Week 4: HBO’s The Sopranos, 5 out of 5
by Justin Vernam, CRITIC
20 November 2018
Good Fellas, Casino, The Godfather. Synthesis of the mob has always entertained in a legendary manner. But, they’re all movies. They can’t be binged hour after hour, for days upon days without becoming boring and possibly raising some serious questions about the state of your mental health (why have you watched the same six movies, everyday, for a week straight?). Hopefully, if you are chilling in front of your TV for hours on end this winter season it’s because its super chilling outside. Fortunately, the pilot episode of HBO’s The Sopranos is absolutely thrilling, and the series is sure to fill yours and your family’s hearts full of the love that comes with watching families whacking other families together.
The series follows the Soprano family, lead by father Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the Don of New Jersey. With him is his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), and son Tony Junior (Rober Iler), and his nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli). Tony, being the Don of the Jersey mob, undergoes a lot of stress in his day to day life. With his nephew still learning the “family business” and messing it up, along with Tony’s uncle breathing down his neck for control of the mob, Tony has a lot of extra concern on top of being in the “garbage disposal” industry. The episode is told primarily in narration by Tony speaking to his therapist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), after a fairly serious anxiety attack. As he delves, implicitly, into the details of his work, the viewers are introduced to the problems which Tony faces, and the problems which will in an overarching way plague his life over the continuum of the series, primarily being the protection and condition of his family.
This is by far the oldest of the shows which I’ve reviewed in this series, with Ozark being a newborn, stemming from 2017, Breaking Bad hailing from 2008, and Shameless having been birthed in 2011; the 1999 date associated with the show’s start puts it almost a decade before any of its companions in this series, but I think that works to its favor. The washed out and grainy picture quality makes it feel more authentic to the mob genre, and reminds me heavily of The Godfather, which is never a bad thing. Meanwhile, the camera angles do well to up the tension, seeing as it’s a show about the mob, you never know when a car bomb is going to go off or when someone might pull up and do a quick drive-by. The camera angles play to this, rarely revealing much about the characters’ surrounding when they speak, making for any type of surprise to be greater and thus creating more anticipation within the viewer. It’s exciting and unpredictable.
There is, however, one issue with the episode: some of the acting. While none of the lead actors or actresses have many or any flaws in their performances, especially Tony (talk about acting, wow), some of the other mobsters, such as Tony’s Uncle Junior and his mother, provide lines which sound rather forced, and unconvincing. It’s not egregious, but it does burden the show’s quality.
All together though, the show works very well. From the really low to exaggeratedly high angles of mobsters sitting around a table, to the New Jersey-Italian accents (which had me mocking the accent for hours after I watched it), and the frequent euphemisms for killing other people, the show captures the mob feeling in superior grandeur. Then just to top it all off, it brings its own personal touches. Tony, a mob boss, is actually emotionally vulnerable. Yes, mob bosses have had their soft spots in the past (primarily for their kids only), but Tony exposes softness in himself, something we rarely see as a trait in a mobster. Tony becomes instantly loveable, because he’s more than a Don, he’s a father, he’s a friend, he’s a son. Seeing all these roles Tony must undertake makes for a new depth to be sucked into watching the 1990’s boss.
Overall, I think it’s safe to say I intend to keep watching this show, on top of the other three I’ve already reviewed. This one, though, may fall towards the top of my priorities to watch. Not only do I already love the whole Italian mob thing, but this show does it incredibly well and is likely enjoyable for people who don’t even have a strong preference for the genre. I don’t even think this would be a horrible show to watch with your parents or, if you are a parent, your older (16+ or so I’d say) kids. The Sopranos is a 5/5, although not totally original in genre, it’s outstanding in a rather saturated field of movies and shows, which I think says more about it than I could.
The cast of Showtime’s Shameless enjoys a quiet moment of peace amidst the chaos of their everyday lives. Photo courtesy of Showtime.
Week 3: Showtime’s Shameless, 3 out of 5
Showtime’s original Shameless is a piece of work. It’s raunchy and almost oversexualized but is still enjoyable in a way that leaves you feeling nice and warm inside. Although Shameless is something I would never watch with my parents or anyone I’m related to, ever, it’s still a fun and interesting watch.
The series follows the Gallagher family, led by eldest sibling Fiona (Emmy Rossum) taking charge of her five younger siblings — Lip (Jeremy Allen White), Ian (Cameron Monaghan), Carl (Ethan Cutkosky), Debbie (Emma Kenney), and Liam (Brenden Sims) — in the place of alcoholic father Frank (William H. Macy). Living in a run down Chicago neighborhood, the family struggles to keep afloat with everyone working to pitch in on bills and other basic living expenses while still trying to find themselves and their places in the world.
