David Chase, you sadist. We trusted you, and then you turned on us—and maybe we deserved it.
Since The Sopranos’ premiere in 1999, critics have preached that it was like nothing else on television: It was novelistic (Dickensian!), cinematic (Fellini-esque!), iconic (Is there any other show where most viewers still watch the opening credits?), a metaphor for Bush’s America. The implication has always been that at last, TV was playing way out of its league.
But HBO’s slogan aside, The Sopranos was TV—and great because of that fact, not despite it. Chase was the first TV creator to truly take advantage, in every sense, of the odd bond a series has with its audience: an intimate dynamic that builds over time, like any therapeutic relationship. Unlike a novel, a TV drama is not invented in some solitary genius’s cork-lined chamber. It is a collaboration, with viewer response providing a crucial feedback loop—a fitting dynamic for a mob story, a genre predicated on a certain level of bloodlust in its audience. For eight years, the characters themselves obsessively watched (and quoted and analyzed and emulated) GoodFellas and The Godfather, and we obsessively watched (and quoted and analyzed
and emulated) The Sopranos, and all along, Chase was out there watching us watching them. As the show became more popular, the characters more beloved, the fans more openly excited by the violence, one got the distinct sense that Chase did not always like what he saw.
But he was willing to give us what we didn’t want. There are many breeds of TV auteurs: the great mythologizers, Buffy’s Joss Whedon and Lost’s J.J. Abrams and The X-Files’ Chris Carter; the quirky dialogists, like Gilmore Girls’ Amy Sherman-Palladino and the maddening David E. Kelley; deadpan craftsmen like Dick Wolf and sadomasochistic visionaries like Tom Fontana and California dreamers like Alan Ball. There are the utopian solipsists (okay, just Aaron Sorkin). But they all share an essential love for their characters—a natural side effect, one might imagine, of building one story for many years. Their protagonists suffer, but they rarely corrode.
In this sense, Chase was a true iconoclast, a prophet of disgust. He seemed determined to test TV’s most distinctive quality, the way it requires us to say yes each week. To be a fan, we needed to welcome Tony Soprano again and again into our homes, like a vampire or a therapy patient. Chase gave that choice a terrible weight.
Now that it’s over, no longer a work-in-progress, we are finally free to criticize it for real or praise it as a whole, and despite some missteps (a gambling problem, really? And what was that Furio-Carmela thing back in Season 4?), I do think the show will reward rewatching. It was, in fact, truly revolutionary, but not because it was adult or novelistic. The Sopranos was the first series that truly dared us to slam the door, to reject it. And when we never did, it slammed the door on us: A silent black screen, a fitting conclusion to a show that was itself a bit of a long con, that seduced us as an audience, then dismantled its own charms before our eyes.
“Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this.”
When we first met Tony Soprano, he was a mess, but we loved him, we couldn’t help it. Underneath that bulk (and James Gandolfini was significantly smaller at the start, almost light on his feet), he was a hurting bad boy. Smart despite the malapropisms, Tony struck many viewers as simply an extreme variation on the midlife baby-boomer: He was struggling with aging relatives, mouthy teenage kids, and that old work-life balance. His deepest desire was to be a better parent than his own (an ambition that was perhaps aiming rather low). He was terrified of death. And his greatest enemy was the most brilliant strategist of them all, his mother, Livia, a villain who crushed her enemies with the illusion of powerlessness.
Those early episodes are jauntier and broader than what came later, with a stylized quality strongly reminiscent of GoodFellas—Chase’s master influence, he’s said. The first moment of violence is practically a dance sequence, a loopy action shot in which Tony’s cover story to Dr. Melfi (“Then we had coffee”) is contrasted with a slapstick beating in daylight, scored to a doo-wop song. (On the DVD commentary, Chase says it’s the one musical choice he regrets: “I think it’s hackneyed, silly, and I’m sorry.”) Carmela is a broader character, too, and knows more about Tony’s business—she hides money in false Campbell’s Soup cans, and even brandishes a gun.
But if the show was playful, it took one thing seriously: Tony’s therapy sessions with Melfi. He’d gone to her for help with panic attacks, but their meetings quickly became something stranger and deeper, an experiment in self-knowledge. The show’s central question was simple and bold: Can this man change? It’s no wonder Slate assembled a panel of shrinks to weigh in. Back then, The Sopranos could be viewed without irony as a drama of human potential, however dark-humored and extreme.