David Chase never wanted to make a TV show. He never, in fact, wanted to work in TV. For the creator of The Sopranos, the New Jersey mob drama that would become the most influential show in the history of the medium, TV was failure.
In a way, he wasn’t wrong, because he’d spent many years failing in it. At least, that’s how he saw it.
Chase, raised in New Jersey, grew up in thrall of the masters of European cinema and the Hollywood mavericks of the Sixties and Seventies – television was slumming it compared to a Fellini or a golden-era Coppola. He saw cinemas as cathedrals. TV? That was just what you watched with dinner.
A graduate of NYU’s film school, he moved to Hollywood with the intention of becoming a screenwriter. Over a decade, screenplay after screenplay was written, but none ever got made. TV was an accident, albeit one that paid the bills. His first job was on a show called The Magician – it was about a stage magician who solved crimes with magic – and from there on in, his tortuous descent towards success began. Notable hits The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure – on the latter of which he rose to the position of showrunner, the boss – did that most awful of things. They paid him so much it would be foolish to leave.
In fact, before The Sopranos, the only film screenplay that Chase ever got close to being made was a project called Female Suspects, written in 1981, about a sociologist in New Jersey who studied violent women and became entangled in their lives. Eventually, like all the others, it was rejected. The reason, again and again, was always the same. His writing, he was told, was “too dark”.
That Chase, now 73, is the author of The Sopranos in the same way that a writer is the author of a book is of little doubt – the scripts he didn’t write in the first instance he mostly rewrote, the episodes he didn’t direct he directed the director – but it wasn’t his idea.
Rather, it came from his manager, Lloyd Braun, who simply asked him one day: “Have you ever thought about doing The Godfather for TV?”
The reach, influence and breadth of The Sopranos can’t be overstated. Sure, there’s the obvious cultural markers – the 21 Emmy wins, the magazine covers, the Simpsons parody, the academic essays, the themed pinball machines and the board games – but far more important is something that’s harder to put a figure on but easier to feel. It made everything else possible, from Mad Men to The Wire, Homeland to Breaking Bad, and made TV the dominant artform of a new golden age of entertainment: where we could follow characters who were unlikable, which told no comforting lies, which didn’t pretend the notions of redemption or comeuppance were anything other than a hokey storyteller’s trope.
Crucially, being on HBO, it dispensed with the idea that each TV episode should consist of a self-contained story – a legacy of network TV syndication, which allowed endless replays to be watched out of order – meaning, for the first time, Chase could consider the broader tale he wanted to tell. No shrinking violet, that tale was America, and the decline of an empire.
As Tony Soprano says in the pilot: “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. Lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” The setup was a simple one. Tony Soprano – a brooding bull of a man, head forever bowed forward, ready to charge, played by the late James Gandolfini is the boss of a New Jersey crime family. When he leaves his house, he’s feared and respected – those classic interchangeable mafia terms of endearment – a man you don’t cross, or better get the first train out of Jersey if you do. At home, however, he’s a father like any other – an emasculated man living in the suburbs coping with the tender terrors of the everyday, browbeaten by his materialistic wife, fearing for his academic daughter, despairing of his no-good son. Oh, and he’s in therapy.
HBO would come to be known as the cable channel that specialised in “Trojan horse” dramas – ones that sneaked in complicated novelistic themes under the guise of well-worn genres. If The Wirewas a Balzac novel dressed up as a cop show, and Mad Men a John Cheever tale in the well-tailored clothes of a workplace period drama, then The Sopranos was John Updike by way of Goodfellas.
The Sopranos contained multitudes. Sure, it was a mob drama, but it was also a social satire, a domestic drama and a statement of the rise in Western consumerism. Gangsters just consumed more and put more on the line to get it. The Sopranos rightly got a lot of praise for nearly all of this, but one thing is often overlooked. The Sopranos was funny. Really funny. Belly-laugh funny, in a way that very few sitcoms are. It may come as a surprise that as much as Goodfellas and The Godfather were an influence on Chase and the writing staff, the one thing they referred to most in the writers’ room was The Three Stooges.
The Sopranos was funny partly due to a breed of gallows humour that can only come when your day job is whacking people. Picture the episode early on where Paulie Walnuts – Tony’s most loyal lieutenant – and another mobster are pummelling a Jewish hotel owner, who, despite starting to resemble a sockpuppet that’s been on the wrong end of a Doberman Pinscher, still won’t buckle and give up his share of the hotel. “Paulie, if we don’t kill this prick,” says the other mobster earnestly between swings, “we should put him to work.” Or, perhaps The Sopranos‘ best stand-alone episode, “Pine Barrens”, directed by Steve Buscemi, when Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) – Tony’s cousin and right-hand man – and Paulie end uplost in the woods in winter, fruitlessly hunting a Russian who, it transpires, used to be an elite special-forces soldier.
