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I want you to do me and by proxy all of us here at Outkick a favor. Please don’t binge watch our number five television drama of all-time. Just don’t do it. You’ll like the series much better, respect it, and it will improve your standard of living.
Drama, by its very definition, relies on conflict, sadness, and challenging situations. It’s fallacious to step into one of these shows without realizing that fact early on and preparing yourself for it. Over the past six weeks, you and I have gotten to know each other a bit and we’ve talked about some great programs. All of them, even The Shield, are great binge watch products. They each deal with heavy moments and have their ups and downs but it’s easy to negotiate and enjoy the stories as they progress from episode to episode and season to season.
But please, as iconic and unforgettable as it is, just don’t binge watch number five…
NUMBER FIVE: THE SOPRANOS (1999-2007)
David Chase, whose television chops stretch all the way back to The Rockford Files, moved the playing field. His foray into the world of the New Jersey mafia is arguably the most important and groundbreaking television show in the history of the medium. I fondly recall channel flipping in late 1999 and stumbling on a seemingly innocuous show featuring a portly father visiting potential colleges with his beautiful daughter. Twenty minutes later, when I watched that father strangle a guy and murder him in cold blood, I was intrigued. Six seasons and 81 episodes later, that show had gone from a drama on HBO to one of the more recognizable brands in all of pop culture.
For better or worse you could buy Sopranos merchandise not just off the DVD racks but also find the logo emblazoned on every imaginable garment. If you strolled through a mall in 2003, you’d see Sopranos swag in at least ten stores, running the gamut from the bookstores where you could find Allen Rucker’s companion book to the Spencer’s and Hot Topic and Sam Goody outlets of the world where you could find all sorts of memorabilia.
I remembered plenty of good times watching the show live and decided I would go back and relive the entire run. I did it over the past nine days. I binge watched The Sopranos, wondering if I might place it higher now that I’m older and can comprehend the finer points of the story. What I can say today is I haven’t been a happy person over the past nine days. The show is so full of the absolute worst in an imagined society that it deeply and negatively affected me.
Once again. Please. Don’t. Binge watch. The Sopranos. I felt almost depressed because my emotions were tied to a bunch of terrible people and their unapologetic lives of sin and excess. I honestly needed a heart to heart with Dr. Melfi by season four.
As the much ballyhooed and discussed series finale, “Made in America,” went to black, I literally sighed in relief. I was done. I was out of New Jersey. I didn’t have to watch anybody die again. I didn’t have to witness serial adultery. I didn’t have to see people live a lie. I didn’t have to struggle to find anyone at all to root for or feel sympathy for anymore. I had gotten through the saga of The Sopranos. It was a sadistic, emotionally taxing, painful, often hilarious, but always magnificent journey.
A show that started with a New Jersey mafia capo dealing with panic attacks and a loveless mother deciding to try therapy became a cultural touchstone.
James Gandolfini set the standard by which many still judge the best lead acting performances in television and even in film. The role of Tony Soprano made him a household name but it’s arguable that James Gandolfini himself made Tony Soprano a household name. His work was so stunning, so consistent, and so incredible that even when the story waned or lost focus in the latter episodes, it was impossible to look away from the screen. Gandolfini passed away just over a year ago at age 51. He worked on plenty of other projects, really good stuff and a few he probably should have passed on, just like any other actor. I believe there are three truly transcendent male roles in the entire existence of television. Tony Soprano is one of them. The other two are Walter White and Don Draper. We’ll be talking about both of them soon.
Let me tell ya something. Nowadays, everybody’s gotta go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on Sally Jessy Raphael and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul! (Tony Soprano, S1E1)
It wasn’t just Gandolfini, but he was the metronome for Chase, for Green, for Burgess, for Weiner, for Winter, and everyone else associated on the writing and production side of The Sopranos. Edie Falco’s portrayal of Carmela Soprano is equally impressive and received its share of praise as well. The two of them on screen together produced an almost unbearable level of electricity. Both Gandolfini and Falco were nominated for six lead acting Emmys and both won three. Had they won six, no one would have balked.
