More than simply “The Godfather Sees a Shrink,” the brilliant made-for-cable drama The Sopranos gave “family crisis” a whole new meaning and television drama a new sophistication. Emmy winner James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, a blue collar guy in an upper-middle class neighborhood, battles panic attacks and assassination attempts as he juggles two families: his wife, kids, and bitter, emasculating mother (a brilliant Nancy Marchand, who died after the filming the second season), and the New Jersey mob. Lorraine Bracco is the therapist who tries to helps Tony balance a middle class existence and a violent criminal lifestyle and ends up uneasy about her relationship to Tony as she finally understands the depth of his criminal activity. The first season turned into a cultural phenomenon and the highest rated HBO original series ever. The second season introduced David Provall as Ritchie Apprio, the angry, unstable mobster who bristles under Tony’s leadership and clashes with the family in his rogue activities. After the melodramatic rollercoaster of the second season, season three simmers with troubled allegiances, complicated relationships, and the devastating effects of the family business on the conflicted emotions of the Soprano children and mob wife Carmella (Emmy winner Edie Falco), who struggles with her inherent complicity in Tony’s job. By the end of the six-season run, Tony and the New Jersey mob goes to war with Phil Leotardo and the New York mob in the wake of a leadership vacuum, wife Carmella comes to terms with the realities of being a mob wife, Tony’s nephew and heir-apparent Christopher (Michael Imperioli) makes a dramatic exit, and creator David Chase ends it all on a finale that evocatively proclaims that the mob life will never afford the Soprano family closure. The end thrilled, impressed, frustrated, and enraged viewers. American couldn’t stop talking about it and parodies sprouted across the media spectrum, not the least of which was a Hillary Clinton campaign spot!
Written with a marvelous ear for language and a sharp sense of character, The Sopranos made full use of the no holds barred opportunities of cable with shocking violence, casual sex, and epithet laced gangster-speak. But more importantly, it dropped the gangster drama into the modern world with intelligence and insight: these are mobsters whose lore is informed by the movies as much as by history. This series didn’t so much change the face of television as it showed what was possible. Shows as disparate as The Shield, Six Feet Under, Mad Men and The Wire owe their existence to the creative energy and cultural embrace of The Sopranos and for that alone the show earns its place in the pantheon of American television landmarks.
The complete 86-episode series, from the panic attack that opens the show to the abrupt ending, is collected on 28 discs in a hefty, 56-page album-style case with slipsleeve pages. This handsome collection (in basic black with red accents) features all the commentary tracks and featurettes of the previous releases plus two new discs of supplements highlighted by substantial interviews with the cast and creators (over dinner, in front of an audience, and David Chase one-on-one with Alec Baldwin, who desperately wanted Chase to create a role for him in the show). Also features deleted “lost scenes” and parodies of the show along and three bonus CDs of music from the show. This is a worthy presentation of one of the shows that changed the face of TV drama.
The other major highlight this week is a TV landmark of an earlier generation:
The Studio One Anthology from Koch collects 17 production from the anthology TV series that presented over 450 live TV productions in its ten season run from 1948 and 1958. Among the offerings were adaptations of classic literature and plays and original dramas by Reginald Rose, Rod Serling and Gore Vidal, all which are sampled in the eight-disc set. The original version of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, starring Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone and directed with dynamic moving camera style by Franklin Schaffner, is the most famous production in the set. Subsequently adapted by Rose into both a famous feature film and a stage play, this is the original form of the drama, a teleplay in a tight 50 minutes sans commercials. Though this production is presented without the commercials, the rest of the productions are presented with the original commercials (also performed live) intact as originally shown and recorded on kinescope, a 16mm film copy filmed directly from a TV screen (which is how any live TV was preserved in the days before videotape). As you can imagine, the quality is primitive, but the low-fidelity sound and image is part of the texture of the show and the discs effectively turn all modern high-definition set into primitive B&W TVs watching the production over the airwaves (the shows were also pre-cable and -satellite). The eight-disc set also includes interviews and featurettes on the show and a very informative booklet.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
Movies: Takashi Miike’s tribute to spaghetti westerns Sukiyaki Western Django, Christophe Honore’s musical tribute to the nouvelle vague Love Songs and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army:
The rich visual imagination is more compelling than the narrative this time around as Hellboy and his lady love, the emotionally volatile pyrokinetic Liz (Selma Blair), take on an ancient elemental who declares war on the human race that is dooming his own people to extinction. Del Toro never quite taps the tragedy inherent in the conflict or the heat in the touchy romance between Hellboy and Liz, but he does create a dense mythology and an imaginative visualization to match.
TV: Complete series collections of The Cosby Show and Batman: The Complete Animated Series, the Canadian detective series The Murdock Mysteries Movie Collection and M Squad: The Complete Series:
“Chicago. That’s my town.” Lee Marvin stars as Lt. Frank Ballinger, the plainclothes cop on the elite M Squad of the Chicago PD, and he anchors this lean half-hour crime drama with the easy confidence that soon made him a star. Much of the show was shot on location in the city and the set to a jazzy score (Count Basie provided the theme song for the show’s second season), which helped give it a distinct sensibility.
Patrick McGoohan is Dr. Christopher Syn, alias The Scarecrow, in Disney’s adaptation of the Russell Thorndike novels about a rural country priest in 18th century Britain who leads a double life as a masked smuggler and gangleader, a kind of Robin Hood by way of Batman. The three hour-long adventures broadcast on “Disneyland” were subsequently edited into a feature film. This two-disc set includes both versions (remastered in widescreen) as well as a featurette and introductions by film historian Leonard Maltin.
Say what you want to about Oliver Stone, America’s pop historian auteur knows how to court controversy. His 1991 epic conspiracy drama tosses plenty of theories around as facts and turns one man’s conspiracy theory into “the answer” with such assuredness that it may have convinced an entire generation. It is an entertaining theory, to be sure, and he makes an entertaining film of it with the help of a massive cast, many of them delivering sideshow style performances.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.