|Sopranos, The - The Complete Second Season|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 06 November 2001|
I doubt many people expected this combination of a soap opera and a Martin Scorsese gangster movie would turn out to be the dramatic (and sometimes comic) powerhouse that it is. The HBO series is very popular, and also very good; in fact, it's one of the best television series, ever. It's so compellingly watchable that for people without HBO but with a DVD player, the arrival of a complete new season on DVD can throw viewing schedules for a loop. You sit down to watch one, maybe two episodes, and end up working your way through an entire disc. (The first disc here has four episodes, the rest three each.)
As good as the supporting cast is -- every single member -- the series rests firmly on the shoulders of James Gandolfini, who's turning out to be one of the most reliable actors in movies and television today. He has an inherent likability which he can turn to blood-chilling hostility in a fraction of a second. He was perfect casting for Tony Soprano, a high-level Mafioso living in New Jersey, who's trying very hard to balance his responsibilities as a mobster with those of a husband and father. It rarely works all that well.
In fact, as the first season opened, Tony had reached an emotional impasse, and began seeing psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), who didn't take long to recognize Tony for what he really is. But she continued to see him all the way through the first season, though as the second one -- this boxed set -- opens, she "fires" him as a patient. One of the more significant plot threads is how this affects both of them.
Another deals with Tony's long-time friend and right-hand-man Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), who disappeared at the end of the first season, but turns up at once in the second. He's been off to Puerto Rico for a rest cure, he explains, and Tony, who loves his friend, buys into this at once. But we soon learn that Big Pussy is the FBI informant whose activities became apparent in the first season (and for which the wrong guy was whacked). Underscoring almost every episode in the second season is a touch of suspense about whether Big Pussy will be found out. Pastore's wonderful combination of hang-dog/teddybear cuddliness and a cold, cruel strength make Big Pussy one of the most interesting of all "Sopranos" characters
Yet another storyline involves Tony's slightly older sister Janice (Aida Turturro), who returns from a decidedly Bohemian life recently spent mostly in Seattle. At about the same time, Richie Aprile (David Proval) is released from prison; a long-time Soprano family associate, he hopes to step right back into the spot he left, but his methods are a bit old-fashioned, as Tony sees it. Tony is hardly above whacking someone, but he's more likely to casually drive an old friend into bankruptcy than take him off at the knees.
Richie tries to appeal to Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), Tony's uncle who thinks of himself as the head of the Soprano clan. But Junior has had a lot of his power stripped, and he's under literal house arrest -- a monitoring device on his ankle means he can't go anywhere. Richie, however, DOES appeal to Janice; they had had a fling years back, and they begin to take up where they left off, which doesn't please Tony, though he can't find any solid objections.
And of course, there's always Tony's mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), who begins the season in the rest home she entered in the first season. She's more cruel and vicious than any of the Mafia killers we meet, because her cruelties are always and only directed at the people who love her (or at least try to). She's endlessly self-pitying, endlessly manipulative. The pungent characterization is worthy of a Shakespearian drama, an aging Lady Macbeth. But this time, Livia comes in for some manipulation herself; Janice has plans for Livia's house and whatever else she can finagle.
The second season also features Tony's visit to Italy, and his nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) trying out various crime -- and otherwise -- schemes. It turns out, surprisingly, that Christopher is an excellent actor, but he has no way of controlling his powerful emotions. He hopes to sell a screenplay, but Christopher finds that Hollywood people can be just as ruthless in their way as any mobster. This also features the episode -- written by Imperioli -- in which Christopher becomes convinced that in a moment of clinical death (he was gunned down by two associates who were trying to impress Richie), he has been to Hell.
Each episode is partly self-contained, and partly advances some of the ongoing plot threads. One of the most interesting is when Carmela (Edie Falco), Tony's wife, becomes convinced that the only way to keep their daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) from going to college in far-away (and very liberal) Berkeley is to get her into Georgetown. She asks the well-placed sister of a friend for a letter of recommendation; when she's turned down, she puts Mafia-like pressure on the woman until she relents. And Carmela remains completely unaware of the wrong she's done.
One of the more wryly interesting threads is how Tony tries at times to justify his bloody life to Dr. Malfi. But of all the gangsters we see, it is only Tony who remains aware, on some level, that what he's doing as a Mafiosa is simply wrong. The killing, that is; he has not even the faintest moral problem with running phone card and plane ticket scams. Tony is a strong figure, but there is throughout the series an undercurrent of tragedy. In the first season, we were utterly shocked when we first saw him kill someone -- and this happened several episodes in. But it was absolutely necessary to the overall story; we have to be constantly aware that the Sopranos are not the good guys.
These boxed-set DVDs actually are the ideal way to see a series as hypnotically engrossing as "The Sopranos." You DON'T have to wait a week to see the outcome; the character interactions and links, the plot details, even the background elements, are easier to keep track of when you can watch several episodes in a row. The boxed set also includes a couple of featurettes, but, frankly, who cares? The show itself is so terrific that the discs could be completely devoid of any extras, and it would be a must-have, double-bag, purchase. The only difficulty is waiting a year for the NEXT season to be released.