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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 1/4/01

The Sopranos: The Complete First Season
1999 (2000) - Brad Grey Television/HBO (HBO)

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Sopranos: The Complete First Season Program Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/B

Specs and Features
Approx. 680 mins (13 episodes at 43-60 minutes each), NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, 4 single-sided, RSDL dual-layered discs (3 discs with 4 episodes each and 1 disc with 1 episode plus extras), custom "library box" packaging, commentary track on The Sopranos (pilot episode) with creator David Chase and moderator Peter Bogdanovich, 77-minute interview with David Chase by Peter Bogdanovich, 2 behind-the-scenes featurettes, "Next on" and "Previously on" trailers for each episode, text plot summaries for each episode, PC Friendly DVD-ROM features on the 4th disc (including a family tree, episode summaries, interviews and weblinks), animated program-themed menus with music, scene access (6 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0), Spanish (DD mono), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

"Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun…"

Since David Lynch's Twin Peaks departed ABC in 1991, television drama has been adrift in a sea of lawyers, doctors and police detectives - and the worst part is that one lawyer show is virtually indistinguishable from the next. What happened to originality? What happened to the quality and craftsmanship of stories and character development? And most of all, what the hell happened to good old-fashioned acting? Thankfully, HBO's original series The Sopranos is a cool, refreshing drink of water. Some argue that what makes this show unique is its frank depiction of reality. This isn't kids stuff - there's graphic violence, strong language, drug usage and nudity. To be fair, a cable network like HBO can freely air such content without much worry of the dreaded censor, while the four major broadcast networks would never recover from the fallout of angered viewers. However, let's be experimental. Delete the crimson spray of gunshot wounds to the head, the trio of strippers in Tony Soprano's club and the barrage of four-letter words uttered throughout an average episode. What you're left with is a show that's fit for NBC or CBS, yet still remains completely original and expertly written. It's a program that's arguably better than any other drama on the air, and that would surely draw primetime viewers away from courtrooms and ERs. But given that even a censored version of The Sopranos would still be a cut above most broadcast television cookie-cutter fare, that extra wallop of violent, graphic reality ties the series together and makes it that more powerful.

HBO Home Video has given fans of The Sopranos something very special on DVD - a 4-disc boxed set containing the entire first season of the series (the first three dual-layered discs contain four episodes each, while the fourth dual-layered disc has the season finale and the supplemental features). And surprise - given that the show is presented in full frame with stereo surround on TV, HBO has upped the ante by presenting it in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 on disc. As if that weren't enough, HBO has delivered this set in nicely deluxe packaging. The 4 discs are contained in a red foil gatefold package, that fits neatly within a sturdy, black outer "library" case reminiscent of a cigar box. Believe me when I tell you that the whole presentation is very classy.

Let's start with a disc-by-disc rundown of the episodes included in this set, and then we'll talk about the quality of the video, audio and supplements:

Disc One

The Sopranos (Episode 1 - Pilot) - Meet Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini giving the best television performance of the decade). The stresses of being a husband, father of two teens and son to a mentally deteriorating mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), coupled with the sizable stress of being a New Jersey Mafia capo, are causing Tony to experience debilitating panic attacks. So he begins to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). But if word of this spread to his "associates", it would most assuredly cause Tony even bigger problems - wiseguys as a rule don't like people who "talk". Meanwhile, Junior Soprano (Tony's uncle and fellow capo, played by Dominic Chianese) wants to use Tony's favorite restaurant for a hit... so Tony finds a unique solution to the problem.

46 Long (Episode 2) - Tony's over-zealous nephew and foot soldier Chris (Michael Imperioli) and his friend Brendan start hijacking trucks that belong to a shipping company that pays Uncle Junior for protection. When Uncle Junior demands that Chris and Brendan return the stolen goods and pay him a tribute, it only adds to Tony's headaches. And all this while Tony tries to do something nice for a change... like recovering a stolen Saturn belonging to his son's science teacher.

Denial, Anger, Acceptance (Episode 3) - Things continue to heat up between Uncle Junior, Chris and Brendan, when a very influential Livia starts putting ideas into Junior's head. Meanwhile, the current boss of the family (and Tony's friend), Jackie Aprile, is suffering with inoperable cancer. And Tony's new business partner - a Hasidic hotel owner - is giving him fits over their "agreement".

Meadowlands (Episode 4) - Tony pays sleazy police detective Vin Makazian (John Heard) to investigate Dr. Melfi's background. Meanwhile, the family capos decide that while Jackie Aprile is incapacitated, Tony should be the boss. Tony agrees, but wants Uncle Junior to think he's running the show.

Disc Two

College (Episode 5) - Considered the de facto best episode of The Sopranos, this episode elegantly captures everything the show is about. While Tony is on a trip with his daughter in Maine touring college campuses, he spots Febby Petrulio - a made man who snitched to the Feds and joined the Witness Protection program. So between shuttling his daughter from campus to campus, Tony tries to settle the score. Meanwhile, back in Jersey, the family parishioner visits Tony's wife Carmela (Edie Falco), but he's got more on his mind than ziti and old movies.

Pax Soprana (Episode 6) - When Jackie dies, Uncle Junior officially takes over as boss (in title only… remember, Tony's really running things). Unfortunately, Junior decides not to share the wealth with his capos (as they've been used to in the past), so Tony is called upon to smooth things over. But Tony's got another problem to deal with as well - as a side effect of the Prozac his psychologist has prescribed, he's having a little trouble "getting it up". And the only thing that excites him anymore are sexual dreams about Dr. Melfi!

