The world of streaming options has led to a huge glut of TV shows that friends will pull you aside and earnestly tell you you just have to watch. But who has time for all of that? Let the Vox culture experts pick the one and only episode you need to see to talk knowledgeably about the show. And, hey, if you like it? You just might want to watch even more.
This week's pick: The Sopranos
Why: One of the most influential, important TV series ever made, The Sopranos should be a cornerstone of any TV fan's understanding of the medium. By centering on the life of a mobster, the show opened up ideas of who a TV protagonist could be while maintaining the audience's sympathies. Tony Soprano (the brilliant James Gandolfini) could kill people, or blackmail them, or take all their stuff, and we remained riveted, thanks to the intimate brutality of Gandolfini's performance and the smart writing by a staff headed up by creator David Chase.
But the show's influence extended beyond the rise of the antihero (which has continued through shows like The Shield, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad). The Sopranos broke out of the conventional formula for TV storytelling, allowing for dreamlike passages and inconclusive endings. It built off the ground Twin Peaks had laid to create a world filled with strange portents and menace. But it also dug deep into the mundane interactions of everyday life, the way that families grow and change, or the way that coworkers joke around. It felt like reality — just heightened.
And it's also one of the most beautiful shows ever made, the series' large stable of regular directors taking time to pick out the sorts of cinematic images TV had rarely been known for prior to the show's arrival. All of that should be more than evident on the new Blu-Ray set of the complete series, which is out this month and is one of the better complete series sets of the year. (Or if you don't want to pay for that, the show is also available in streaming on HBO Go and Amazon Prime.)
The one episode: "The Happy Wanderer" (season 2, episode 6)
What it's about: When the father of one of Tony's daughter's friends (played by Robert Patrick) finds himself indebted to the mob boss, things do not go particularly well for him.
Why you should watch: Conventional wisdom would tell you to watch the first season's fifth episode, "College," one of the best episodes of the show and the one that launched the antihero revolution almost singlehandedly by showing Tony was willing to kill a guy to further his interests. And conventional wisdom isn't wrong, exactly. That's a great episode and one that's perfectly representative of the show.
But we would urge you to consider this less heralded classic instead. The thing about Tony's evil is that it's not always flashy. It doesn't always involve murder or terrorizing others. Sometimes, it's just about the sheer mundanity of becoming friends with the wrong person, who knows exactly how to exploit your weaknesses for his own personal gain. (In the case of Patrick's character, that's a gambling addiction.) Not all of us are friends with mob bosses, but we've all had that cancerous person in our lives. One of the show's major arguments was that people only tangentially involved with Tony could have their lives ruined; imagine how poorly it goes to actively try to get involved with him.
"The Happy Wanderer" is also one of the best episodes for exploring Tony's self-justifications about why he is the way he is. The heart of the show often came in the therapy sessions between Tony and his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and this episode has one of the very best, as Tony questions why he's not happier, and both Melfi and the audience are left to wonder why he can't ponder the divide between the terrible things he does and the way he wishes he felt.
Plus, "The Happy Wanderer" is largely standalone. There are ties to other season two stories, but this is, essentially, a tiny parable about what it is to live in a world with someone like Tony Soprano — or anyone (even ourselves) who is completely, utterly self-interested, with little regard for others. That might sound grim, but this episode will easily show you why the series has become so rightly beloved, with its mix of involving storytelling, humor, and insight. We'll be very surprised if you can stop at just this one.