Recurring Episodes: The Sopranos, Season One, Episode Ten: “A Hit is a Hit”

(Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.)

This edition of Recurring Episodes will take a slightly different approach, as it will examine one of the weakest episodes of one of television’s best shows, that is: the first foray of The Sopranos into the world of showbiz, “A Hit is a Hit.”

The Show: The Sopranos debuted in 1999 on HBO and immediately became a critical and commercial success, showing that the explicit pay cable niche carved out by Oz, a more cultish show, could serve a show that catered to a broader audience. The Sopranos began as a show that could be easily described in gimmicky fashion—Mob boss Tony Soprano goes to therapy, is as stressed by his own family as he is by his crime family—but eventually became the premier family drama on television, with creator David Chase couching his very negative view of America moving into the 21st Century—as Tony says, “coming in at the end” of something—in a show that was equal parts violent gangster flick, slow-moving existential think piece, hilarious comedy, and, in the show’s frequent dream sequences, Bunuel/Lynch surrealism.

Tony

James Gandolfini as Dolphins coach Tony Sparano.

As one of the most important shows in television history, it has been dissected over and over again, from the pilot that seems haphazard compared to the show hitting its stride in its second and third seasons, to the controversial final season and the oft-debated, unsatisfying-for-many-viewers ending. Some fans prefer its more action-packed mob elements, others see the overarching family conflicts as the most interesting and relatable part of the show, and others yet focus on its seeming indictment of the sort of suburban living through capitalism that the show often skewers. The Sopranos is a deep enough show that it can be all of those things—it can be “ate up,” as a friend’s brother would often say; it can be hilarious, with few TV shows containing funnier moments than when Tony and his mob brethren are just sitting around shooting the shit; it can be bleak, pretentious, slow-moving, tragic.

Why The Sopranos? The Sopranos is possibly the most important television show of the past twenty years. While Oz broke open the standards of what television viewers would watch in terms of violence and darkness, it did not have the broad appeal that The Sopranos did, even though at its core The Sopranos is a darker and indeed, yes, more pretentious and willfully obscure show than Oz ever was, and did more to purposefully alienate its fans than the majority of its imitators—The Shield among them—ever did.

But for all of that, most of the time The Sopranos was really fun to watch. The cast is predominantly excellent—at least the adult cast; Robert Iler as Anthony Soprano, Jr. didn’t really come into his own until the end of the series, and people tend to remember Jamie-Lynn Sigler as being a better actress in the early years than she actually was because she’s hot. James Gandolfini brings an innate sadness and charm to Tony Soprano that makes his very bad man who does very bad things still often likable. Dominic Chianese as Uncle Junior, Tony’s rival to run the North Jersey gangs in the first season, is at turns tragic and hilarious. Tony’s crew of Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), and Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) bring comic relief and menace in equal measure. And Michael Imperioli, as nephew and surrogate son to Tony Christopher Moltisanti, consistently delivers big laughs with excellent, understated comic timing. Chris is the major focus of “A Hit is a Hit,” the season one episode we’ll focus on today.

Jersey Shore got nothin' on Chrissy and Ade!

Jersey Shore got nothin' on Chrissy and Ade!

The Episode: Many of The Sopranos’ greatest episodes have been talked about to death. The first season’s standout, standalone episode “College” is basically a classic noir film or two packed into sixty or so minutes of TV running time. Season Three’s “Pine Barrens” is usually talked about as one of the series’ best, as is “Long Term Parking,” the penultimate episode of the fifth season, where the tragic weight of these characters’ bad deeds is felt heavily.

“A Hit is a Hit” is nowhere near as strong as any of these episodes, or any other favorites. It is often talked about when discussing the worst episodes of the series, and it has its weaknesses, which we’ll hit, as well as the strengths that show even one of the worst episodes of The Sopranos was, and is, better than most everything else TV has to offer.

As mentioned earlier, “A Hit is a Hit” is the first Sopranos foray into the world of showbiz, and from this point on there’d be a detour or two every year into that world, mostly to poke fun at it without the same level of insight it uses to skewer mob life or suburban New Jersey. In the future, those detours would come through Christopher’s misguided dreams to be a screenwriter and later movie producer. This time, it comes from another misguided dreamer, Chrissy’s girlfriend Adriana (Drea de Matteo).

The ongoing mob serial plot of the first season, the off-and-on-again war between Tony and Junior for control of North Jersey, is set aside for this episode, which has two main stories, thematically linked through characters trying to enter worlds where they don’t belong.

Massive Genius

Bokeem Woodbine as Massive Genius

The A-plot has Chris and Adriana randomly meeting the Master P-like rap mogul Massive Genius (Bokeem Woodbine), and being invited to his rap star mansion. Massive and Chris form a mutual admiration society, Chris for Massive’s house and collection of Scarface assault weapons, Massive for Chris’ connection to an actual gangster lifestyle. Adriana, starstruck, likes the glamour of it all. She expresses her dream to get into the music management business, and Massive agrees to help her out, if Chris can set up a sitdown with Hesh Rabkin, a Soprano family associate who owns the master recordings of Massive’s distant relative, a deceased black doo-wop singer Hesh used to manage. It’s obvious at the beginning, though, that Massive isn’t just looking for access to lost royalties—he also seems fond of Adriana’s (admittedly awesome) ass.

