Credit: Everett Collection; Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
James Gandolfini
  • TV Show

The Sopranos debuted on HBO 20 years today, so that’s two straight decades of people declaring The Sopranos one of the greatest achievements in television history. An accurate statement, reconfirmed by me this week, thanks to HBO programming HBO2 with a weeklong Sopranos marathon. David Chase’s drama has aged like fine wine stolen from Pennsylvania motorcycle thieves. The late James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano looks more than ever like a profound he-built-the-Pyramids feat of acting. (RIP forever.)

Yes, I’m just another TV critic who wuvs Sopranos, and the profound literature praising this series is already extensive. (Immediately consult Todd VanDerWerff’s seminal AV Club recap exegesis, and buy The Sopranos Sessions for all your friends!) But on the occasion of the 20th anniversary, there’s one specific question I’ve been asking everyone who likes the show: Early Sopranos or Late Sopranos?

There’s a difference, deeply felt if not always visibly obvious. The Sopranos didn’t experience any flashily radical narrative transformations in its 86 episodes. No new generation of melancholic football players, no swank new late ’60s adman workplace, nobody new on the Iron Throne. Major characters died, of course, and seasonal antagonists expired with Buffy Big Bad semi-regularity. And the passage of time pushed Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) from SAT subplots toward law school.

But the contrast between early Sopranos and late Sopranos is less obvious and structural, more of a general vibe. The series’ early years don’t necessarily move faster, but the storytelling can feel cleaner, with a narrower focus. Steeped in psychological concepts, the show was indulging surreal instincts early on. (Tony hallucinates a foreign exchange student!) But continued success gave Chase room for expansive experimentation, which by the late period looks like a two-episode trip to coma purgatory.

So Late Sopranos is the Weirder Sopranos, maybe. And Tony spends a whole episode recovering from that coma in a hospital — so you could also call Late Sopranos the Slow Sopranos, though by doing so you would brand yourself as a tasteless deplorable, since we all know that the hospital scene where everyone watches the boxing match is the most perfect thing filmed by cameras this century. Late Sopranos is the stuff that fits in most clearly with surreal contemporary shows like Atlanta and Lodge 49 — not to mention The Leftovers, which expansion-packed the Sopranos‘ hotel-dream episode into a whole afterlife mythology.

And I’m not sure Early Sopranos is more hopeful, per se — but it’s definitely possible to watch an episode from the first few seasons and classify Tony as a potentially redeemable protagonist, a less bad man than criminal grotesques like Richie Aprile or Ralphie Cifaretto. You can still imagine some of the other characters are on a better road. Edie Falco was so wonderful playing Carmela’s desperate emotional strife, struggling with her husband’s infidelities (and, obliquely, her knowledge of his criminal activities.) When she kicks Tony out at the end of season 4, it could almost be a transformative step to a better path.

If we’re bisecting the show by pure episode count, the Early Sopranos phase ends earlier in season 4, with “Pie-O-My,” an episode whose dreamy A-plot (Tony gets fixated on a gorgeously symbolic horse) and key criminal subplot (Adriana suffers strenuous FBI anxiety) feel like a solid midpoint definition for the show’s two halves.

But I very fuzzily classify the season 4 finale as the end of Early Sopranos. You could make the case with some chronology — after the season 4 finale aired in 2002, the next 34 episodes aired in three gradual chunks until 2007. Season 5 also sees the arrival of Matthew Weiner, whose Europhile mindmeld with Chase led to writing or co-writing High Weird episodes like “The Test Dream” and “Mayham.” Weiner went on to create Mad Men, while his fellow Sopranos staffer Terence Winter created Boardwalk Empire. As a general rule, if you like Boardwalk Empire you prefer Early Sopranos, and if you like Mad Men you love it when A.J. mispronounces “Yeats.”

And the later seasons are dark. So many people die that there’s a joke about having two supporting-cast funerals in one day. The term “antihero” has been a bit bastardized by now, often applied in very Punisher-y/Rick Grimes-y/Jack Bauer-y terms as “unquestionably moral superhero who egg-breaks bad things to save the all-important world omelet.” In Late Sopranos, Tony’s just a crappy person, vain and narcissistic, dragging everyone down with him just because. And even then, he’s beautiful — a man in full, witnessed without blink or fragile facesaving agenda. I guess that’s one of the many reasons I prefer Late Sopranos. It doesn’t seem like it’s trying to prove anything about its characters. Instead, it patiently observes them in their habitat. Late Sopranos also features “Kennedy and Heidi,” the one where Tony does something truly unforgivable and then goes to Vegas, the best story ever made about Nevada until David Lynch made Twin Peaks: The Return.

But late Sopranos doesn’t have Vincent Pastore’s Big Pussy or Nancy Marchand’s Livia Soprano. And Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi recedes in importance, never as central after the horror of “Employee of the Month.” But, early Sopranos only really hints at the surprising emergence of Bobby Baccalieri as the local everyman. The legion of AJ haters can never forgive Chase for pushing Tony’s son forward. Yet surely there is a secret core fanbase that can appreciate Vito’s sun-dappled exodus to New Hampshire (“I love you, Johnny Cakes!”).

As a Sopranos viewer, which way do you lean? Tony going to Naples for mob stuff, or Carmela going to Paris to look at statues? (Statues! Statues!)

Related Links:

Episode Recaps

James Gandolfini
The Sopranos
  • TV Show
stream service