The Sopranos: The Complete First Season

The Sopranos: The Complete First Season (1999)
HBO Home Video
Extras: Commentary Track, Interview with David Chase, Behind-the-scenes Featurettes, Weblinks, Awards, Biographies

Flooded with awards whenever it comes to television series, "The Sopranos" is certainly one of the most outstanding TV serial production in recent years. The fact that this series is an HBO production and not general off-the-mill-syndication-network television, makes quite a difference, as fans of the series know. HBO Home Video is now presenting the entire first season of the series in a beautiful 4-disc box set. Even by taking only a quick look at the box, you will notice that things are slightly different here. The glossy box does not open as regular box sets and once you open the top lift, the inside reveals a separate fold-out box, containing the actual discs. Very tastefully prepared, HBO once again manages to stand out with this packaging in a time when most publishers are more or less successfully playing with different packaging ideas. But, hardly anyone will buy this heavy box set because of its packaging, so let’s take a look at the contents.

"The Sopranos" is a serial drama with a good number of funny moments, and as the title suggests it revolves around Italian themes… the Mafia to be exact. Make no mistake however, despite its humorous sides, "The Sopranos" is a considerably violent and explicit show, especially for a television production. At the center of the series are Tony Soprano and his two families. The first one is his real family and the other one is, well, the Mob. The entire series shows us tony’s successful – and unsuccessful – struggle to make both ends meet. Making his wife and kids happy, while at the same time being operative in the Mafia’s bloody and criminal business. The result is an array of tension-filled and humorous moments that conjure up moments of Harold Ramis’ incredible "Analzye This" at times, which "The Sopranos" seemed to have used as the springboard for its pilot.

Very well written, episodes from "The Sopranos" oftentimes feel more like a mini-movie rather than a television serial. The distinctive delineation of the characters, the witty dialogues, the performances, the subject matter and of course, the top notch acting put "The Sopranos" well above the rest of regular TV dramas. But also in a cinematic sense, the series feels more cohesively shot with a visual style in mind. While standard TV serials usually seem to treat the camera as a necessary evil (Just shoot it…), the makers of "The Sopranos" make clear visual decisions that creates an often dynamic style, not unlike Mafia feature films.

With that in mind it is great to see that HBO Home Video was obviously of the same opinion, as the series is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> on these DVDs. While on TV you get to see the series in a <$PS,full frame> presentation for obvious reasons, on DVD many of these rules don’t apply really, and the impact and scope of these films is heightened by the <$PS,widescreen> presentation. Framed at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, here we have great looking versions of your favorite television show that looks better than anything your cable or satellite could possible supply. The transfers are clean and without defects or blemishes, and creates a natural looking image. Although the pilot appears a bit underlit, the rest of the episodes comes across beautifully bold and rich. Colors are vibrant and the color delineation is without flaws or bleeding, giving the image a sharp and well-defined look. Blacks are deep and solid and shadows never lose their detail. The compression of the material on these discs is without problems and no distracting artifacts are evident in any of these episodes.

"The Sopranos" comes with a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track on these DVDs but since it is television production where multi-channel audio is not feasible, the <$5.1,5.1 mix> appears to be a bit of an afterthought. While it sounds great, it is not nearly as engaging as the nomenclature would suggest. Surround channels are merely used to give the music a wider soundstage with early reflections coming in from the rear to fatten up the audio. Dialogues and sound effects are firmly rooted in the front with good stereo directionality, but I wasn’t able to spot a single, real surround sound effect. Not that this is a bad thing, after all, this is a TV show, but I wanted to make sure to make sure no one is expecting a bombastic remix of the audio tracks.

The box set contains a good number of extras, including an audio <$commentary,commentary track> for the pilot episode. Featuring creator David Chase, who also directed this pilot episode, and filmmaker/historian Peter Bogdanovich as a moderator, the <$commentary,commentary track> is interesting, but not overly enlightening or entertaining. It covers some of the production aspects of the pilot, as well as some technical issues, but hardly touches upon background, conceptualization, general ideas and ideals of the series – issues that would have been of most interest to fans of the series. Nonetheless, as a fan of the show you will certainly want to check out this commentary to see if it works for you.

Peter Bogdanovich has more than once proven to be a great source of information for all sorts of movies, and it shows once again on this release. As a special feature there is a 77-minute interview with creator David Chase by Bogdanovich, which picks up where the commentary falls short. In this lengthy interview – which incidentally is not for one moment slacking despite its running length – a lot of ground is covered. Bogdanovich manages to raise and discuss with Chase many of the thoughts fans of the series would have. It is a thorough elaboration on many, many aspects of the characters, the series, the ideas and elements that define the show. If the commentary is not your thing, this interview most certainly is.

Two "Making Of" featurettes are also part of this box set, but sadly they fall into the PR rehash category. While nice in their presentation, these featurettes have about as much real content as an empty bottle. Filled with scenes from the series and a lot of hype, these pieces are obviously cachéd advertising and promotional reels rather than "Making Of " featurettes in their original sense. Still it is nice to have them as part of this release, if only for completeness sake. The Awards list falls into the same category. Although it is not exactly a "valuable" addition, in years to come it will be a nice reminder of the acclaim and success the series has enjoyed.

"The Sopranos" is fun whether you watch it on TV or on this great DVD box set. I daresay however, that it is more fun on these DVDs. Not only are you in control of the playlist of these 13 episodes, the <$PS,widescreen> presentation and the clean and detailed transfer makes it a preferable presentation. For fans of the series there can be no question, this box set is a Collector’s Item that has to go into your library. For everyone else, this is a great chance to get a glimpse at how versatile and interesting TV could be like, if it weren’t entirely degraded to common stultification. I can only dearly recommend this set – and no, Tony did not make me say this!