In season six, a cat stares at a picture of Christopher in a way that unsettles all the other mobsters.
5. Few characters are left underdeveloped
By the end of the show, even minor characters have had plotlines that revealed their inner workings. Johnny Sack’s wife’s addiction to candy bars. Vito’s son wearing makeup after his father is killed. (For what it’s worth my favorite characters were Carmela, Christopher, Junior and Tony’s mother Livia. Scenes with Janice were rarely boring either.)
6. The death of characters asks rather than answers questions
Some characters’ deaths are treated with great angst and soul searching. Some are jarringly fast and meaningless.I couldn’t stop thinking about what the show was trying to say with how disproportionately fast and meaningless Jackie Junior’s death was.
7. The ending
I had trouble getting the motivation to watch season six because everyone told me it was horrible. I didn’t want to ruin a show I had loved so much. Here is why it’s worse, in my opinion. In episode one, the show sets up an illusion of reality that is created by characters rarely overtly discussing or acknowledging that their lives are anything other than ordinary. The mafia is tangential and personal dramas are front and center. In season six this contract is broken when the press covers Tony being in the hospital, Carmela talks about her attraction to his criminal activity and Christopher makes his mafia movie. That said, I liked the ending. Don’t stop believing.
Will a show ever be better than The Sopranos? Probably. You might be saying, “The Wire is better duhhhhh.” Again this is only my opinion. I enjoy hearing what other people consider the best shows of the golden age of T.V. Feel free to leave your ranking in the comments. (My next two would probably be Mad Men and Friday Night Lights, fwiw. I like shows with lots of women in them.)