“The guy you’re looking for is an ex-commando, he killed 16 Chechen rebels single-handed. He was with the interior ministry.” Tony tells Paulie over the phone. “You’re not going to believe this,” reports Paulie back. “He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. The guy was an interior decorator.”
Plucked out of The Sopranos ecosystem, these may not seem like side-splitting comedy, but coming in the middle of such high stakes, every joke landed like a gut-punch. They never teased light titters, but demanded guffaws.
The best jokes in The Sopranos are funnier than any comedy, because they rely on character tics and traits built up over the show’s entire run. Consider the moment in series five when, bemoaning his own offspring, Tony spies the son of the local gardener through the window, hard at work on his lawn.
“Look at this one, the gardener’s son,” he says, admiringly, and the gardener’s son dutifully waves back, the very model of the all-American kid. It’s only funny when you know that, several episodes earlier, the gardener was caught in a territory dispute between Tony and an old mafia captain, the result of which saw the number of gardens he could service halve, ruining him financially and, for good measure, forcing him to do Tony’s lawn for free as thanks.
It’s moments like this that exposed what The Sopranos was really about. It was a satire, essentially. A Swiftian exposé of the United States – every artifice stripped back, every apple-pie cliché examined, every foible of the nation brought into painful clarity by viewing it through the mafia lens.
A lot is made about how long-form TV is able to reflect life in other ways. How it could, as in the case of The Wire, contain a cast so huge it could zoom out to tell the story of a city, how it could, in Breaking Bad, chart the moral descent of a man; how, in Mad Men, it could examine mortality and the nature of nostalgia; how, in BattleStar Galactica, it could follow the struggle for survival of the entire human race. But The Sopranos also showed you could get one hell of a good few gags from it too.
It was never just a show about the mob.
The mob was just the prism through which to view the world. There’s no big topic The Sopranos doesn’t touch. Take your pick from marriage, friendship, commerce, betrayal, capitalism, family, depression, religion, infidelity, suicide, addiction, recovery, ambition, cancer, mental illness, death – everything twisted just enough in the mafia world so as to be brought into terrible focus.
Take marriage. Infidelity, as far as the men of The Sopranos are concerned, is as much of an institution as marriage – each mobster has a “goomah” like the rest of us have a winter coat. As we watch Tony’s wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), turn blind eye after blind eye – each further betrayal from Tony papered over by another piece of expensive jewellery – we understand each flame-out is only partly about emotion and more about racketeering. It’s a bleak worldview from Chase, but one he sticks to: we’re all just out for what we can get, any emotion to be traded on, any betrayal a tactical advantage. We’re all just putting the squeeze on.
Betrayal, meanwhile, is true betrayal – not with another lover, but with the Feds. Think that break-up ruined your life? Try making it a 20-stretch in the can. When Adriana, the Carmela-wannabe girlfriend of Christopher, starts colluding with the FBI, it’s another breakup, and another hole to be dug.
Every big topic gets a Sopranos spin. When Paulie Walnuts visits a psychic who tells him the ghosts of everyone he’s whacked are following him around, he marches straight to church and puts a stop to the money he’d been donating. To him, religion is just another protection racket, and they hadn’t been keeping up their end of the bargain. The genius of The Sopranos is this: it makes you think he may well be right.
The best gag, to my mind, comes in the last season of The Sopranos, when two hoods attempt to force their protection racket upon a new coffee shop, only for the manager to explain it’s a chain. If they beat him up, they’ll just hire a new manager; if they wreck the place, they’ll just fix it – it’s a million-dollar multinational company – and every single coffee bean has to be accounted for. Seeing they’re beaten, the mobsters retreat outside, one remarking wistfully to the other, “It’s over for the little guy.”
Pick the meta-commentary out of that.
Mad Men is often lauded as a show that pulls off that most difficult and novelistic of things – chronicling the nagging ennui of everyday life. Big, important and incredibly hard-to-dramatise topics that you’ll rarely see outside art-house cinema or serious literature — the denial of death, the riptide pull of nostalgia, the slippery nature of happiness, the nagging realisation that motion is all. A show, finally, that could hold a torch to the novels of John Cheever and Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen and John Updike. But The Sopranos got there first.
Because even Mad Men doesn’t quite so deftly manage The Sopranos‘ balance of interior and exterior life. Partly, The Sopranoscheats here – the therapist dynamic is an easy device for Tony to have frank discussions he otherwise never would – but it’s the dreamsegments where The Sopranos comes into its own. As the series progressed, the show only became bolder. After Tony is shot and recovering in hospital – or when he has to make a tough call about a rat – the later episodes become increasingly impressionistic, full of allusion and yet never forcing a single line or metaphor. It was, finally, in TV form, the Fellini films that Chase always wanted to make, ones as far away from traditional TV as you could get, which delved into a man’s subconscious, and pulled up the murk.
