Mob rules

How The So­pra­nos changed tele­vi­sion for­ever

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - NJ McGAR­RIGLE


“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.

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