Tag Archives: The Sopranos

100 Greatest TV Episodes: Pilot (s1 ep1)

A new series charting the 100 greatest individual television episodes, as chosen by the Failed Critics.


By Dr. Pangloss

I had to write this entry early, if only to preclude someone else inevitably chiming in with “Pine Barrens is the best episode of The Sopranos”. For sure, ‘Pine Barrens’ is an immaculately realised vignette with some of the deftest comedy to be seen in such a high minded drama, but it can hardly be held aloft as representative of a show best described as a sprawling narrative, drama in the most literal sense that is patiently grown over hours of screen time.

In that sense, it is almost impossible to pick one episode of the show to champion, as the intricate intertextuality (and obscenely consistent high quality) of the episodes which build on one another make it difficult to wrest one out of context as the best. But as the title of this post suggests, I’m going to make a case for the ‘Pilot’ episode nonetheless.

While inevitably not as layered as subsequent seasons, the first is (perhaps because of the fact) the show’s most complete. Each piece fits neatly into the next, inexorably leading towards the intense finale – which itself sets into motion the events of the next season. And, working backwards, it is the Pilot which sets the foundations for all that follows.

Like all essentially true revelations, the central concept behind The Sopranos seems so inevitable, so intrinsically true, that it is a wonder it had not been done a thousand times before. In a Postmodern world, of course a mob boss would suffer from stress-induced panic attacks and be forced to visit a psychiatrist.

It is from this one simple, delectable idea that the entire show is built. Throughout the six seasons, Tony’s struggle with identity, both as an American, a father and an alpha male, his attempts to reconcile obligations to Family and family, his fractured relationships with friends, family, women, colleagues – all are thrown into stark relief through his sessions with Melfi. Never has a TV character been so impeccably recognised, and deeply explored, as Tony Soprano.

The show displays levels of subtlety, subtext, immediacy, depth, visceral fear and even empathy that no other before it or since has come close to matching. Not only that, the series operates within one of the most hackneyed, over-saturated genres in film and TV and one over which The Godfather films bestride, unmoveable. And yet, not only does the show, and the pilot episode, confidently operate within this sphere, it has the the audacity to incorporate countless elements, references, quotes, impressions and indeed actors from the genre’s most famous examples, in effect negating their power and excavating a space in which to operate. “What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type” – he grew up, he got in touch with his feelings. His type is gone. Never had a TV show interacted in such a sustained way with its bigger Hollywood brothers; not even as their equal, but as their superior.

Pilots are often a test run, something to be changed and adapted according to executive and viewer feedback in order to reactively shape the future of a show. This was no such thing. ‘Pilot’ was a fully-formed, fully realised 54 minutes which was to act as a blueprint for every episode that followed. The seeds sown, narratively, thematically, stylistically, take root throughout the rest of the season and sprout over the course of the show’s course. This is why, were it not for seasons 3-15 of the Simpsons, The Sopranos would be my favourite TV show of all time and why I think comparisons with shows like The Wire etc to which it is often subjected are belittling.

While an unconventional choice (Whitecaps, College and Made in America usually feature prominently in such lists), the first episode may also seem a bit like a cop out. But before you flee in your white robe, consider just how revolutionary ‘Pilot’ was, and how utterly essential each aspect of it was for both the original season’s arc, the five seasons that followed and indeed its place at the vanguard of HBO’s drama production, which revolutionised how audiences perceived TV and what such programmes could achieve.

It’s no stretch to suggest that without ‘Pilot’, we would have no The Wire, no Six Feet Under, no Band of Brothers, no Breaking Bad, no Mad Men – in other words, nothing produced after the year 2000 that will appear on this list.

And that, quite aside from its own considerable merits, is enough for its inclusion.

Do not accept prescriptions from Dr. Pangloss, his doctorate is in philosophy. Also, it’s not a real doctorate. Do, however, take his writings as gospel.

I’m 32 years old. TV is my life.

FCTVThe problem with films is that they’re ever so long.

Maybe if they were 90 minutes as standard (alright, with the odd exception for Tolkien based adaptations) I’d be on board. After all, 90 minutes was good enough for High Noon, Airplane, Stand By Me. But films seem longer than ever these days. If you go to the cinema, factoring in the obligatory half hour of adverts, that’s the whole evening written off. And if you watch a film at home, well, my sofa is so comfortable, and I’m only going to shut my eyes for a second.

I like watching trailers. It’s like seeing a whole movie, with all of the drama and none of the time commitment. And, although I’ve probably never mentioned it before, I also love TV.

I’ve seen most of my favourite films a handful of times. But if you tot up all the time I’ve spent watching The West Wing (which is only one and a half viewings of seasons 1 – 7 , plus the occasional episode here and there) it comes to over an entire week of solid TV! And, let me tell you, there are few better ways to use up seven days of your year. Bartlet for America.

Yes, I once went to the hairdressers and asked for a ‘Rachel’. But I was 14. Who else was I supposed to look to as a role model? I’ve grown up with some of these shows. ER was on air for the best part of 15 years. How can you invest so much time in something without forming an emotional attachment? You have your inevitable rough patches (ER pushed its entire fan base to the very brink with a certain chimpanzee surgery storyline) but ultimately you know you’ll stick it out until the bitter end, before enjoying a suitably soppy final episode (Seinfeld notwithstanding) and mourning its loss from your viewing schedule for a long time to come.

Some might see me as kind of pretentious, but I just like to think I take my TV seriously. When Friends ended we had a small gathering of, well, friends over to watch the finale together. I served food, but cleared it away hours before the broadcast, lest anyone ruin one last Ross & Rachel moment for me by crunching too loudly on a crisp. When 24 made the leap from BBC to Sky (killing off the excellent spin-off Pure 24 in the process) we eschewed the entire following season, instead waiting for the DVD release because we couldn’t bear to see our precious CTU tainted by adverts. Thank god Sky+ came along when it did. I have a self-imposed ban on Arrested Development quoting on twitter, as I find it difficult to stop. I think of Meadow Soprano every time I parallel park, long to swear as competently as Susie Greene, and have spent at least two hours of my life practicing the Troy & Abed handshake with my husband. I’ve been known to chastise people who write off The Office (US) without having seen it, and am already judging those who will inevitably dismiss Parks & Recreation when it finally hits UK screens this Spring. I watch my favourite TV shows without my phone in my hand. And there isn’t much I do these days without my phone in my hand. Including writing this.

The majority of my disastrous dalliances with Netflix end with me flicking back to my recently watched list, and highlighting a comedy or drama series I’ve seen before. The beauty is that, when one episode ends, you can just stare unblinking at the screen and wait for the next one to kick in without even touching the remote. It’s kind of like watching a film. But a film made of TV. So it’s better.