'The Sopranos' First Episodes: THR's 1999 Review

The Sopranos S01 Still - H 2015
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On Jan. 10, 1999 at 9 pm, America met Tony Soprano. The Hollywood Reporter's original review of The Sopranos, published days before the HBO Sunday night premiere, is below: 

Grandma is reclusive and forgetful but she doesn't want to move from the house she's lived in forever; the rebellious teenage daughter keeps getting caught sneaking out to join her friends. The wife is looking for something more spiritual in life; the husband misses the good old days of pride and craftsmanship.

Sounds like Any Family USA, right? Not quite. In The Sopranos, an attention-grabbing one hour series that is an uncanny mix of family, force and felonies, Dad just happens to be a leader in organized crime, and "business" means setting up a system of phone insurance claims, labor racketeering and keeping legitimate competition out of the trash collection — oops, waste management — business.

Whatsamatter? You think crime bosses don't have personal problems and family aggravation? Hey, they're just like the rest of us. When they do strap on their weapons, they do it one gun at a time.

The stories in this HBO production in association with Brillstein Grey Entertainment are told mainly through a series of flashbacks while Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini of A Civil Action) visits psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco of GoodFellas) after suffering anxiety attacks, which are symptoms of his midlife crisis.

The Sopranos' challenge is to convince its audience that, when the truck hijackings are over and the kneecaps are bandaged, this is just another family with the same kinds of problems to which we can all relate. Without that element of self-recognition, The Sopranos would be little more than The Godfather meets DiResta. Executive producer-creator-writer-director David Chase rises to the challenge though, with incredibly absorbing scripts and the help of a remarkable cast.

Gandolfini makes Tony an Everyman, which is no easy task. Edie Falco (Oz) plays Tony's wife, Carmela, with a winning mix of family loyalty and a fondness for the suburban lifestyle. Nancy Marchand (Lou Grant) is outstanding as Livia Soprano, Tony's infuriating mother, and the subject of his unacknowledged love-hate relationship.

The premiere episode weaves an intricate tale of family and "family" that includes, among other things, Tony's attachment to a family of wild ducks. Subsequent episodes are loaded with good stories and strong performances, though none provide as touching a metaphor.

Director Chase chooses shots carefully to keep levels of gore from becoming excessive, not a small achievement here. Also worth noting are production designer Edward Pisoni's sets, all of which are particularly well-considered. — Barry Garron