Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
If the networks were serious about stopping audience erosion, all they’d have to do is take a few lessons from The Sopranos, and I don’t mean by doing a dozen crime-themed clones.
The biggest mistakes the networks make is being too twitchy and too fast on the trigger. No show can build an audience when it airs at a different date and time every few weeks. New episodes of The Sopranos air at 9 p.m. Sunday. On the rare occasions HBO changes its time slot, such as pushing it back an hour on Superbowl Sunday, it advertises the change heavily. HBO also makes it easy to see by airing episodes multiple times. NBC and ABC are experimenting with that by allowing repeats of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Once & Again on USA and Lifetime, and it seems to have helped both shows.
HBO's habit of giving series 13-episode commitments helps, too. It gives viewers a chance to get the feel for the show without worrying about it disappearing in the night, and it allows the writers to build a satisfying story arc that won’t be severed prematurely. The first episode of The Sopranos was a touch surreal with Tony’s obsession for the ducks, anxiety attacks, etc. Many viewers didn’t know how to take it, but the show was around long enough to develop an addictive rhythm.
But the main thing that separates The Sopranos from the rest of the television pack is quality. It starts with the writing, continues with the casting all the way down to its authentic New Jersey settings.
Creator David Chase’s characters are all-too human in their obsessions, vulnerabilities and agendas. Malevolent Livia (Nancy Marchand) is the mother from hell all the more dangerous for her subtlety, whereas another program would have simply made her a shrew. Unfulfilled by her marriage and unconsoled by the Church, Carmela (Edie Falco) uses conspicuous consumption in a futile attempt to fill the void in her life. College-bound Meadow is proving to follow the family tradition of manipulation. New cast member Richie Aprile (David Proval), brother to the late mob boss Jackie, is a bizarre mix of old-school tradition, new age practices and powder keg temper. Yet even Richie isn’t immune to Janice Soprano’s (Aida Turturro) tricks. She’s her mother’s daughter in every way, and only time will tell how much scorched earth she leaves behind.
And center stage is Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), struggling to be a good father and husband (not counting his mistress) and trying to uphold old-school mob values amid the grays areas of today. Gandolfini is brilliant and the linchpin for an outstanding show. If any note of his performance rang false, the show would collapse. Instead, the characters are living, breathing people who never cease to surprise us.
Review © 2000 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Accompanying photographs © 2000 HBO.