And murk there certainly was. With The Wire, David Simon was said to have brought the bleakest TV yet in its view of the world. But in many ways, it was never as bleak as The Sopranos. The cops, dealers, politicians, hacks and dock workers that populated Simon’s Baltimore panoply were often decent people – or at least people who strived for decency, who had their own moral codes – but it was the institutions that failed them, that failed how good a person could hope to be, and perhaps always would. The Sopranos takes this further still – that we can’t hope to be better, because human nature is hard-wired, any goodness is fleeting, and often done only for something in return.
Tony is forever having epiphanies that soon get forgotten. People learn only to forget. “You think you know,” says Tony after he gets shot, “you think you learn something…” And then back to normal.
Tony can’t help his own behaviour, partly because of his upbringing – his unloving mother, his mobster father, the violence he witnessed and the suffering he saw – and it’s a common Sopranos trope to flashback to young Tony, a child’s-eye-view of his father chopping a digit off an indebted butcher, the free cold cuts his family got each week as a result, the murky, mother-hen Schadenfreude the matriarch derived from it.
Yet The Sopranos goes deeper than mere cod psychology – his parents were this, so they made him that – by suggesting something more insidious and far more depressing. It suggests that’s just the tip of the iceberg – they didn’t just give Tony his childhood, they gave him their genes.
“He’s got my stinking, rotten Sopranos genes!” Tony rages of his own feckless layabout son, AJ, afflicted with the anxiety attacks he himself suffers from.
What other show would essentially make its own premise redundant? Because the truth is, therapy never made Tony better, or happier. It certainly didn’t make him a better man. As he says in the final season, “The truth is, this therapy is a jerk-off, you know it and I know it.”
If anything, therapy made him worse. A more effective boss, a better manipulator, a more ruthless leader, a killer who manages to rationalise killing.
It didn’t make him a more rounded man. It made him a more rounded mobster.
Of course, the success of The Sopranos was only ever partly about the genius of Chase. If not for James Gandolfini – the Lennon to Chase’s McCartney – The Sopranos would likely not be the masterpiece it became. Sporting Tony’s default bemused expression – that of a man with a cold, considering a sneeze, preparing for a burp – he never played him for sympathy, or likeability, or even any particular intelligence (certainly not compared to the brilliant, powerful men that would become a cable-TV staple and, in turn, their own cliché: the Don Drapers and the Al Swearengens). And, in turn, Chase – who despised the spit-shined sentences of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and David Milch’s Deadwood – never gave him lines which felt anything other than true.
The ending of The Sopranos is now TV folklore. After surviving a mob war during which they, in the style of The Godfather, “went to the mattresses”, Tony sits in a diner with his family. Then the screen abruptly cuts to black, silence, and the show’s over.
There’s really no debate about what happened. A few episodes before, talking about being taken out by a hit man, his brother-in-law had said to him, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?”
For a show that refused to tell comforting lies, it was the only way it could have gone out. Life ends, you don’t even see it coming, and all that’s left is blackness. Chase was never going to provide a happy ending. Or, indeed, even get one himself. Tales of Chase are rarely positive, with a Vanity Fair profile at the end of The Sopranos‘ run, in 2007, painting him as gloomy, pessimistic, a misanthrope who bore a grudge. Chase has since said he wishes he’d spent the time making The Sopranos making films.
“Really?” Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning creator of Six Feet Under, has said about this assertion. “Go ask him, which films?”
We got the answer. The sole film Chase has made since The Sopranoswas a small, character-driven piece about struggling New Jersey musicians in the Sixties. Called Not Fade Away, it was released in 2012 and did just the opposite, making barely $500,000 on a budget of $20m. The Sopranos made a huge dent in the culture. His film barely chipped the paint.
It’d be nice – not to mention neat – to be able to say that Chase now revels in his role as a TV revolutionary. That he looks back with prideat a new art form he almost single-handedly started, that he feels satisfied, vindicated, fullfilled. In fact, TV’s greatest auteur – the one who made everything else possible – appears to be in torment about the mantle he’s been given. “Look,” he said three years after The Sopranos ended. “I do not care about television. I don’t care about where television is going or anything else about it. I’m a man who wanted to make movies. Period.”
But then, maybe even that response feels right. Just like The Sopranos and the shows it made way for, it’s not a neat ending, not a gentle landing that feels just right, that classic last beat of an hour of network TV that rounds the edges, ties up the ends, that spins us a tale. Instead, like life, it’s messy, contradictory, it’s a line that rings of truth whether you like it or not, and refuses to peddle a comforting lie.
Cut to black.