With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
Some TV series have such an impact on the medium that their gravitational pull becomes strong enough to suck in other shows around them, warping and changing them in interesting ways. These series’ success—both critically and in the ratings—lead other creators to play around with the innovations they pioneer. Think of how All In The Family created a market for social-issues-based sitcoms, or how Hill Street Blues started taking the camera home to follow its cops through their personal lives. These were shows that remade TV in their own image.
In the past 20 years, no other drama has had as great of an effect as The Sopranos. It debuted modestly on HBO, promoted as a show about a mobster who had to start seeing a psychiatrist to deal with issues in his personal life. (Original tagline: “If one family doesn’t kill him, the other one will.”) Then critics quickly glommed onto the show, and audiences followed. While the show’s mob trappings—including its propensity for killing off main characters in sometimes brutal fashion—certainly helped, it was the way The Sopranos stood out from every other program on the air that made it a success. Created by David Chase, the series reflected his own personal interests and obsessions—from mother issues to Catholicism to the idea that few people are likely to change who they are on a fundamental level—and it was willing to try just about anything to explore the inside of its central character’s head. Dream sequences, psychotherapy sessions, and seemingly unmotivated character developments dragged audiences deeper and deeper into the dark heart of Tony Soprano, and the voyage proved thrilling.
As written by Chase and one of the best writing staffs ever assembled (including Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter and Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner) and performed by James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano is one of the best-developed characters in TV history. (Only Breaking Bad’s Walter White even comes close.) At its heart, the show is a character study, asking all sorts of questions about why Tony is the way he is, whether he can change his wrathful nature, and if there was ever a point when he could have avoided making a life through crime. The series also compares and contrasts Tony’s rise and continued rise with the America of the late Clinton and George W. Bush eras, a country blessed with prosperity but unwilling to consider just where so much of that prosperity came from. (The Sopranos’ final season made this explicit, with frequent references to the Iraq War that the characters could not be bothered to think about.) Over the course of nearly 100 episodes, the show indulged in anticlimax, asked serious questions about ethics and morality, and followed its own interests down rabbit trails, no matter how frustrated its audience became when characters weren’t getting “whacked.”
To watch even one episode of The Sopranos—and the series was terrific at building single episodes that stood on their own while still advancing ongoing plots—is to see a show far weirder and more resonant than its reputation. It’s a work of bloody beauty, setting moments of horrific violence directly opposite moments of mystery and wonder. If The Wire is a big, sprawling Victorian novel, then The Sopranos is a short-story collection, where all of the stories eventually matter, but where the author is content to wander off to explore whatever catches his interest.
Boiling The Sopranos down, then, is less about making a list of the “best” episodes and more about catching the show in its many moods. In celebration of the return of our reviews of the show today, here are the 10 episodes that best look at what the show was and how it changed television history.
“College” (season one, episode five)
Few episodes of television legitimately change the whole medium, but this one can make a good case for doing so. Five episodes into the series’ run, The Sopranos had already made a case for itself as a wonderfully acted, written, and directed series, with unusual plotting that told a serialized story but didn’t proceed at the expected rhythms. (What appeared to be the series’ central conflict was mostly resolved in episode four.) “College,” a mostly standalone episode about Tony taking daughter Meadow on a college visit, and seeing an old associate-turned-FBI informant while doing so, showed that the series was playing for keeps. Tony has to figure out how to deal with the situation, and in a series of brilliant sequences, he arrives at the only choice available to him.
“The Happy Wanderer” (season two, episode six)
The show’s first season is its most conventionally plotted. It’s a great starting point, but once it’s over, it tends to leave a mistaken impression about what the series would actually become. Better, then, to skip to a season-two episode, when the show really began to spread its wings. One of the central questions of the series is how people not in the mob world might react to Tony Soprano entering their circles, and “The Happy Wanderer” is a great example of this, as the father of one of Meadow’s friends (played by an increasingly desperate Robert Patrick) runs up a huge gambling debt and is forced to see the Tony who’s not just a jolly pal. It’s a compelling examination of Tony trying to keep his personal and professional lives separate, and it contains one of the series’ best therapy scenes.
“Funhouse” (season two, episode 13)
More than any other great drama series (other than, perhaps, Twin Peaks), The Sopranos was interested in how dream sequences could be used to unravel its protagonist’s psyche, to the point where roughly half an entire episode was devoted to one of Tony’s dreams in season five. But it’s the season-two finale, “Funhouse,” that best gets at how the show uses dreams to enlighten the audience and at how Tony uses his subconscious to realize that, say, one of his best friends has turned FBI informant. “Funhouse” features some of the first appearances of the autumnal color palette that would come to dominate the series, a harrowing hit, and one of the best musical montages the series ever did.
