Warning: watching the above video essay with David Chase, Matthew Weiner, Terence Winter, and the other writers of The Sopranos (along with select longer-form videos below) may send you into a binge watch (or re-watch) of the HBO series. Just saying, because you might want to set aside some time.
It is hard to believe that the series premiere was over 20 years ago, since its insights into America, our love affair with violence, and the mob hasn’t changed. (I mean, look at the gangsters currently running the country).
David Chase originally balked at the idea of a Godfather-type show after it was pitched to him, but the gangster idea stuck and mutated into an idea for a feature film about a mob boss seeking therapy. Across town in one of those Hollywood coincidences, Harold Ramis was having the same idea for a film called Analyze This.
Ramis’ film would be a perfectly fine comedy and Chase wound up taking his feature idea and turning it into a television series. It would go on to revolutionize television and change the gangster genre for good. For now here was a show about gangsters who were all very aware of the film and television history of the genre, and they acted according to the roles that they idolized from The Godfather and from Good Fellas. Yet, as Chase points out, the characters never really know how to feel about all this:
To me it wasn’t just the ending that was ambiguous. There was ambiguity going on all the time. And you know what that comes down to now that I think about it—the characters in the piece were ambiguous themselves. They didn’t know how they felt. When you write a scene sometimes you think, does this guy really believe what he’s saying? Does he really feel this? Or is this just a placeholder in his mind? ‘I’ll say this line just so I can eat my sandwich’…That’s why [the show] is so fun to write, because usually you are writing what people are thinking of feeling, but in The Sopranos you’re always writing what they’re *not* thinking or feeling.
These were brutish, dumb guys who believed they were the clever, funny guys they grew up watching, and you can extrapolate that to quite a lot of our history from the Cold War and beyond—electing people based on who we want them to be, or for the role they play, not for who they actually are. The end point of Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions is not that he was “cured,” but that he learned the language of therapy in order to justify his actions to himself. As Weiner says, Dr. Melfi’s realization was, “This was all a waste of time. He can’t be helped. I’ve just made him be a better criminal.” Once a sociopath, always a sociopath.
Chase also reveals how the show was structured for each of its seven, 13-episode seasons, with character arcs originally being plotted as separate stories. But inevitably in the writers’ room, the thematic connections between the stories would reveal themselves and the scripts would be tweaked accordingly. Conversations in the room would often be about everything *except* the story and the characters. In the end this was all material that would wind up in the show, the mulch that would create the garden.
This is a good time indeed for a rewatch. Not only did critics Matthew Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall drop the lovingly detailed The Soprano Sessions last year, but actors Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri) have a podcast where they are currently rewatching and commenting on the show, one episode at a time. You can find all their episodes so far on this youtube playlist. The show is also listed in our new collection, The 150 Best Podcasts to Enrich Your Mind.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.