actually you know what, this last point i made was something i had wanted to respond to Killtrocity's post with. this part:
Sopranos frequently changes perspective, even for single shots at times ("I found Jimmy Hoffa!") and in doing so gives a much broader commentary on society as a whole, but also suffers at times from lack of direction (the episode where Carmela goes to Italy with Rosalie comes to mind, Melfi's rape comes out of nowhere and is never discussed again, some of the Ralphie stuff, much of Meadow's bullshit). Sopranos also is not afraid to kill of characters which is a plus. Jesse should have been dead in season 2.
both of those examples you had described as 'lacking direction', i thought were really great writing excursions that branched out in an interesting way, while also conveying to the audience something new about the characters at hand. actually, as a sweeping statement, i would say Sopranos excelled in never boring the viewers with insignificant or redundant plot lines (very unlike many, many, many other shows) - nearly everything that was put on the screen was interesting or engaging in some form or another.
the Dr. Melfi rape was one of the highlights of the show for me, because it:
a) enabled us to get a rare glimpse into Dr. Melfi's own struggles, wants and desires as a human being. and the reason that's so beautiful is the sharp contrast between her personality as a therapist. as a psychiatrist, she is mostly a "non-person" - she puts up this big opaque chrome wall over herself, and is almost exclusively there (that is, in the sessions) as an unbiased, neutral therapeutic figure. she was tried, and was able to get through the ordeal by staying true to her moral compass - that makes you respect her more on a personal level, not just as "Tony's Generic Therapist".
b) it developed and deepened her character, and made us (the audience) realize what kind of considerations having such a high-profile patient entails, and what kind of responsibility that demands of a highly moral and functional person who, unlike most of the other protagonists on the show, refuses to cut herself any slack and take the easy way out (asking Tony to justly brutalize this lowlife Employee Of The Month).
c) it gave us this most beautiful moment of seeing such a capable, intelligent, strong therapist break during a session with a patient. and more importantly - it shone a light on this grey area, of ethics and personal morals and what is just, vs. what is vigilantism.
same thing goes for Carmela's trip to Rome with Rosalie. the contrast between the two characters - Rosalie being decidedly prosaic, very grounded and blocked off emotionally, opposite Carmela who is so emotional, like an open wound, soaking up everything she sees and diving into philosophical thoughts that highlight her struggles and difficulties in all this constant stream of shit that comes with living alongside Tony.
the scene where Carmela stands there and touches a wall that dates way way back, and thinks about all the lives that were once there, and "washed away". that was just so powerful (with yet another flawless acting performance by the amazing Edie Falco) and profound.
for me, if we're talking about half-baked storylines, i always felt the Tony B arc was kinda odd, and left a lot of loose ends that could have made great, great plot developments. missed opportunities. it just seemed like there was something better to be done with that plot. but eh, it really is hard to complain when a show is THAT good.