The B-plot has Tony dropping a gift off for his neighbor and family physician, Bruce Cusumano, for recommending Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi as a therapist. The Cusumanos, yuppies, the “good” kind of rich, and, in Tony’s words to Dr. Melfi, “Wonder-Bread-Wops,” for the first time invite the Soprano family to a party, and Bruce invites Tony to play golf at the country club he’s longed to play since they moved into the neighborhood.

The A-plot is far less effective than the Tony story, but not for lack of trying. It’s the first real showcase the show’s had for Drea de Matteo as the sweetly oblivious Adriana, as she enthusiastically pushes her ex-boyfriend’s mopey, terrible alternative rock band, Visiting Day, on Massive Genius, not noticing at all as the band plays that he’s watching her hips instead. Michael Imperioli has a number of great moments, from calling a fellow patron in the nightclub where Visiting Day is performing a mullethead to later on demanding that Visiting Day’s lead singer, who’s in a twelve-step program, take some speed so they can hurry up and finish their song in the studio time he’s paid for, then beating him with an acoustic guitar. It all culminates in Chris trying, as nicely as possible, to break it to Adriana: “I think you should mentally prepare for the fucking possibility that Visiting Day sucks.”

The Massive-Hesh sitdown isn’t nearly as strong as the comic business involving the terrible band, Adriana’s obliviousness, and Christopher’s frustration. In fact, it feels like trying to force in yet another part of organized crime history, as if The Sopranos’ writers weren’t sure they’d have another season, so they wanted to cram in as many crime plots as possible—hey, Jewish music moguls used to screw over black artists by making them sign over their royalties and give songwriting credits, and the Italian mob often helped make those songs hits through intimidation and/or payola; we gotta do an episode about that! The nice twist is that this “gangster” battle will end up in the courts, Massive’s lawyers and Hesh’s battling it out.

Hesh does provide a nice moment, however, as he often does in the episodes in which he appears. Chris plays him Visiting Day’s demo. Hesh’s response.  “There’s one constant to the music business: a hit is a hit. And this, my friend, is not a hit.”

The B-plot is far more interesting, though it takes up far less screen time, because it reduces tough mob kingpin Tony to the weird kid everyone makes fun of, or just has hang out because he amuses them. Both at the Cusumanos’ party and at their golf outing, all they want to hear about is mob stories, living vicariously through Tony while treating him as less than a person. It’s almost tough to see Tony seem so small, but it’s great in the moments when he turns it back on them, as in one of the show’s funniest monologues, a made-up story about John Gotti bidding on and winning an ice cream truck and how he “just kept ringing that bell” all the way home, or how he fills a box with sand at the end of the episode and takes it over to the Cusumanos’ for Bruce to “hang onto.”

Tony hands package to Cooze

Tony hands a package to "Cooze."

The emotion comes out, though, in the therapy session with Dr. Melfi, which at this point was a regular occurrence in each episode of the series. He tells the story of how he and his friends were popular in school, and they’d hang out with a kid from school who had a cleft palate that made his voice sound funny. But they’d only call him when they were bored, and they’d make him sing Mack the Knife in his silly voice, and only later on did Tony learn that every night the kid went home crying. Even this sad story can’t end without a laugh, though, in this light-hearted episode—the kid was caught robbing a bank, because everyone recognized his silly little voice.

While “A Hit is a Hit” was by no means an unqualified success, and its extreme lack of mob action causes it to feel like a stopgap, stalling waiting for the season’s major plot to move forward, and the depiction of rap mogul Massive Genius is flat at best, completely laughable at worst, it’s still a pretty entertaining episode, especially for anyone who’s had friends or acquaintances in a terrible local rock band; the scenes with Visiting Day, from their horrible stage presence and rock star pretension in the studio (“This is our most balls out, introspective track!”) to Christopher’s mounting frustration ending in violence to Adriana’s complete obliviousness to their lack of talent are the stuff of great comedy.

Odds & Ends: A personal note on “A Hit is a Hit.” My parents were one of the great wave of HBO subscribers who signed up after the praise for the first season of The Sopranos, in time for the second. Before the second season premiered, they ran the first season, two episodes a night, for a week leading up. I missed the first few, so the episode previous to this one, “Boca,” and this one were the first episodes of the show I ever saw. At the time I was impressed and hooked immediately. Only looking back is it easy to tell how weak these episodes were in comparison to the best from the first or any season.

Oh, Adriana. In the beginning, Adriana rarely served much purpose beyond comic relief and Jersey girl eye candy, but as those who have seen the entire series know, she plays an important role and moves from comic figure to tragic. It’s to Drea de Matteo’s credit that she took a role that was originally a disposable pretty face with a few dumb girl laugh-lines and put in a performance good enough that David Chase and the other writers trusted her with carrying so much of the show’s weight going forward.

Massive Genius would never return to the show, but Adriana’s music dreams would, as later on she runs a music venue/nightclub that serves as a Soprano crime family hub. The bands playing there would also suck.

No Sopranos review would be complete without some quotes:

  • Chris: “Rent. Fuckin’ Broadway musicals. We’re supposed to get all fuckin’ weepy-eyed cause they turned off the heat in some guy’s loft?”
  • Massive Genius: “You people are alright. Godfather. I seen that movie two hundred times. Godfather II was definitely the shit. The third one . . . a lot of people didn’t like it. But I think it was just misunderstood.”
  • Adriana: “Talk about paisan pride . . . Bon Jovi!”

And, for the record, the absolute worst episode of The Sopranos is the fourth season’s “Christopher.” Also, for the record (SPOILERS maybe not really) Tony’s dead.

Recurring Episodes will continue with the HBO drama greats next week in the Old West, Deadwood style.

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