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Married to the mob
In the five years since its debut, The Sopranos has grown from an underground show with a small cult following to one of the most successful TV series' of all time. Paul Nolan traces the show’s development from its inauspicious beginnings on HBO to its current status as a transatlantic cultural phenomenon, and also examines our enduring fascination with a man called Tony Soprano.
Paul Nolan, 15 Apr 2004
Scroll down for Colm O'Hare's interview with Steve Van Zandt
When The Sopranos debuted on America’s premier subscription channel HBO five years ago, few could have predicted that the show would go on to become one of the most spectacularly successful cultural phenomena of recent times. Although the show’s creator, David Chase, had a substantial track record as an accomplished TV writer/producer, the idea that an uncompromisingly cerebral and graphically violent black comedy/drama about an especially vicious mob outfit could capture the popular imagination was anathema to all-known TV logic.
However, as The Day Today/I’m Alan Partridge producer Armando Iannucci recently pointed out in making the case for Yes, Minister being the greatest ever British TV sitcom, when audiences are presented with sharply written, acutely observed and immensely entertaining programmes that have respect for their intelligence, more often than not the response is likely to be overwhelmingly positive.
Making the show with the famously artist-friendly HBO (whose recent series’ include modern classics like Six Feet Under, The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm), Chase was free to assemble a cast and crew of rare collective ability.
Even before they’d set foot on the set of The Sopranos, character stalwarts like James Gandolfini, Tony Sirico, Dominic Chianese and Michael Imperioli had appeared in films by a formidable array of America’s foremost directors, including Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Spike Lee, Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the directors and writers were seasoned campaigners who had already earned their spurs in the TV industry, mostly on critics’ favourites like Barry Levinson’s prison drama Oz, the Bret Easton Ellis-flavoured Central Park West and NBC’s hard-hitting cop show, Homicide: Life On The Street.
Although the creative team behind the programme have drawn on the appropriate genre reference points – from the lush, sepia toned, Godfather-esque photography to the bitter feud with a rival outfit – what is most revelatory about The Sopranos, and the key to its enduring appeal, is the sheer brilliance with which it examines the angst of its chief protagonists, in among the cold-blooded hits, macho posturing and bitingly funny wise-guy badinage.
To watch Tony Soprano, the man torn between two families, contend with the break-up of his marriage, struggle to raise his kids (“Out there, it’s the 21st century, in here, it’s 1954”), grapple with depression and struggle to make peace with his past is to observe the sturm und drang of modern life itself. Throw in a tastefully chosen soundtrack and some of the most brilliantly executed (if you’ll pardon the pun) black comedy this side of Pulp Fiction and the package is complete.
Perhaps the perfect encapsulation of The Sopranos’ masterful blend of mirth and pathos is the justly celebrated installment directed by Steve Buscemi, ‘Pine Barrens’. Q magazine once cited the episode as being “one of the most brilliant pieces of television you’re ever likely to see”, and to be perfectly frank, it’s exceedingly difficult not to concur. Sent to collect a payment from a Russian named Valery, Christopher and Paulie Walnuts are taken by surprise when their foe turns out to be a rather more formidable adversary than they first expected, a state of affairs exacerbated somewhat when Paulie makes a series of ill-advised jibes about rubles and Russian toilet practices. A nasty brawl ensues – a situation only bought to a messy conclusion when Paulie throttles the Russian with a floor lamp.
Thinking their quarry to be dead, the duo plan to bury him in an isolated woodland nearby. However, unbeknownst to them, the very-much alive Russian is in fact an ex-army commander, and manages to escape when they remove him from the trunk of the car, smashing Christopher in the face with a shovel and incapacitating Paulie with a kick to the testicles.
Later – in one of the funniest sequences of television this writer has ever had the pleasure to witness – Paulie and Christopher, freezing cold and starving, struggle to locate their car amongst the acres of snow-covered forest, all the while tearing strips off each other for letting the Russian escape, and keeping an increasingly incredulous Tony briefed on their difficulties via cell-phone.
In the end, having given up on finding either the Russian or the car, the pair spend the night in an abandoned van, attempting to warm themselves via a malfunctioning heater, dining on ketchup packets and blaming each other for their predicament. In a deftly handled change of tone, elsewhere in the same episode, Tony has a blazing row with his latest mistress – a chronic depressive prone to violent mood swings – and his daughter Meadow undergoes a traumatic break-up that says more about dazed and confused modern youth than an entire season of The Big Bow Wow.
That such a virtuoso hour of television is but one example of the many first-class shows that have distinguished The Sopranos during its five year run testifies to the extraordinary level of quality control the writers and producers have exerted on the series to date.
Of course, the upcoming season of the show very nearly didn’t come to pass. Filming on series five was suspended in March of last year following a breakdown in pay negotiations with James Gandolfini. The actor was said to be unhappy with the fact that the salary for scriptwriters on the show had outstripped his own, and he even went as far as to file a lawsuit against HBO, who responded with a legal writ of their own. In the end, the situation was eventually resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned, when Gandolfini agreed to drop his lawsuit and honour the terms of his original $10 million a season contract.
Meantime, the show continues to go from strength to strength. Notably, the new season sees The Sopranos deepen its musical connections. Long-term cast member and legendary E-Street Band member Little Steven Van Zandt gives hotpress the lowdown on the fifth series in the following pages, whilst there’s also a recurring role for iconic crooner Frankie Valli and a cameo from pomp rocker par excellence David Lee Roth.
And given that season five also features a regular part for the aforementioned Buscemi and intriguing new developments in the relationship between Dr. Melfi and our perma tormented anti-hero, Tony Soprano looks set to remain the don of prime-time viewing for quite a while yet.
The last gangster in town: He plays guitar for Springsteen, plays The Clash on his radio show and plays it fast and loose as Silvio Dante in The Sopranos. Colm O’Hare meets the three-in-one Steven Van Zandt.