Happy birthday, Tony! As of today, The Sopranos, often called “the show that changed TV,” is 20 years old.
On this date in 1999, the first episode opened on HBO with that grainy, jagged, hand-held camera sequence of North Jersey landscapes. We met the Soprano family, starting with the monumental James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and including wife, Carmela, kids Meadow and A.J., and Tony’s murderous mom, Livia.
We met Tony’s therapist, Jennifer Melfi (a totally original and unexpected character at the time), beheld a couple of monstrous murders — and we had begun.
Addicting millions as it went, The Sopranos ran until June 10, 2007, with that enigmatic cut to black. Creator David Chase’s super-real, surreal bloodbath of a Mafia family epic has influenced virtually every TV drama since. Chase is now readying a prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark.
TV writers Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall met as critics at the Newark Star-Ledger in 1997 — the newspaper Tony picks up from his North Jersey driveway in the morning — where they followed The Sopranos from the start. Now, they’ve written a book to mark the anniversary.
The Sopranos Sessions (Harry N. Abrams, $30) offers new essays on each of the show’s 86 episodes, plus a back-and-forth on what “really” happened in that last scene. The book also includes eight “sessions” with Chase — long, revealing interviews exploring the show and its making — and much more.
Readers relive a lot we already knew, learn a lot we didn’t, and end up … wanting to “bada binge” the whole show again. (HBO has been rerunning it to celebrate the 20th anniversary, including a marathon of the show’s final season beginning today at noon on HBO2. The Sopranos also streams on HBO Go/Now and Amazon Prime.)
Sepinwall: It was like being the music writer for the Liverpool Times in 1962. We were where it all happened. A lot of us had so many ties to the show. Mark Di Ionno, another columnist, had gone to Rutgers with James Gandolfini and put the famous dent in the Gandolfini forehead when both of them were in college together.
Seitz: It took a few months for the New York Times and other papers to get on the Sopranos train, and then they were all over it. What happened was the film critics discovered it. They planted a flag on The Sopranos as cinema — which echoes some of the recent writing on Twin Peaks.
Sepinwall: I grew up in Pine Brook, N.J., just a few miles from North Caldwell, where David Chase grew up. I lived in that world. I recognized all the places they were going to, all the local references. When Carmela says she can get Tony some sweat socks at Sports Authority, I knew exactly which Sports Authority she meant.
“That’s not the way you go home from the Lincoln Tunnel!” I’d shout at the screen.
Seitz: To me, the most influential thing about the show was that there was no moral anchor point, no character who represented the “correct” moral point of view. Even the era’s edgiest shows, shows like NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues, were built on an institution that stood for what was right.
Sepinwall: More than anything since I Love Lucy, it rewrote what a TV show could look like, what an audience could expect. Tony was the first completely bad main character in a long-running TV show. Before Tony, there had been a belief that audiences would reject anything that was truly harsh or complex.
But at least some portion of the audience loved all the things the show did — some loved the dream sequences, some loved the therapy scenes with Dr. Melfi, some loved the family stuff, and some just loved the blood and guts. In all these areas, the show broke rules in different ways. It showed a different way “to be all things to all people” than what you had before: aiming for the common denominator, taking the low road.
Sepinwall: If you go back and look, the show’s famous penchant for anticlimax tended to upset the audience the most. “I want to see Carmela have sex with Furio! I want to see what happens to the Russian in ‘Pine Barrens’! I want to see Jesus Rossi [who rapes Dr. Melfi,] get whacked!,” and he never does.
Seitz: Rewatching Sopranos this time, I was impressed with just how brutal they were with audience expectations. We never learn what happens in the notorious final episode — the screen just goes black. In Season Three, the FBI, after a lot of effort, finally succeeds in planting a bug in the Soprano home, in a lamp in the basement … and we think, “Now something’s really going to happen” … then a few episodes later, Meadow takes it with her to college at Columbia.
Sepinwall: Ooooh, yeah. Season Three, that was not an easy one. You can feel an upturn in brutality, almost as if evil is raising its voice. Episodes like “University” and “Employee of the Month,” they’re both brilliant and still very difficult to watch.
Seitz: People ask, “How many times have you watched each episode?” It depends. If it’s one of the lighter ones, I’ve seen some 10 times. But the darker ones … I’ve seen “University” only twice, and I’ll never watch it again. It might be the greatest of all Sopranos episodes, embodying all the Sopranos values, but I just can’t do it.
The show is about our complicity in evil, how we rationalize it even as it is part of our lives. And as an audience, we’re rooting for Tony to kill his enemies, make a lot of money, and get away with it.
I call it “The HBO Show Model.” When Tony is touring colleges with Meadow, and he stumbles across a rat who’s in witness protection, you know he has to kill him. You understand that, even if you don’t approve. He’s Tony and that’s what he does.
Seitz: The Sopranos is David Chase’s long-delayed revenge against a TV industry that had thwarted him for decades.
He got into screenwriting to make a movie that went to the Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme D’Or. He likes Fellini movies, where you didn’t know what’s a dream and what’s real. He didn’t get to do that in TV.
And he gets to The Sopranos and all his years of frustration were over. There are so many little touches that make the difference. Near the end, he says he’s proud of what the show did and all the chances it took.