THE SHOW YOU COULDN’T REFUSE
by Audrey Pavia

The year was 1998. My husband and I were sitting on the couch in our Southern California townhome watching TV when a trailer came on for a new show about a New Jersey mobster who was in therapy. Obsessed with mob movies since my parents took me to see The Godfather at age 14, and impressed with the fleeting but dynamic clips I saw in that trailer, I turned to my husband and said, in no uncertain terms, “We need to watch that.”

That was 20 years ago, and a couple of months later, on January 10, 1999, Tony Soprano, his fam- ily and crew came into our living room and the living rooms of viewers around the country—and subsequently left a profound impact on the entire landscape of television.

The Sopranos has been credited with paving the way for a new kind of television show, one where the writing and acting rivals anything produced on film. It also started a phenomenon where we find ourselves rooting for the anti-hero—so much so that creator David Chase made the show’s mobsters progressively more brutal from one season to the next just to make sure the audience understood that these are very bad guys.

“It’s about people who’ve made a deal with the devil, starting with the head guy,” Chase told TV critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall in their new book, The Sopranos Sessions (see sidebar). “It’s about evil. I was surprised by how hard it was to get people to see that.”

In the fifth episode of Season One of The Sopranos, Tony strangles a man to death while he’s in Maine taking his daughter Meadow to visit colleges. Yet as horrified as we are by the violence of the murder, we are surprisingly able to put it aside once Tony is back in the car with Meadow, discussing her thoughts about where she wants to go to school.

The audience that fanatically tuned in to The Sopranos week after week—even scheduling their lives around the show since the DVR hadn’t completely caught on yet, and recording to videotape was notoriously unreliable—seemed to enjoy the confusing emotions instigated by the show—and Tony in particular. Thanks to the brilliant acting of James Gandolfini, one minute Tony is terrifying and brutal, the next sweet and vulnerable. Intellectually, you knew you shouldn’t like this guy be- cause he is a murderer. Yet you couldn’t help but care about him and even forgive his transgressions.

Think about some of the great TV shows that have come since The Sopranos de- buted in 1999. It’s not hard to see how Tony paved the way for the likes of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Mad Men’s Don Draper, or Dexter’s namesake lead character, to name just a few.

LOSING JIMMY

In the 20 years since The Sopranos first aired, a lot has happened sur- rounding the show. The most profound was the sudden loss of James Gandolfini, who died from a heart attack while in Rome, on June 19, 2013.

Gandolfini’s death had a profound impact on fans of the show, many of who were quietly waiting for The Sopranos, The Movie. As long as Gandolf- ini was out there, the possibility of more Sopranos stories was alive. Once he passed, the finality of the last moment of the show hit home.

Gandolfini’s death also had a powerful effect on others in the limelight. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey ordered flags on the state’s govern- ment buildings be flown at half-mast the day after the New Jersey native’s body was returned to the U.S. from Italy. Senator John McCain tweeted “RIP James Gandolfini, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.” Bruce Springsteen, at a concert in England a few days after Gandolfini’s passing, played the entire Born to Run album in honor of the late actor.

The loss of Gandolfini also made a deep impact on his cast mates. The days following his passing, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Steve Van Zandt, David Proval and many others from the show publicly expressed their grief and love for a man all defined as a great actor and a wonderful person. Most notably affected was Lorraine Bracco, who had grown close to Gandolfini during their time on the show. Gandolfini’s sudden death shook her so much, she began a weight loss program, and wrote a book published by Rodale called To the Fullest: The Clean Up Your Act Plan to Lose Weight, Rejuvenate and Be the Best You Can Be.”

“I would be less than honest if I neglected to say that Jimmy Gandolfini’s shocking death contributed to my decision to motivate others to take care of themselves,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. “I used to tease Jimmy about his expanding belly. He would pat it, smile, and say, ‘It’s all muscle.’ The terrible, premature loss of a good friend, a talent who was just coming into his own, was a jolting reminder of how vulnerable we are—here today and gone tomorrow. What a loss.”

THE PREQUEL

With the passing of Gandolfini, it became clear that The Sopranos story had ended. How could there be a show about Tony Soprano without the man who played Tony? But if there is one thing we should have learned from watching The Sopranos, it’s to never underestimate the creative ge- nius of David Chase.

A feature film called The Many Saints of Newark is in the works, and it’s a prequel to The Sopranos. Chase is the driving force behind the project, and wrote the script with Lawrence Konner, a Sopra- nos staff writer. Alan Taylor, who directed nine episodes of The Sopranos, along with the Mad Men pilot and one episode of Game of Thrones, is set to direct.

The film is set during the 1967 Newark riots, which Tony’s mother, Livia, references during the seventh episode in Season One of The Sopranos. It’s likely the characters will focus on Tony’s par- ents, Christopher’s father and of course Junior Soprano. There’s no doubt that fans of The Sopra- nos will be lined up at theaters when the film hits the big screen in 2020.

While we wait, this is a good time to re-watch The Sopranos in a way we couldn’t do 20 years ago. Thanks to HBO Go, DVD box sets and Amazon Prime, we can binge watch episodes of the show back-to-back, allowing only the most important aspects of life to interrupt these 36 hours of bril- liant, game-changing TV.

“Modern television as we know it wouldn’t exist without The Sopranos,” Zoller Seitz and Sepinwall told us. “It’s one of the most influential TV shows ever made, as well as one of the greatest. Break- ing Bad, Game of Thrones, all of Netflix—they don’t exist without Tony and friends, and those con- nections are palpable when you go back and watch it.”

THE SOPRANOS SESSIONS

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos debut, renowned television critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall have written the penultimate companion to the show. The Sopranos Sessions (published by Abrams Press) features critical essays on every single episode, along with archival pieces by the authors from the Newark-based Star Ledger, written during the original run of the series. It also includes a rare interview with James Gandolfini.

But probably most interesting to fans of The Sopranos is the book’s three-part, long-form interview with creator David Chase, discussing the events—both on- and off-screen—of each season. According to Zoller Seitz and Sepinwall, interviewing the legendary showrunner was the biggest challenge in putting the book together.

“We both have good relationships with David going back a long time, but he’s one of the more demanding figures either of us has had to interview,” Zoller Seitz and Sepinwall told Cigar & Spirits Magazine. “David will dismantle the premise of any question if he doesn’t agree with it, or is suspicious of the motive behind asking it, and he’ll outright refuse to answer things if the phrasing isn’t exactly right. Given that he’s reluctant under the best circumstances to explain things about the show, we had to go in prepared for a lot of bobbing and weaving.”

Regardless of the difficulties in getting Chase to answer questions, the authors managed to get some fascinating information from him, including a statement from Chase that he previously oversold the similarities between his own mother and Tony’s mother, Livia, and that his reaction to Nancy Marchand showing up to audition for the part was “What the fuck is this?”

The time the authors spent with Chase also led them to the conclusion that Tony doesn’t die in the incredibly controversial final scene of the series.

“We’re convinced that the scene is about death—the possibility that Tony, or any of us, could be snuffed out like a candle at any moment, without warning— without it explicitly depicting Tony’s death,” said Zoller Seitz and Sepinwall. “Maybe he dies—or maybe he enjoys the onion rings and ice cream and drives home to North Caldwell to kill another day.”