Down Neck (Episode 7) - Tony's son, Anthony, Jr., is caught stealing sacramental wine at his Catholic school, when shows up to gym class drunk. The school psychologist thinks Anthony might have ADD, but Tony's afraid his son might be following in his trouble-making footsteps. As part of his punishment, Anthony, Jr. must visit his grandmother every day in her retirement community. Unfortunately, he lets it slip that his dad's in psychotherapy - information that's sure to find its way to Uncle Junior.

The Legend of Tennessee Moltisante (Episode 8) - Talk of upcoming Federal indictments has the Soprano crew running to cover up incriminating evidence of their "business". But Chris is depressed when his name isn't among those mentioned in the media as being "important members of the Soprano gang". What's a young, hard-working Mafioso have to do to get some respect?

Disc Three

Boca (Episode 9) - The stress over the indictments continues to escalate, so Uncle Junior takes a vacation in Boca Raton with his girlfriend. But upon returning, he discovers that she's accidentally let it slip to her friends that Junior has "quite a taste for her" - something wiseguys consider a sign of weakness. Word gets around, and when Tony kids Junior about it, Junior sees red. Meanwhile, Tony discovers that his daughter's soccer coach had sex with one of his players, and Tony must decide if he should personally settle the matter or let the cops handle it.

A Hit is a Hit (Episode 10) - Chris and his girlfriend decide to "test the water" in the music business, by managing a heavy metal band. But the road to success travels through the domain of a greedy, sleazy gangsta rapper. Also, Tony and Carmela decide to expand their social horizons by becoming friendlier with their more "respectable" neighbors.

Nobody Knows Anything (Episode 11) - The Soprano crew has a rat, and all signs point to Tony's dearest friend, Big Pussy. Tony is torn apart by the news and contemplates a hit on his friend - a decision that isn't made any easier when Pussy suddenly disappears. As if that weren't bad enough, Tony's relationship with Uncle Junior officially becomes grim. The heat is definitely on...

Isabella (Episode 12) - Ever since the disappearance of Big Pussy, Tony's been suffering from a major bout of depression. Even the lithium Dr. Melfi's added to his prescriptions isn't helping - now Tony's depressed and drugged out. But life looks up a bit for Tony when he meets Isabella, a ravishingly beautiful Italian girl that's house-sitting for his neighbors. Still... have you ever had one of those days when it seems like somebody wants you dead? In this case, somebody really DOES want Tony dead.

Disc Four

I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano (Episode 13) - While Tony recovers from the attempt on his life, he figures out who contracted the hit. And when the Feds corner Tony and play him a recording, it only reinforces his conclusion. The Feds offer him a deal to turn snitch, but Tony's out for revenge. He warns Dr. Melfi that she might be in danger... and then starts tying up loose ends.

That about covers all the episodes from the first season. Quality programming deserves a quality audio/video presentation, and while The Sopranos: The Complete First Season might fall shy of the "reference" label, HBO has gone above and beyond to make these discs special. HBO surprised everyone by presenting the episodes in this boxed set in anamorphic widescreen (framed at 1.78:1) - pretty impressive considering that they're shown in full frame on television. Overall, the picture is impressive, but evidence of compression artifacting does pop up here and there. The video can also be a bit noisy in places. Color and contrast are generally accurate, but the pilot episode is noticeably darker than the remaining 12 entries. That said, most of the time the video on these discs appears very smooth and detailed, portraying a convincingly cinematic look. The Sopranos is shot on film, and the creators make it a point to shoot each episode like a mini-movie. The cinematography on every episode is first-rate, and the DVD format is definitely the best way to experience it.

Let's talk audio quality. Presented on HBO in stereo surround, The Sopranos has been remixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital for DVD. While the audio always sounds smooth and clear, it's not an especially active mix. The surrounds are used almost exclusively for music fill, with only occasional ambience heard during the on-screen action. Much of the soundtrack is very screen-oriented, but the front soundstage is nice and spacious. A Dolby Digital 2.0 matrix surround mix is also included (the 5.1 version edges it slightly in dynamics, as expected).

While this boxed set is not as feature-laden as I would have liked, HBO did throw in a few extras. There are two behind-the-scenes featurettes, which are less than five minutes each and were probably used on HBO to advertise the show. They offer almost no insight into the series, and are barely worth mentioning. A commentary track with the show's creator, David Chase, runs through the pilot episode. It's fairly informative, but Chase is a rather bland speaker. Don't fret though, because the real treat of the supplements is the 77-minute interview with David Chase by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. This interview covers almost everything a fan of The Sopranos would want to know, from the genesis of the show to the development, writing and music… you name it. While I normally like to see more variety of features on disc, this interview provides enough depth and information to cover all the bases. The only missing element on this set is more involvement by the cast. I'm sure I'm not the only Sopranos fan out there that would like to hear an interview or commentary with James Gandolfini or Edie Falco. Gandolfini has so much presence and power on the show, that I'm totally drawn into not only his character, but also Gandolfini as a person and his acting style. I want to know more! My hope is that when The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season debuts on DVD, HBO will leave off the fluffy promo pieces, and offer more with Chase, Gandolfini and the rest of the cast. A really good documentary would also be a welcome addition to future supplements.

While the DVD format is a collector's medium, it's not often that a studio will release a title (or titles) that can truly be considered special. It's even more rare when that kind of treatment is given to a TV series (only Fox's X-Files DVD sets have really stood out thus far). Rest assured, you can definitely add The Sopranos: The Complete First Season to the elite list of the best the DVD format has to offer. The Sopranos is not only a benchmark of television drama, it's also one of the most provocative shows to debut in years. If you've missed it on cable, this is the perfect opportunity to see what everybody's been talking about for the last two years. Highly recommended.

Greg Suarez

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