1. Life & Culture

Does 'The Sopranos' hold up in a binge-watching culture?

The Sopranos’ tough guys who ruled North Jersey: Michael Imperioli (Christopher), James Gandolfini (Tony), Tony Sirico (Paulie), and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio).
The Sopranos’ tough guys who ruled North Jersey: Michael Imperioli (Christopher), James Gandolfini (Tony), Tony Sirico (Paulie), and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio).
Published Aug. 8, 2013

Does The Sopranos hold up compared to today's lofty TV dramas? A first-time viewer weighs in.

I was barely in middle school when The Sopranos debuted in 1999 on HBO. I remember my mom holing up in her bedroom Sunday nights with the door closed to watch it, knowing even then that this show must be something special.

But despite keeping up with lots of other groundbreaking shows of the 2000s, I never delved into the one most people consider the biggest influence on the great dramas of the past decade: The Sopranos. Most of it had to do with accessibility; I didn't get access to HBO Go until earlier this year, and I never felt compelled to drop $100 on a Sopranos box set. Frankly, I also didn't think the show would hold up very well. I once caught part of a rerun a few years back on TNT or something, and thought it looked dated and boring.

But, as a huge fan of TV and a veteran binge-watcher, I knew this was a show I had to see.

I'm deep into the series now, having just finished Season 3. And I have some mixed feelings. When The Sopranos is working, it's clear why it's held in such high regard. In addition to being wildly entertaining (it's surprisingly funny), it's also one of the most profound shows you'll see, one that's left me appalled, excited, sad — sometimes in the same episode. You'll be thinking about what you see long afterward.

Having never seen it before, I was surprised by how much of a slow burn it is. It's not very plot-driven in the same way that, say, Breaking Bad is. In one of the most memorable episodes, "Pine Barrens," the main plot revolves around two characters getting lost in the woods. It's what doesn't happen in that episode that makes it a classic.

What makes The Sopranos most compelling is, well, the Sopranos, led by Tony, who is brought to life by James Gandolfini with a performance that does not disappoint. I had heard a lot of great things about Gandolfini's Tony before I started watching the show, and it's one of the few things that exceeded my expectations upon actual viewing. His performance is rather astonishing (powerful, vulnerable, terrifying), especially when you consider how unlike anything else it was in 1999. It's also worth noting just how spectacular Edie Falco is as Carmela; the show would not be the same with a lesser actor in that role.

The Sopranos isn't the most bingeworthy show out there (I find I can't watch more than a couple episodes at a time without feeling restless, whereas I could watch an entire season of Breaking Bad in a day), but it's one you need to see, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where all this great TV began.

Where to watch it: HBO Go, Amazon, iTunes


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