THE BACK PAGES

FINALLY, A BOOK ABOUT...GOD PLAYING DICE

April 9 2007
THE BACK PAGES

FINALLY, A BOOK ABOUT...GOD PLAYING DICE

April 9 2007

How the Sopranos shot up TV

On the eve of its final season, JAIME J. WEINMAN looks at the legacy of one of the industry’s most respected shows

tv

OAs ends new David its episodes run—the Chase’s starts The last April Sopranos batch 8 on of The Movie Network—it might seem like the TV industry hasn’t learned much from one of its most respected shows. Since it premiered in 1997, Chase’s creation has been noted for its dark humour (one upcoming scene has Tony Soprano using a machine gun to trim tree branches) and strong characterizations; today, most other drama shows are basically humourless and depend more on procedure than characters. But look a little closer: there are many things about The Sopranos that have become part of the business. Just not necessarily the things that make the show worth watching.

In particular, the TV business has fallen in love with Chase’s use of shock tactics, of gimmicks that stun the audience and leave them talking about it the next day. Allen Rucker, a friend of Chase’s who has written three books about The Sopranos (as well as the new memoir The Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life), points out that The Sopranos has popularized the art of sudden death, of killing off characters just to shock us. “For characters to come in for one season or two seasons, and die a violent death, has been a hallmark of the show,” Rucker explains. “When Big Pussy died, it was shocking, because no one had ever seen a show where a major character was eliminated at the end of season two.”

The Sopranos wasn’t the only show that tried to do this; the other big cult hit of 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also killed off characters left and right.

But Buffy, because it was a teen fantasy show, was never particularly wellrespected in the television industry. The Sopranos was another story: when David Chase killed off popular characters unexpect' edly, other producers took notice. Now the unexpected elimination of major characters is itself becoming an expected part of series TV; fans argue about which character on Lost or Battlestar Galáctica will die or turn out to be a Cylon. Other shows may have done what The Sopranos did, but Chase injected these ideas into the mainstream of the business.

Part of the reason other producers imitate Chase is that he represents the dream of many television writers: he’s the “establishment” writer who finally got to do some-

thing revolutionary. Chase’s previous work had mostly been for mainstream network shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and, most memorably, The Rockford Files, where he wrote and produced many of the best episodes. But Chase was always looking to create a great mob show. Rockford creator Stephen J. Cannell (The A-Team, Wiseguy) recalls that when Chase was plotting a Rockford story for another writer, he was so fascinated with the

low-life guest characters (would-be mobsters from New Jersey) that he insisted on writing it himself: “He said ‘You gotta let me write this. This is my meat.’ So we gave it to him, and of course he wrote it better than any of us could,” Cannell says. When Chase wanted to turn his affinity for Jersey hoodlums into a series, the networks famously balked at The Sopranos, not just because of the content but because the lead character had to be a fat, middle-aged man. “He had written it for Fox or NBC,” Cannell explains, “and when they read it, they wanted to cast an 8-x-lO glossy, a 35-year-old hotlooking guy to play Tony Soprano. They were trying to apply the classic leading man rules to Tony.” Finally, Chase turned to HBO, the pay cable network that was looking for something different. The narrative that this move created—an experienced producer who can realize his vision only by going to cable—has become the model for how cable TV works in the postSopranos era. Once, if a producer had an idea that the broadcast networks considered too far-out or too dark, he would rework it until it was something the networks would accept. But after The Sopranos turned David Chase’s rejected idea into a hit, these same producers suddenly had another option: they could go to HBO’s founder Chris Albrecht with that same idea, and he might buy it just on the basis of the producer’s name or experience. So David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue, could sell HBO a slow-paced, somewhat dispiriting western (Deadwood), knowing that HBO wanted him on its roster. After its success in wooing Chase, the mission statement of HBO became, almost exclusively, to bring in wellknown producers with a lot of network TV experience. Rucker says: “The success of The Sopranos brought a lot more creators to HBO. You see how David Chase was treated, you think ‘My God, they’ll do my show.’ ”

DAVID CHASE (left), creator and producer of The Sopranos; scenes from the final season (top) and seasons six and two

producer Chase Sopranos from into had a little-known transformed a star, as important to the show as James Gandolfini. And that

not only brought creators and show-runners running to HBO, it inflated their prestige throughout the industry. TV writers had once been faceless and unknown, unable to introduce themselves to the public except through stunts (like Cannell ending his shows with a clip of himself at a typewriter). After The Sopranos, show-runners became celebrities, written about and sought out for interviews as often as their actors: Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and J.J. Abrams (Lost) are two examples. The quirks of a show-runner became something for networks to encourage.

