How The Sopranos changed television forever
THESOPRANOSSESSIONS MATT ZOLLER SEITZ & ALAN SEPINWALL Abrams Press, 480pp, £21.99
“I was driving home that night, and I started thinking about the fact that the guy had a wife and a child and a daughter, and the shrink could be a woman, and that network TV drama was very female orientated, so I thought, maybe that feature idea could work as a TV series. It had home life in it, it had women’s points of views, kids, all of that.”
And so television history was made, as David Chase explains the germination of The Sopranos during an interview in this excellent book on the series. The concept of television changed forever after this show aired in 1999, when a mobster walked into a psychiatrist’s office. Some 20 years on we discuss long-form television series with the same emotional investment as historic events.
At a time when digital distractions were still in a nascent state, The Sopranos grabbed our attention and held our gaze to the point that we hoped the spell would never break. But stories end, of course, so we either moved on to other programmes, or watched the show again in the hope of immersing ourselves in that world once more.
This book will allow you to do something similar. It is a worthy grace note for anyone still in thrall to the New Jersey opera of blood and domesticity that had its last curtain more than a decade ago. Renowned crime writer Laura Lippman (who is also married to David Simon, originator of The Wire and Treme and someone who knows something about producing excellent television) reveals in an affectionate foreword that she has watched the entirety of The Sopranos “at least six times” since it ended in 2007.
The Sopranos Sessions will allow you savour the programme again with your own eyes and those of the authors. In the main section of the book Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall astutely analyse each episode with impressive attention to detail and smart, considered commentary that broadens the canvas (or, with footnotes, homes in on a gesture, remark, or symbol that might otherwise seem throwaway). Here’s just one example of the authors’ deftness, from a scene between Tony and his mother Livia, in episode 12 of season two:
“This unknowingly turns out to be our farewell to the relationship, prior to Nancy Marchand’s death two months after the airdate. Exasperated, Tony storms out of the house, only to trip and fall on the way to the car. He has accidentally recreated the moment he described to Dr Melfi in the series’ second episode – the only happy childhood memory he could conjure of Livia, of the two of them laughing at Johnny Boy when he took a similar tumble – and though Livia tries to wrestle her cackles back into crocodile tears, she can’t help showing her true face to her son. This is who she is.”
I was relieved the authors didn’t pull any punches when criticising parts of The Sopranos. They are happy to call episodes that fell flat. The Italy episode, in season two, is one example: the storyline was too obvious a move, and a move that came too soon, and got bogged down by its own cultural weight. They also point out occasions when the series writers’ tastes lapsed badly, especially with some sex scenes involving Tony, which probably hoped for audacity but were adumbrated by sheer awkwardness for the viewer.
If there are faults in this enjoyable read, then they are relatively minor – some observations being a little too tenuous or esoteric: “The (carjacked) family is listed in the credits as the Sontags, presumably after Susan Sontag, author of numerous books on cultural criticism, including two that are particularly relevant to
The Sopranos, Against Interpretation and
Regarding the Pain of Others.”
And considering how sharp and perceptive the authors are throughout, I was surprised to find mistakes: reference to a bust of Frank Sinatra confirming Febby’s identity in the “College” episode, when it’s Ronald Reagan; Silvio doing an impression of Al Pacino “I know it was you, Fredo” in “Commendatori”, when it was Paulie. Small errors in the grand scheme of things, but they could have been easily fixed with another viewing.
The second part of the book is similarly enjoyable as the authors posit their ideas on that famous ending, before segueing into interviews with Chase which are revelatory, opinionated, and forthright (how many interviews begin with, “Tell us about your mother”?).
The final part of the book is a collection of journalism drafted as the show was broadcast, and if it feels somewhat lightweight, it does give insight into the nuts-and-bolts of a production and, more significantly, how The Sopranos was percolating into our cultural consciousness.
Eulogies for its star James Gandolfini’s unexpected death in 2013 end the book on a bittersweet but fitting note. Even when you consider the multitude of talent attached to The Sopranos, it was Gandolfini’s broad shoulders that carried us to the finish line. The authors observe his acting talent and subtlety in one scene in particular, where they encapsulate Gandolfini’s performance of a lifetime perfectly: “The man is acting with the back of his neck.”
Don’t stop believing: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and Robert Iler in the final scene of The Sopranos.