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The Sopranos: The Complete Second Season

If you're tired of reading raves for HBO's dramatic series The Sopranos, skip this review. Although the celebrated Mafia dramedy has elicited teeth-gratingly hyperbolic superlatives like "The Greatest Known Artistic Triumph Since Antiquity!," there's really no denying that it is the most gripping, unusual, shocking and engrossing television programming since David Lynch's Twin Peaks made headlines a decade earlier. But where Lynch's series disintegrated into silly chaos during its second season, The Sopranos hits stride during its sophomore year, effortlessly picking up the continuing story of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano's two turbulent families. Many of the first season's narrative threads are followed and expanded: the mysterious disappearance of Big Pussy, Christopher's flirtation with screenwriting, the maturation and rebellion of Tony's two teenagers, friction between Tony and his uncle Junior, the influence of Tony's manipulative mother Livia, and Tony's uneasy but necessary relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi. Adding to this already volatile mix, new stories introduced this season include the arrival of Tony's scheming sister Janice, the release from prison of hotheaded old-school thug Richie Aprile, and the spiraling gambling addition of Tony's high school pal, played by Robert Patrick. What separates The Sopranos from most other high quality television shows is more than just four-letter words, nudity, and vivid violence. Series creator David Chase and his able crew of writers and directors create an unmistakable flavor of life, undiluted by commercial concerns, and instead of running from or simplifying complexities, they embrace them, unconcerned with wrapping up troublesome events and ideas into comfortable messages. This is most evident in the way The Sopranos depicts its violent criminal characters: They are people with family problems, financial struggles, and work-related stress, and like the rest of us they try to rationalize and medicate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Also a key pleasure in this series is the sharp, often surprising humor that arises from both the show's shocking and ordinary subjects. In addition to its unorthodox depiction of universal marital and parenting issues, and the growing culture of depression and victimization, it also features some pointed commentary on public fascination with organized crime and the seeds of discontent within its increasingly less-patient, starry-eyed lower ranks. One superlative cannot be denied: There has never been as strong an ensemble cast as James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Lorraine Bracco, Vincent Pastore, Steve Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, David Proval, Aida Turturro, and the inimitable, incorrigible, hilarious, and unforgettable Nancy Marchand. This is the kind of television series ideal for DVD, as attention to detail makes repeat viewings infinitely rewarding. Due to the unconventional nature of the show, which rarely stops for exposition or narrative backtracking to catch viewers up-to-speed, jumping in to the second season is not recommended — and far from necessary, as the first season is already on disc. First-time viewers be warned — even though you will want to, do not attempt to watch all 13 hours in one sitting. The DVD Journal recommends breaking for a 15-minute stretching program between each of this set's four discs. The Complete Second Season presents all 13 episodes in crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic transfers and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Four episodes feature director commentaries: Commendatori (#4, directed by Tim Van Patten), From Where to Eternity (#9, directed by Henry J. Bronchtein), The Knight in White Satin Armor (#12, directed by Allen Coulter), and the surreal Funhouse (#13, directed by John Patterson). Also included are two short HBO promo featurettes. Four-DVD digipak in paperboard slipcover.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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