Let’s stop here and talk about the awards. I can’t list them all. It would take forever. The show won 21 Emmys and received an earthshattering 111 nominations. It received a Best Drama nomination in each of its seven years on the air, winning in 2004 and posthumously in 2007. In addition to Gandolfini and Falco, Joe Pantoliano, Michael Imperioli, and Drea de Matteo all won acting Emmys. Several others, including the excellent Lorraine Bracco and Aida Turturro were nominated. In terms of writing Emmys, Chase and almost every key member of his crew won at least one and were nominated multiple times. The Sopranos won five Golden Globe Awards, back to back Peabody Awards, and won a boatload of guild honors.
We’re soldiers. Soldiers don’t go to hell. It’s war. Soldiers kill other soldiers. We’re in a situation where everyone involved knows the stakes and if you are going to accept those stakes, you’ve got to do certain things. It’s business. (Tony Soprano, S2E9)
Last year, TV Guide called The Sopranos the second best show of all-time. The Writer’s Guild of America named it the best-written show in television history. Vanity Fair spoke of it in almost embarrassingly positive terms. Everyone watched The Sopranos. Everyone watched television change because of The Sopranos.
In 2000, a young writer named Matthew Weiner put together an unsolicited screenplay for a show about the 1950s advertising industry. He called his vision “Mad Men.” Sopranos boss David Chase, notoriously controlling and demanding, was blown away. He brought Weiner into The Sopranos and in many ways shaped what Weiner’s later triumph would become. It is undeniable that the dream sequences, the drug sequences, the symbolism, so many of the techniques you now view on AMC came straight from HBO.
Terence Winter practiced law in New York and Connecticut after graduating from NYU and decided he wanted to try his hand at screenwriting. He trekked to Los Angeles and began the process for a talented guy trying to carve his own niche into the tapestry of Tinseltown. He wrote for some fairly popular shows but ended up joining The Sopranos in the production phase of the second season. He would go on to write or assist in 25 episodes of the show and won two Emmy awards for his efforts. Following The Sopranos, Winter became a showrunner himself, adapting a bestselling book into a series for HBO. That show, Boardwalk Empire, is about to begin its final season, and has won its fair share of acclaim as well. Oh, he also helped adapt Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” last year. That film did okay. He was nominated for an Academy Award for it.
Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, married and a stellar writing team, also found their way to David Chase, but were with him before The Sopranos. They assisted Chase with Northern Exposure, a show he didn’t create but helped run in its final two years. Incidentally, Northern Exposure won 27 Emmys out of 57 nominations between 1990 and 1995. After The Sopranos, the couple created a show for CBS, Blue Bloods, which attracted an older fan base but performed admirably.
I presented these few brief bios to you for one simple reason: The Sopranos changed television. Green and Burgess went on to Blue Bloods (not to mention Southland) and that’s the “ho hum” story. Winter created Boardwalk Empire. Weiner created Mad Men. Todd Kessler, who wrote early episodes of The Sopranos, went on to co-create Damages for FX. The pedigree extending from David Chase’s seminal mafia epic continues to reverberate on red carpets and acceptance speeches worldwide.
The cast is outstanding. Outside of those already mentioned, Tony Sirico and Steven Van Zandt were awesome as Paulie Gualtiero and Silvio Dante. In the interest of time (coming from me I know that’s rich) I’ll refrain from a full list. Suffice it to say just about everybody kills it.
Some of the more memorable sequences ever aired on television came from The Sopranos, particularly in its early years. The death of Pussy Bonpensiero in Season 2, Janice and Richie Aprile’s fateful night, Christopher Moltisanti’s car accident, Melfi’s rape, Junior and Tony’s gunplay, the separation, Gloria on fire, Silvio’s ride with Adrianna La Cerva, Ralphie’s “I’m a made guy” moment, Jackie Jr’s mistake, AJ’s cinder block, and so many others stand out.
Tony: You know we’re the only country where the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in writing? Do you believe that? A bunch of f…ing spoiled brats. Where’s my happiness then?
Dr. Melfi: It’s the pursuit that’s guaranteed.
Tony: Yeah, always a f…ing loophole. (S2E11)
Music on The Sopranos, from A3’s “Woke Up This Morning” to all the various selections to end episodes, still ranks up there with Sons of Anarchy, The Shield, Mad Men, and The Wire as the top in their field. The music rarely failed to have purpose and meaning and in many cases, the songs were great listens on their own. The highlights to me were Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” to open the second season and even better, the closing minutes of that year. We’ll go in further detail in just a minute on that sequence.