“Second Opinion” (season three, episode seven)
Though The Sopranos is Tony’s story—nearly everything is filtered through his point of view on one level or another—a healthy portion of it is also the story of his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), who knows what her husband does is wrong but can’t stop enjoying the fruits of his labor. As the series went on, Chase seemed increasingly haunted by the fact that one of the primary reasons The Sopranos became a hit was because many fans saw in Tony someone who could do the things they were unable to do. Chase increasingly turned the show into one that vilified its protagonist more than it celebrated him. But it was rare for Chase to comment as directly on that central conflict as he did here, when Carmela herself goes in for therapy and is told point blank that the way she lives is the reason she’s so torn up inside.
“Pine Barrens” (season three, episode 11)
In spite of the dark subjects the show tackles, The Sopranos is also wildly funny, and its huge ensemble cast is filled with actors who are as adept with a joke as they are with a weighty monologue. “Pine Barrens” is the best example of the show’s gift for dark comedy, sending two of Tony’s loyal lieutenants after someone who owes him money, only to have the situation just keep getting worse, with the pair eventually pursuing the wounded man through the middle of the titular New Jersey wilderness. At the same time, Tony deals with his latest girlfriend, a damaged woman who reminds him of his now-deceased mother. Unexpectedly, the episode features some of the series’ comedic and dramatic highlights.
“Whitecaps” (season four, episode 13)
Season four is The Sopranos’ most problematic. It’s still a great season of television, but it meanders more than usual, and its midsection often feels flabby. Yet the show was playing a long game. At one time, the fourth season was intended as the final one, so a sense of impending doom hangs over its episodes, but it seems mostly to extend to the characters’ personal relationships. The season has one big “death,” but the finale doesn’t feature it. Instead, the “character” that dies is the Soprano marriage, as Tony and Carmela finally have a series of arguments that’s been building since the start of the series. Brutal and uncompromising, “Whitecaps” is a great argument for The Sopranos as the chronicle of a marriage.
“Long Term Parking” (season five, episode 12)
The show’s fifth season is one of its best, but it’s also hard to boil down to a series of episodes. It’s the necessary build between the malaise of season four and the dark chaos that erupts in season six, and if it feels repetitive in places (yet another character tries to get out of the mob, only to get sucked back in), that’s by design. The season’s high point is “Long Term Parking,” in which a character who was maneuvered into informing on the mob is found out, and the other characters have to decide what to do. The Sopranos is great at taking viewers to places they know they’re going. This episode can end only one way, but it wrings every ounce of tension out of that fatalism.
“Join The Club” (season six, episode two)
The show’s sixth and final season—which was split into two parts in its initial airing—is the series’ most audacious. It’s a long, long examination of whether Tony Soprano can change, followed by nine episodes that dissolve almost everything he cares about, only to see him shrug it off. In the season première, Tony’s senile uncle mistakes him for someone else and shoots him, leaving him in a coma. In “Join The Club,” Tony’s coma turns into what sure seems to be a version of the afterlife, in which he’s a man named Kevin Finnerty who gets stranded in California between some wildfires and a bright beacon. (Sound familiar?) Full of symbolism, the weirdly ruminative “Join The Club” gives the series stakes in both life and in what might come after.
“The Second Coming” (season six, episode 19)
The sixth season also becomes fixated on Tony’s wayward son, A.J. Soprano (Robert Iler). As if attempting to anger its fans, who at the time regarded A.J. as a weak link, the series turns him into a would-be moral conscience, who sees the hypocrisies of his lifestyle and the country he lives in and is incensed when no one around him regards them with any seriousness. At the same time, the show seemingly strips Tony’s soul out of him, all but calling him a sociopath who can never be fixed. (It actually does this one episode later.) “The Second Coming” sends these two paths on a collision course, resulting in one of the most harrowing scenes of the whole series.
“Made In America” (season six, episode 21)
Initially prompting intense anger, The Sopranos’ series finale is one of the best ever made, a challenging episode that invites viewers to put the pieces together themselves. Though it’s been justly acclaimed for its audacious ending—and if it’s possible to be unspoiled about what happens, it’s best to remain so—the episode is also a surprisingly emotional visit to the world the show had created and was about to take away from viewers. What’s remarkable is how few of the characters are left, and how alone Tony is. Even more remarkable: just how little he seems to care or notice. He’s blithe, floating through the world as if he can’t be touched, maybe a little like the country in the episode’s title.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “The Sopranos” (season one, episode one); “I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano” (season one, episode 13); “The Knight In White Satin Armor” (season two, episode 12); “Proshai, Livushka” (season three, episode two); “Employee Of The Month” (season three, episode four); “Whoever Did This” (season four, episode nine); “Irregular Around The Margins” (season five, episode five); “The Test Dream” (season five, episode 11); “Cold Stones” (season six, episode 11); “Soprano Home Movies” (season six, episode 13)
Availability: All six seasons are available on DVD—with a couple available on Blu-ray—and the complete run of the show is also available on HBO Go. (The series is still regularly run in basic-cable syndication, but this is far from the ideal way to watch it.)
Next week: Joshua Alston looks at one of the most popular sitcoms ever made, The Cosby Show.