What does it mean for an episode of The Sopranos to be “underrated?” David Chase’s generation-defining drama is one of the most immaculate television series of all time, and even its weakest chapters are a cut above. Still, there are a handful of episodes from across its six seasons that critical or fan consensus has placed near the bottom of the heap. After all, no matter how many made guys you’ve got at the table, somebody’s gotta be the low man, right? Each of the following episodes has been singled out in one way or another as a sub-par entry in the Sopranos story, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dump them into the Hudson.
“Down Neck” (season 1, episode 7)
When The Ringer’s Justin Sayles ranked all 86 episodes of The Sopranos, I was shocked to find “Down Neck” near the bottom, at #82. This early episode is one of the first deep dives into Tony’s past, as Anthony Jr.’s escalating delinquency prompts the depressed Don of New Jersey to revisit his relationship with his own father, small-time racketeer Johnny Boy Soprano. Tony’s flashbacks to the summer of 1967 offer a taste of what we’d eventually see in The Many Saints of Newark, though, as that film demonstrates, this is really as much of a Sopranos origin story as we ever needed. Through a handful of scenes set a few weeks apart, writers Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess efficiently establish Johnny as a man with big dreams but a weak will, Livia as a terrifying authority figure, and even a hint of Tony’s rivalry with older sister Janice, who had yet to appear as an adult on the series. Most of all, as Tony unpacks his flashbacks with Dr. Melfi, we get to examine his complicated feelings towards the family business, an interplay between sincere pride and performed shame that helps to define his character for years to come.
“A Hit is a Hit” (season 1, episode 10)
On IMDb, where users can give each episode of a series a rating of up to ten stars, only three episodes of The Sopranos have an average rating of under 8.0. Tied for the lowest score (7.8) is this episode in which Christopher and Adrianna get involved in the music business, backing a band named Visiting Day. Though sometimes dismissed as silly or inconsequential, “A Hit is a Hit” is a charming anomaly in the early days of The Sopranos, when the producers were still calibrating the show’s drama/comedy dial. Admittedly, a lot of my fondness for this episode comes from growing up amidst New Jersey’s rock scene, and the understanding that, as cartoonish a stereotype as the boys from Visiting Day may seem, these guys are absolutely real. (I cannot speak to the portrayal of gangsta rapper Massive Genius.) But, personal attachment aside, “A Hit is a Hit” boasts some of the first season’s most hilarious or bleakly funny line deliveries, from “I’ve recorded in Denmark” to “He bought horse.”
“Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” (season 3, episode 1)
Speaking of personal attachments, the debut episode of The Sopranos’ third season earns a place on this list because my father, a lifelong New Jersey resident who has watched the series upwards of 20 times, habitually skips it. I can sort of understand why, as “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” diverges from the show’s established rhythm and focuses on the FBI’s efforts to plant a bug at the Soprano residence. We spend relatively little time with the regular cast, often from the perspective of the feds who are shadowing them—and the feds don’t see them doing anything interesting. It’s a puzzling way to open a season, but it’s also of a piece with The Sopranos as a series, which delights in stripping the coolness away from the crime genre one layer at a time. The same way everyone in the Soprano crew thinks they’re in Goodfellas, the FBI task force thinks they’re slick, but they’re conspicuous and embarrassing, flustered by the slightest complication. This episode wouldn’t be in my Top 10, but by skipping it, you’re depriving yourself of Tony singing Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” to himself while he drives to work. So, lay off, Dad!
“Christopher” (season 4, episode 3)
Search “worst Sopranos episode” and the overwhelmingly popular opinion is “Christopher,” co-written by Christopher Moltisanti actor Michael Imperioli, but named for Christopher Columbus. Here, conflict simmers between groups of Native Americans and Italian-Americans over Newark’s upcoming Columbus Day parade. While it may not advance the season’s ongoing story arc in any meaningful way, “Christopher” is an episode that’s only gotten more poignant since it first aired in 2002. To Tony’s community (particularly Silvio), it’s more important to preserve Columbus as a symbol of Italian pride than to acknowledge his role in colonization, slave trading, and genocide. This has become a familiar position in the culture war battles over the historical reassessment of America’s bloody past. There’s a scene in which Hesh is willing to agree with his friend “Reuben the Cuban’s” condemnation of Columbus right until Reuben compares him to Hitler, threatening Hesh’s position on his imaginary hierarchy of oppressed peoples. Who amongst us hasn’t stumbled across (or into) this conversation on Twitter? For an episode intended to “stick it” to Italian-American anti-defamation groups who condemned The Sopranos, it holds up terrifically.
“Chasing It” (season 6, episode 16)
The third episode to score under 8.0 on IMDb (along with “A Hit is a Hit” and “Christopher”), “Chasing It” is, to some, the low point of the otherwise unimpeachable final season of The Sopranos. In this chapter, Tony’s gambling habit gets the better of him, and a string of bad bets puts him in debt. Tony has made his living exploiting people’s vices, and often derides the “degenerates” who find themselves owing him. Now, struggling with an addiction of his own, he’s every bit as foolish and cruel as any of his customers. (His buddy David Scatino, whose debts to Tony cost him his sporting goods store, his family, and his life, comes to mind.) No one gets murdered in “Chasing It” but a lot of psychic damage is dealt out. This is Tony — and the writers — at their most casually cruel. Tony and Carmella have what might be their ugliest fight, which begins when Carm declines to let Tony bet the profits from her spec house on the Jets game. Tony’s friendship with Hesh is revealed to be as empty as the rest of his relationships, as the pair wages a war of passive-aggression over a six-figure bridge loan. And, finally, little Vito Spatafore Jr. gets shipped off to a draconian disciplinary camp after Tony gambles away the money that would have given the Spatafores a fresh start in Maine. All this misery in an episode where, in the grand scheme, “nothing important happens.” Just another Sunday for Tony Soprano.