Every year I watch the same saga of this New Jersey family of waste management entrepreneurs. I’ve written about selected episodes here and there but I’m going to go through the whole show season by season to point out some of the little things that make it so special.

For example: the funeral of Jackie Aprile Sr at the conclusion of “Meadowlands” is masterful visual storytelling. The family is divided after the death of their boss, with Junior’s old school camp against Tony’s crew. Tony’s solution is a chess move, offering Junior the top spot not out of respect but to shield Tony from federal investigation. Junior will be the “lightning rod,” with his photo pinned at the top in FBI offices. Meanwhile Tony’s son AJ has just learned his father’s true identity – it’s like a reverse Santa Claus moment, when a kid learns his dad is the acting boss in a Jersey crime family. So we end the episode in the cemetery with a series of shots: Tony conferring with his inner circle; Junior’s crew including Tony’s manipulative mother; feds at the fence taking pictures; and AJ watching it all. So many narratives and threads in that sequence, all told without a word.

The Sopranos is self aware. We get in jokes like Christopher shooting the bakery clerk in the foot in reference to Michael Imperioli’s character in Goodfellas, or Tony buying orange juice just before an assassination attempt. But it goes deeper, particularly in the effort to reconcile the idea that there’s an element of exploitation in this entertainment. We’re watching a series based on crime and stereotypes, which stylizes sociopathic behavior. The Sopranos knows this, and it knows that the argument is more complex and nuanced than that. It’s easy to take a moral stand, but it’s often a too simple and intellectually dishonest route. Therapist Jennifer Melfi is the vehicle for these discussions – she argues with her family about Italian American stereotypes, and struggles professionally with the ethics of treating a sociopath. The meta-element in this is aimed at the viewer – we’re watching, supporting, and participating in this transaction. We’re given such an intimate portrayal of these personal and business relationships that we’re guilty now too. In season two Tony warns meddling Carmela: “Don’t make me make you an accessory.” But it’s too late for us.

The best single episode of season one is “College,” wherein Tony’s trip with Meadow to prospective colleges intersects with an old acquaintance who “ratted” on his old life. Tony must shuffle his daughter around to private college campuses (pointedly laughing off her outright accusation in the car – “Dad, are you in the Mafia?”) while sneaking around in his efforts to “silence” this betrayer. It’s a perfectly contained narrative that requires no context and tells multiple stories without really offering a suitable conclusion. This, another key aspect of The Sopranos – we can’t expect to have stories “wrapped up” in time for closing credits with “proper” morals or simple digestible wisdom. This is not a puppet show.

It goes without saying that James Gandolfini’s performance carries the show. It’s so that we don’t think “wow, that’s good acting” – no, he’s Tony and that’s it. But notice his range during the Big Pussy storyline: first he grimly informs Paulie of the news that their closest friend is working with the feds, then later explodes with guilty rage when they discover that it was misinformation and Pussy is already on the lam fearing for his life. But it’s not over yet – season two will explore every bit of this ongoing thread leading to one of the pivotal moments in the series.

I like season one but The Sopranos is still finding its voice. The ambitions and style are there but it’s still tied down to some conventional elements.The main plot is frankly the weakest aspect, with Junior conspiring with Tony’s mother (probably the most poorly written and clumsiest performance in the  whole series) to assassinate him. We get some of the worst episodes of the whole run (“Boca,” “A Hit Is A Hit”) and the dark, arty atmosphere of the later seasons has not yet taken hold. In season two we’ll get more memorable character studies, trademark black humor, and the finest episode in the whole series.