I grew up without HBO. The first time I ever really learned about the possible quality of what the network had to offer was in college when I was introduced to both The Sopranos and Deadwood (the latter of which I devoured in about the exact runtime of the show played nonstop until its conclusion).
But The Sopranos eluded me. And I don't exactly know why. The show was a bit of a juggernaut as far as critics go and I'm not one to stay away from something related to the mafia. It was a bit daunting since it had finished its 6 season run (the final season is 21 episodes) and I was looking at about 86 hours of television to put myself through. At that point I really wasn't a big TV watcher anyway and had spent most of my time trying to catch up on as many films as humanly possible.
But late in my college career I discovered Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, rediscovered Deadwood, and suddenly realized that though its an extreme case, television can occasionally be an art form. And after becoming an avid reader of The AV Club I came to realize that The Sopranos sits right on top of the hierarchy of quality television. All that in mind, I decided to give it a go.
The first season of most TV shows has a lot of work to do. They need to introduce a universe, and their characters. The universe is New Jersey so that's easily done. The characters, and Sopranos has a ton, was a bit more complicated. Watching the first season about 13 years after it premiered makes a lot of fashion choices on the show extremely laughable. Not because the wardrobe choices are bad but because they're true to form. We actually used to dress that way, and what's worse, a lot of people still do.
The actors that portray all the main characters are brilliant and as far as I'm concerned they're really the only thing that keeps the first season afloat. The storyline is good, not great. And the technical side of things is mediocre at best. Nothing about the show ever smacks of quality but apart from the extreme believability of the performances I don't know if I could've ever predicted the show would become the critical and cultural juggernaut it's become.
As far as the writing is concerned, David Chase the show's creator winds up doing the majority of the work which is typical for a first season. He writes well. His characters are believable and their motivations even more so. There is a familiarity to a lot of what occurs in the series so either he did his research or he's got a lot of experience with italian families. Most of the crime side of things ends up being a lot less interesting than Tony Soprano's home life or his sessions with his psychiatrist. Tony's cronies (rhymed....unintentional) are generally just there for comedic effect and the drama that arises out of Tony's nephew Christopher's attempt to rise to power takes the backseat to how much of an idiot he is.
The show survived and got renewed, as far as I'm concerned, because of Tony's sessions with Dr. Melfi, his psychiatrist. The real written power of the show emerges here. The themes, the metaphors, and the true vision of a lot of the show is hidden in these often too short sequences. Tony Soprano's obsession with a small family of ducks that live in his pool is the first real inkling the series gives you toward its true intentions and moreover I think its the reason that critics went gaga over the show from day 1. Tony Soprano is an anti-hero and no mistake and a great one at that. You won't always like him but you'll always like to watch him. And unlike a lot of attempts to create such characters in any art form, The Sopranos gives you a real shot at looking into the man's mind. Doing so keeps me watching this season.
At the end of the first season I'd give the show a pretty average score. I don't resent it at this stage in its development but based on what I've seen its still got a long way to go to become the show that so many call one of the greatest series of all time.