Saturday, September 4, 2010

Late to The Sopranos

Saturday, perfect weather in New York. Last weekend before summer's unofficial end. And for most of the day I've been inside our bedroom, watching four episodes from the fifth season of The Sopranos.

I never had HBO when The Sopranos originally aired from 1999 through the what-the-hell-happened finale in 2007. I can still remember being at the paper in Worthington, reading the AP review of the show when it premiered. Obviously the review praised the breakthrough show, though at the time no one knew it'd go on to become a cultural phenomenon. The show's popularity meant it was impossible to avoid knowing about the characters and the storylines, especially during the final seasons. I knew the broad strokes: Tony's manipulative mother, his shrink, his uncle, Big Pussy's betrayal and demise, the head in the bowling bag. But I didn't really know the details or the thousands of small moments that led up to the big moments everyone talked about. I didn't appreciate how perfect James Gandolfini is as an actor in the starring role and never understood the unique qualities that made Tony Soprano the perfect TV character.

Over the years I caught a few episodes during trips to my parents' or the heavily edited versions on A&E. But seeing a random episode in the third second season and then another in the final season doesn't exactly do the show justice. Now that I've watched the majority of the episodes, I can say, ah, that's what all the excitement was about. It's like when I send clips of old Showtime highlights to a Lakers fan who says they were too young to remember Magic and the boys. Hearing about it is nothing compared to seeing it.

Starting in June and thanks to Netflix, I've been going through each season of The Sopranos. It probably took until the third episode - but, more likely, the first - before I became obsessed with the show. Each season has four DVDs and with our Netflix we get three at a time, meaning I could never watch all of the shows in one sitting. Throw in Louise's movies - I can't completely hijack our account just because of this new obsession - and it was torture waiting for those final discs. I needed to know what happened, damn it. I needed to know what happened on shows that aired, in some cases, more than 10 years ago. In the first seasons of the show, the Trade Towers are visible in the show's famous opening. The real world and the TV world have changed in countless ways since those early episodes, yet when I'm inside our air-conditioned bedroom watching them, I've been transported back a decade.

No one's more passionate - or overbearing - than the person who just discovered something everyone else has known about for a long time. So when talking about The Sopranos with friends, co-workers or family, I work to keep from transforming into Chris-Farley-interviewing-Paul-McCartney, lest I come off like a newly saved evangelical who pounds people over the head with tales about the cross.

Obviously I now wish I had watched from the outset, but I also have it better than those who were there from the beginning. Instead of waiting a week for a new episode, I watch four in one sitting. Instead of waiting years for a new season, I wait days. While many of the twists have surprised me, others came as no shock. Because the show was impossible to avoid for eight years, I knew about many of the arrests, splits, betrayals and killings. Those who watched the show unfold week after week, year after year, benefited from not knowing. They got caught up in the suspense and each new episode brought new laughs or fresh horrors.

I'm to blame for part of it. Since I started watching through Netflix, I haven't been able to stop myself from reading some of the season recaps online. There's a youtube clip that shows every killing in the show's history. I watched it while I was in the middle of season two and I told myself to stop the video once it stretched into season three, but...I couldn't. So many of the killings from seasons three and four came as no surprise to me. I did manage to stop watching before any other seasons were ruined. I'm grateful for the technology that allows me to enjoy a party three years after everyone else left it, but I hate the technology - and my own weakness - for ruining the experience of being surprised.

I'm in the fifth season. Tony's cousin Tony Blundetto, played brilliantly, of course, by Steve Buscemi, has just given up on going straight and is ready to do some work for a New York family. But I already know his story ends on a rural porch, on the wrong end of Tony's shotgun. I have insulated myself from what happens in the final season, save for the diner finale. I hope that lasts.

Fortunately, the show was about so much more than shocking twists or cliffhangers. It was about more than brutal killings. And all those other moments are the ones I've been able to now enjoy, 11 years after the premiere and three years after the finale. I'm like everyone else now, marveling at Gandolfini's brilliance, laughing at Paulie's lines, tired of AJ's whining.

The poker games, Tony drinking juice from the fridge, Paulie and Christopher's adventure in the woods, Tony's mistresses, Jackie Jr.'s death, the backroom at the Bada Bing, the talks in the basement, Adriana's death, Carmela's flirtations with the priest, Tony and Meadow searching for colleges - and rats. And on and on. All the scenes in all the shows.

Fans who were always there have moved on, of course. Like some of those fans, I cling to the hope that there might someday be a long-shot Sopranos movie, while simultaneously worrying about whether it'd be any good or even possible, considering the carnage that takes out so many key characters.

So all I can do is enjoy these remaining episodes and relive the ones I've seen. I think I have 24 left. The show's ending soon for me, the same way it was ending for everyone else in the summer of 2007. I'll mourn alone, knowing there's going to be no more Tony. Like nearly everyone who enjoyed the show - whether every Sunday on HBO or during the week on DVD - I just wish there were 10 more seasons.

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