The episode does little more than introduce the characters of the show, the Gallaghers being the primary bunch, as well as their neighbors Veronica (Shanola Hampton) and Kevin (Steve Howey); Fiona’s new acquaintance Jimmy (Justin Chatwin); and a girl with whom Lip has a strange relationship brewing, Karen Jackson (Laura Wiggins). Characters are introduced and receive early development as Fiona struggles with who she is after meeting an infatuated and seemingly rich Jimmy. Meanwhile, Lip and Ian’s relationship as brothers is tested when a secret comes between them, pressing on the strength of their bond. Fiona and Jimmy’s arc is a little melodramatic but effective nonetheless by the end. Lip and Ian’s situation is the meat of the episode and has a somewhat surprising conclusion that not only makes Lip an instant favorite but also does best at setting the tone of the episode.
Despite the apparent lack of sustenance within the episode, you’re left with a nice feeling in your heart. The loving closeness of the Gallaghers and co. is admirable and leaves a sweet taste, especially the heartwarming ending. Despite that however, there isn’t much to say. While the extremely adult themes don’t take away from the episode, the abundance is almost distracting, and the graphic nature is rather unnecessary, adding to nothing besides the show’s TV-MA rating. I didn’t hate the presence of such things but it doesn’t exactly feel pertinent to the show or what makes it good. The episode was good because of the family aspects, the warmth and uplifting effects of this dysfunctional household somehow being coherent and full of love. While the characters aren’t without their issues, and their relationships aren’t without their discrepancies, it only adds to the beauty of the ending. This however is somewhat masked by the explicit nature of the show, which steals attention from the apparent focus of the episode in that the same function to the characters and plot could be achieved via implicit presence of those same scenes, rather than making it awkward to watch with a family member.
Besides this, everything technical is good for what it is. The lack of focus on the drama relieves importance from camera work, so the scenes have more of a relaxed and natural tone. The available slack for the shots gives the otherwise difficult situation of the family a lighter tone, making room for the goofiness that sets this show apart from being just another gloomy drama. Meanwhile, the authenticity of what drama is present is enhanced by solid acting from lead actors Rossum, Chatwin, White, and Monaghan. Their chemistry is convincing and true to the nature of a loving family. They give the impression that they’ve actually been stuck in that beat down little house for their entire lives. William H. Macy spends the majority of the episode unconscious, while he is awake though, he acts as though they really did spike his morning coffee.
This is a difficult episode to rank. It’s very much unlike the other shows I’ve reviewed in this series and gives a really different feeling while carrying a far different tone than Ozark and Breaking Bad. I really liked the second half and end of the episode, but the beginning seemed pointless, and didn’t do much really for anything at all. I liked it, but objectively it just wasn’t spectacular. I’m going to give Shameless a 3 out of 5 but still recommend watching it if you like getting a nice dose of drama and comedy with your morning bowl of reality. If you’re trapped inside this cold season, give it a chance to warm your heart, but maybe watch it on your phone. With earbuds on. In a different room.
WEEK 2: AMC’s Breaking Bad, 3 out of 5
In AMC’s Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston stars as Walter White, a cancer-afflicted science teacher who teams up with a former student to cook meth in order to financially save his family after his death. Photo courtesy of AMC.
The pilot for the AMC original Breaking Bad functions relatively well but isn’t much more than that. The episode serves as quite an intriguing introduction to a group of pretty interesting characters and creates desire to continue the series but isn’t anything revolutionary or ground breaking.
The unusual plot follows Walter, a middle aged high school chemistry teacher who, at one point, contributed in research that won a Nobel Prize. He struggles to make ends meet, and when he finds out he only has a few years to live, he decides to make a last ditch attempt to strap together as much money as he can for his pregnant wife and disabled son. With the help of former burnout student Jesse, Walter sets up and begins utilizing his own meth lab on wheels.
Don’t get me wrong, the episode is enjoyable but, being the first episode, you’re not invested in a lot of the drama. Any sequences that put the characters at risk aren’t really tense because there is clarity as to which characters can’t be discarded yet. (This fact may come to haunt the spin-off prequel series Better Call Saul, since it’s impossible for Jimmy McGill to perish in that series if he’s naturally going to show up as Saul Goodman in later seasons of Breaking Bad.) However, the pressure is still well captured because the outcome is still somewhat unknown on some scale, being that other small events could potentially be made larger later in the series.
