The six-season run of The Sopranos defined the concept of prestige television and represented a paradigm-shift for the medium. Each season of HBO's mob drama was remarkable in its own way, and there are good arguments for almost any of them to be considered the best. However, this list reflects what professional critics thought of each one, by taking the average of the aggregate reviewers' scores found on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
As a side note, although on paper, Season 6 is considered a single season, it was actually produced and released as two distinctive halves. As a result this list ranks them separately as Season 6A and 6B. Without further ado, here's how each season of The Sopranos ranked, according to critics.
7) Season 5 - Average Score: 89
Despite being the lowest rated entry on this list, The Sopranos' penultimate season is by no means a slouch. With years of audience good-will behind it, the show continued to push the boundaries of narrative storytelling, culminating in episodes that continue to be discussed and debated to this day ("The Test Dream," "Sentimental Education"). The plot is a bit slow in early episodes, but overarching conflicts, like Adriana's secret role as an informant and Johnny Sack's increasingly belligerent attitude, are developed masterfully, resulting in memorable payoffs ("Long Term Parking," "All Due Respect"). Furthermore, the symbolism of the bear in Carmela's backyard is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated metaphors in the entire series.
6) Season 6B - Average Score: 90
Being the last half-season of a legendary show and having to deliver a satisfying conclusion is a thankless job, but the so-called Season 6B does its absolute best. At no point in the series does the family find itself in a more dark and dangerous situation, exacerbated by family trauma ("The Second Coming"), death ("Kennedy and Heidi") and a bloody mafia war ("The Blue Comet"). All the depressing events may be hard to watch, but they also play directly into the show's themes of existentialism and the never-ending conflict between old and new. Audiences may never truly agree on the show's ending, but its brilliance is that it's exactly the way showrunner David Chase wanted his masterpiece to be remembered.
5) Season 6A - Average Score: 92.5
With the benefit of two years of preparation, the first half of Season 6 was so absorbing and dazzling that one reviewer compared it to the works of Mozart. The show successfully built on its brief foray into dream sequences by casting Tony in a multi-episode battle with his own subconscious ("Mayham"), finished off the tragic stories of Johnny Sack ("Stage 5") and Eugene Pontecorvo ("Members Only") and even worked in a hilarious Ben Kingsley cameo ("Luxury Lounge"). With the series' ending now known, it's fascinating to go back and consider how each falling domino in these episodes gradually leads to The Sopranos' inevitable conclusion.
4) Season 4 - Average Score: 94
Critics had some minor gripes with the series' fourth season, considering it a tad "too carefully crafted," and yet most still couldn't help but give it stellar marks. There's a strong focus on the tension in Tony and Carmela's marriage, which allows Edie Falco to deliver some of the best acting ever seen on television ("Whitecaps"). On other fronts, Tony's resentment of Ralphie finally reaches a breaking point ("Whoever Did This"), and there's a good mix of humorous interventions, jokes and non-sequiturs to provide some comic relief.
3) Season 2 - Average Score: 95.5
Betrayal rears its head left and right in Season 2, as Puss is roped into working for the FBI, Janice undermines her brother at every step and Tony's refusal to wear a jacket destroys his relationship with Richie ("Full Leather Jacket"). Unlike the show's first season, which seems rather innocent in comparison, the chaos brought on by Richie's release from prison resulted in a bevy of narrative surprises ("The Knight in White Satin Armor") and a marked shift in tone. Nowhere is that more evident than in the tension-fueled boat ride when Tony, Paulie and Silvio confront Sal about his disloyalty, and make a decision that will haunt the series' protagonist for years to come.
2) Season 1 - Average Score: 97
Surprisingly, The Sopranos' first season is arguably its most consistent, producing a constant stream of winners, besides maybe one seemingly out of place miss ("A Hit Is a Hit"). Regardless, the entire cast and crew could not have asked for a better start. Most critics focused on the show's originality and heaped praise on the performances of Nancy Marchand and James Gandolfini for cultivating an unorthodox mother-son dynamic. Some episodes have since become touchstones in the history of television ("College"), while others offered hints at the kind of subconscious, dream-like narratives ("Isabella") that were yet to come in later seasons.
1) Season 3 - Average Score: 98.5
The best season of The Sopranos, according to critics at least, was a perfect storm of mature storytelling and compelling characters that hits on all cylinders and rarely lets up. In addition to including what many consider the show's best episode ("Pine Barrens"), the season also features one of its most memorable villains in Ralph Cifaretto ("University"), while Tony's Freudian relationship with Gloria Trillo ("Amour Fou") dovetails perfectly with the death of his mother ("Proshai," "Livushka"). Even in its more controversial moments ("Employee of the Month"), the writers are able to instill Dr. Melfi with a profoundly vulnerable complexity and show they are willing to take risks to tell important stories.
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