With all this said, however, make no mistake; The Sopranos is not an easy watch. It’s downright disturbing throughout much of its run. Tony is a sociopathic scumbag. All of his associates, even Silvio, are reprehensible pieces of garbage. His wife and children feel conflicted about their father’s profession but still indulge in the benefits of that income. His sister is a selfish, whining, conniving leech. His mother makes you want to punch through a wall. His uncle wants him dead on numerous occasions to rise to power. All his rivals in New York are vindictive pricks. The strippers and the whores of the Bada Bing are drug riddled, trapped, and worthless. The local shop and restaurant owners are caught in the mix but very rarely draw sympathy.
No one is above “clipped” status in The Sopranos, except for the wives and kids (most of the time.) The show often shows Tony seemingly overprotective of his family while shacking up with anything that moves that happens to look good in a skirt or show too much cleavage. His son…good lord his son. He’s horrendous. The mafia world is presented early as extremely tight knit. Chase and his crew then spend six seasons showing us that the mob “family” is only sacred up until it costs someone, either financially or in the hierarchical power structure.
The Sopranos was a breathtaking triumph of art and fiction, but, just as importantly, it made HBO. It also showed actors and writers that the small screen really wasn’t that small after all. Depth of storytelling and a serial drama of its caliber simply hadn’t been done before. The West Wing was brilliant writing but it had a more episodic structure. Chase created one story and told it on such a high plane that millions saw new potential in television. Who knows how many shows wouldn’t have happened without it. Who knows whether those concepts could have even been created without the depravity Chase showcased for seven years on HBO.
Would Kiefer have decided on FOX? Would Glenn Close or Billy Bob Thornton have ended up on FX? Maybe Harrelson and McConaughey would have seen television as a step down rather than a home for the inaugural season of True Detective. I give David Chase and everyone associated with The Sopranos much of the credit for the shift not just in the quality and maturity, but in the perception of what television could and did become.
If I have any issue with the show, it’s that it ran a bit too long and some of the final season felt very arbitrary.
Most who watched were underwhelmed by “Made in America,” the series finale. They expected Tony to get clipped or his family to be assaulted or any number of other major things and what they got was Tony, his wife Carmela, his daughter Meadow, and his son Anthony eating at an all-American restaurant. Actually Meadow was walking into the restaurant as the show suddenly and abruptly faded to black, cutting off Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.” Inside the restaurant, the camera shows us three people who seem out of place and the implication is dire for Tony Soprano. Websites exist today full of speculation on what happened just after the story ended on screen.
I had no real problem with it. I felt Chase’s entire point was to illustrate that this was the world Tony had created for himself, whether he was born into the life or not. He had gone through therapy with Jennifer Melfi since the pilot but in the end, he was a mob boss with a lot of enemies. He cared about his family but didn’t seem oblivious to the outsiders in the restaurant. He would never be in a scenario again where he wouldn’t be looking over his shoulder. For all the money, the power, the life of luxury, Tony Soprano was a marked man and would always be a marked man. He reaped what he sowed.
My lasting memory from The Sopranos is in the final minutes of the second season. Keith Richards sings in “Thru and Thru” these fitting words:
You know that we do take away
We deliver too
Open 24 hours babe
Just waiting on a call from you
Waiting on a call from you
The song plays over a video montage showcasing Meadow’s graduation party. Interspersed with those brief moments of joy are shots of a sex store, the Bada Bing, drug dealers, money counting, and gambling. Finally we see a shot of Pussy’s final resting place. Symbolism sometimes went too far in the show, but here Chase gave his audience both worlds. These are the trappings of the underworld. Porn, drugs, money, cards, casinos, and strip clubs never truly close their doors. They wait, salivating as predators for the weak or those looking for an escape. It’s all for money. Money gained from addiction and despair. The result for the purveyors is a lavish celebration and stacks of cash. The result for many who venture in as customers or even operatives is far different. But is anyone in Chase’s reality actually happy in his or her life?
I asked you not to binge watch The Sopranos. It will make you an unhappy person because there’s so much “bad” in David Chase’s masterpiece. I want you to enjoy The Sopranos. I want you to engulf yourself in the storytelling, not feel caught in a black abyss with no actual way out. I want you to take your time, breathe and exhale.
In short, I want you to savor it like one of Artie Bucco’s finest dishes.
All six seasons of The Sopranos are available on HBO GO and Amazon Instant Video in addition to DVD releases.
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