But The Sopranos didn’t just increase the status of show-runners; it also transformed cable television into its own television universe, with its own rules. At complicalionsensue. blogspot.com, screenwriter Alex Epstein recently said that a cable show “pushes the darkness much deeper than broadcast will.”

That wasn’t the case when cable started

back then, the cable networks were basically

trying to do what the broad-

cast networks did, with a little

more profanity and nudity added. HBO even tried to get the creators of the sitcom Taxi to come to their network and do the show with four-letter words. Now there are all kinds of stylistic elements that belong to the world of cable TV, whether

it’s the pacing (slower), the storytelling (more fragmented) or the structure (organized around the lack of commercials). And cable defines itself the same way Chase once did, in opposition to the regular networks: whatever kind of show NBC isn’t doing is what HBO is going to do this year.

None of this would have happened if The Sopranos hadn’t caught on with audiences and with critics. (Especially critics, because a pay TV show needs good press to woo subscribers.) It may have helped that Chase openly displayed his contempt for conventional, mass-market television. He talked slightingly of Northern Exposure, the popular series that he produced for several years. Critics who were looking for a reason to bash network television jumped on The Sopranos, and HBO in general, as an example of the greatness that can be achieved when advertisers don’t get involved. HBO quickly capitalized on its popularity among people who scorned regular television: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” ran its famous slogan.

Also, because Chase was consciously and openly trying to ape feature films, that contributed to the feeling that The Sopranos was more than just a TV show. Chase complained that television was too talky, and he aspired to write and direct movies. He didn’t get to do that—he’s going to start now that The Sopranos is over—but he did try to make the show look and feel like a big-screen movie. An upcoming episode has a scene where Tony watches an old movie, Born Yesterday: there’s not a word of dialogue in it apart from the characters in the movie, but the meaning of the scene comes from Tony’s facial expressions, as it would in an art film.

And yet for all its popularity among reluctant TV viewers, The Sopranos is still good

solid genre television, made by people with a wealth of experience at comedy and crime-drama storytelling (not only Chase but writer/producer TerOF ence Winter, who used to write for Xena: WarAN rior Princess).

NOW THE UNEXPECTED ELIMINATION OF MAJOR CHARACTERS IS BECOMING AN EXPECTED PART OF SERIES TV; FANS ARGUE ABOUT WHO ON ‘LOST* WILL DIE y

PART OF Cannell likes to point FANS out that the genreABOUT tweaking humour of The ‘LOST* f Chase’s Sopranos earlier reminds work: him “The of DIE y whole premise of The Rockford Files was based on the idea: ‘What would you or I do if you were a private detective?’ ” The Sopranos turns mob-story conventions on their ear just as they once tweaked detective-story clichés: “You have the yardstick of the Mafia characters as portrayed in The Godfather, and then David writes a character who’s 55 years

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old, who’s on Prozac, who’s going to a psychiatrist, and whose family treats him like your family or mine.” In that sense, The Sopranos is part of a line of subversive dark comedies that goes back to the show where Chase got his big break.

So while The Sopranos can be compared to film or theatre (“there are moments in The Sopranos that can compare with Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee,” Rucker enthuses), some of its quality stems from the old-school TV elements, the ones that make it more like Northern Exposure than Chase might like to admit. But these aren’t the elements that TV producers are imitating; a show like 24 has mostly learned from The Sopranos’ shock value and its willingness to let its hero do evil things. Ten years after The Sopranos changed television, some things never change: gimmicks are easier to imitate than creativity. M