Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The unofficial start of summer has us thinking of TV road trips.
The Sopranos, “College” (season one, episode five; originally aired 2/7/1999)
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) was the herald of a new era of TV character, one unbound from four decades of the medium’s conventions. Millions of people invited The Sopranos’ protagonist into their homes, but they wouldn’t want to have him over for dinner. He did bad things onscreen, yet viewers were still asked to understand him on a human level. The fact that nearly every episode found him spilling his mafioso guts (however cautiously) to a therapist aided in that understanding, granting unprecedented insight into a character’s psychological state.
Five episodes into the series, Tony takes his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) on a tour of New England colleges, and he busts another TV cliché. Road trips are supposed to be a way to mix up the week-in, week-out drudgery of a television show, a change of scenery for a story that can take place on the same sets for years. It’s an easy way to break that routine—if you’re not making a show about Tony Soprano. For Tony Soprano, the routine follows him everywhere. Even while he’s showing Meadow the possibilities of life outside of New Jersey, New Jersey rears its ugly head at a rural gas station.
Between campus visits, Tony spots Febby Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi), a former associate-turned-informant. Their crossing of paths turns “College” into a mobile game of cat-and-mouse, with Tony and Febby circling one another in increasingly tighter circles. The tension is echoed in the driving scenes between Soprano daughter and father, in which the privacy of the family car gives Meadow the chance to ask a difficult question: Is Tony a mobster? The Sopranos didn’t feel the need to protect the audience from the mob boss’ darkest secrets, and it extends that faith to Med as well. Tony comes clean, but he’s not being entirely honest—a pattern we’d already seen him fall into with his therapist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco).
Even when it’s not on the road, “College” is moving, with kinetic camerawork from director Allen Coulter implying travel even when the episode is checking in with Carmela. It’s an atypical episode for the series (for one, there’s no session between Tony and Dr. Melfi), but it stays true to the paranoia that haunts Tony’s every step. “College” blurs every barrier between the character’s work and his family—and that works for The Sopranos, since family is Tony’s work. Out on the highway, a pleasant weekend with Meadow is also a case of pursue or be pursued.
Availability: “College” is available as part of The Sopranos: The Complete Series Blu-ray collection. It can also be streamed from HBO Go, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime.