How time flies. It has been 5 years since HBO’s groundbreaking series The Sopranos went off the air. Created by David Chase, the show generated almost an unprecedented amount of attention and acclaim during its run, instantly imbedding itself into our pop-culture subconscious. However, the more time that passes the easier it is view the series more objectively. One can see today that, like all shows, The Sopranos had its share of artistic ups and downs, with some seasons clearly ranking above others. For my money, there was one in particular that stood out ahead of the pack…

After the amazing success of The Sopranos‘ first 13 episodes, the pressure was on for David Chase to deliver with the second season. Despite the overwhelming obstacles that come with such a level of expectation, Chase and his brilliant team of writers met every one and then some. With a sound, emotional narrative and extensive character development, season two of The Sopranos represented the series at its creative best.

Stripped down to the bone, the show was about Tony Sopranos’ (James Gandolfini) burden to honor his commitments to his two “families”, a struggle that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Given the size and scope of the world and its inhabitants, Chase and co. had to walk a fine line in giving both sides, domestic and criminal, equal time to develop and grow. While the writers generally managed to do this masterfully, there were times when they seemed to be picking favorites . This is most evident in the later seasons, when supporting characters like underboss Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) and daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) really faded into the background.

With season two, each character seemed to get their own little moment in the sun. For example, there was a nice subplot carried over from season one where nephew Christopher Moltisanti, portrayed by the underrated Michael Imperioli, was forced to give up his dream of entering show business because of his eternal tie to Tony. Of course, hovering like a dark cloud was the volatile matriarch Livia (Nancy Marchand), who continued to be a constant source of headaches for everyone after her failed attempt at having son Tony whacked. Though some felt Livia turned into something of a caricature, her presence really helped humanize Tony as the season went on. Manipulative, calculating, and soulless, she had the makings of a terrific mob boss. Had Tony inherited more of her personality, he would have risen straight to the top. Sadly, Livia’s reign of terror came to an end with the death of Nancy Marchand during the show’s hiatus. Despite going on for a terrific run, her absence was a significant blow. On a show populated almost entirely with nefarious characters, Livia Soprano may have been the most despicable of all and audiences loved her for it.

Season two also benefited from having the most structurally sound storyline of the series. At its core were two season-long arcs that juxtaposed each other nicely. One chronicled the toxic relationship between the obnoxious, scheming Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro) and wise guy Richie Aprile (David Proval). The other focused on Tony’s best friend, Pussy Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), who slowly unraveled working as an FBI informant. While Janice and Richie’s story showcased the absurd and occasionally petty aspects of mob life, Pussy’s was more emotionally resonant, touching on themes such as love, survival, deceit, and betrayal. Beyond those two stories, the writers introduced a number of new characters and situations while also tying up loose ends from the previous season. All this made for a smooth, concise, and amazingly controlled narrative that put you right into the middle of the action. Unfortunately, as The Sopranos went on, Chase almost became too ambitious in his story telling, so much so that the numerous plot threads began to pile up on top of one another. As a result, some felt rushed and others were simply dropped all together.

Though season two was unmatched in terms of dramatic intensity, it would be unfair to say the show peaked early based on the high quality work produced in the subsequent seasons. It will be interesting to see how well The Sopranos stands the test of time, but some 5 years after the finale’s infamous cut to black, it remains the gold standard of cable television series.

What is  your favorite season of ‘The Sopranos’?