A film has only one chance to make its impression, but a television show can add layers to itself every seven days. Most programs don't take advantage of that, but few have done better than HBO's
The Sopranos. The first season, released in a four-DVD set, allows one to savor The Sopranos, which quickly became one of the most confident and insightful shows on television. Early on, David Chase's portrait of the private and professional life of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano teeters on the edge of parody. Tony himself, artfully played by James Gandolfini, is believably complicated and conflicted, emerging as a family man (in both the literal and colloquial senses of the word) depressed by the slow rot of his own inner life. His sessions with psychotherapist Jennifer Melfi ( Lorraine Bracco) help in some ways (through a new understanding of his family's importance, and a Prozac prescription) and hurt in others (his continued "anti-social" behavior and an intense case of doctor-patient transference), but never go over-the-top. It's Tony's fellow gangsters who feel exaggerated at first, though the crew develops quickly in the first season from well-acted stereotypes who spend a lot of time quoting Al Pacino movies into legitimately multi-dimensional characters. These supporting performances, most notably by Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore, give the show's mafia moments the juice they need to transcend parody. The other Soprano family members -- an upper-middle class nuclear unit that worries about upper-middle class things -- is that rare portrayal of suburban life: one drawn with care and humor without condescension, and with attention to regional and ethnic detail. Ultimately, though, what makes The Sopranos so good is its unfailing dedication to its characters. Their lives are fully and richly imagined, steeped in a deep understanding of suburbia by writers and directors who know what they're doing and care about doing it intelligently. No show since Homicide: Life on the Street has created so nuanced a world; one packed with real ironies, ambiguities, and quiet truths. Who would've thought the artistic high road would look so much like the New Jersey Turnpike?
Barnes & Noble - Dave Roth