Besides that, all the integrals are put together with quality. The acting is spectacular, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, who play Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, make up most of the episode as well as the two most integral main characters. They serve convincingly for such an abstract situation that would be otherwise somewhat unbelievable. A teacher? Cooking meth? With a former student? That’s crazy, but Cranston and Paul make it work. The angles, lighting, and cinematography in general are all well done as well. So, while the technicals are done very well, that’s just what’s come to be expected from these long run-time shows; them being good doesn’t propel the episode to the next level, however, helps it be held to the standard at which it resides, and gives the series a sense of quality.
The episode is just good. It’s a little better than your average pilot episode but doesn’t break the threshold of spectacular. The circumstances around Walter simply aren’t removed enough to be variable in the very first episode. As a result, you’re not fully lounged up like you would be watching a sitcom, but you’re not on the edge of your couch hugging a throw pillow either.
In racing they say the most boring looking laps are often the fastest, and I think this applies here. While the episode isn’t boring by definition, it’s just an episode. However, it’s meticulous in that it does its job very well. It leaves a very open plane for the plot to be taken in several directions, drawing viewers into wanting to keep watching, as any effective pilot should.
Despite this, I was overall impressed with a show that I was otherwise pretty uninterested in watching. If I didn’t have to go to my real job, I would’ve sat there and watched on for hours. But while the episode is good, it’s not much more than effective. “Pilot” works to pull the audience into the world of Walter White and his new business as a meth maker, as well as leaves you with high hopes for the continuation of the series, but doesn’t do a whole lot more than that. It’s clear that this is the first chapter in what could be an astounding novel-length series, but as far as a chapter is concerned, it still feels rather unfinished. It’s a pretty solid 3 out of 5 that I would recommend giving a shot this winter season.
You can stream Breaking Bad on almost all major streaming platforms.
WEEK 1: Netflix’s Ozark, 5 out of 5
Netflix’s Ozark is really something else. A show about family but not for families. Drugs, sex, murder, and blistering depression taint the life of father Marty Byrde. This Netflix original is the sharp-hooked candy cane perfect for intriguing anyone this holiday season and bingeworthy from the 10th minute.
Ozark follows financial advisor Marty Byrde, in business with his best friend, working out of Chicago as money launderers for the second largest drug cartel in the world. The pilot episode, “Sugarwood,” introduces Marty, a good-intentioned man, doing what he can to support an ungrateful family, putting up with the mundane trivialities while staying true to his principles in the interest of his family. All until his discontent with life is interrupted by thievery within the cartel putting Marty’s and his family’s lives on his ability to launder for a very upset drug lord, forcing the family to move to the backwoods area of the Ozarks where Marty & company are faced with new challenges by the criminals that reside there as well.
Jason Bateman stars as Marty Byrde in the Netflix original series Ozark. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Creator Bill Dubuque and his crew do a fantastic job at creating tone. Everything about the show works to suck you into itself, and the mood establishes itself almost immediately. The dull colors are saturated in a way that somehow makes them even more colorless and lifeless, reinforcing the morose and hyper-realistic feeling. The Chicago setting compliments this use of color amazingly, the cloudy skyline is dominated by dark skyscrapers, reflecting the grey lake in melancholy beauty. The setting is utilized to set tone as well as anything I’m yet to see. Take that and pair it with a nerve racking score, and even when the plot is docile, you’re drawn in, on the edge of your couch, feeling the implicit stress radiate from your LCD to your bloodstream.
The aesthetic of the show serves as award worthy background to award worthy acting. Jason Bateman, of course, gives an almost unreasonably convincing performance as Marty Byrde, creating a gut wrenchingly powerful resonance with anyone watching. The rest of the Byrde family, Wendy (Laura Linney), Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) provide further reinforcement to the reality of the Byrde family. With relatable interactions and conventional chemistry, the acting serves to create enjoyably believable characters.
Being the pilot episode, only Marty really develops as a character, and it’s really impressive. The show starts with you, obviously, knowing nothing about Marty besides what you can collect from the synopsis. By the end of the hour, however, you have become invested in the financial adviser, his good intentions paired with inexplicably poor connections and predicaments make for a really rich character to be built up. No other character has ever been made so real in just 60 minutes.
The plot itself is one of the most unpredictable and gripping plots of a pilot episode I’ve ever seen, and I’ve started a fair amount of shows. Ozark, meanwhile, is a show that I will stick with, and so should you. I don’t want to even provide context to my thoughts and analysis because the feeling of seeing it the first time is special. Just watch it, you’ll understand.
Ozark provides one of the most immersive pilot episodes ever and gets a padlocked grip on your arm, tugging at you to watch more. If you’re looking for a show to binge watch while your heater battles nature this holiday season, Ozark is the way to go. I give the pilot episode a strong 5. Ozark is in a league of its own, original, powerful, emotionally evoking, and truly an amazing watch.
Justin Vernam is a film critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl.