2019-01-10 by W.M.
This Giant, In-Depth ‘Sopranos’ Retrospective Is Full of Secrets and Surprises
I was only eight years old when The Sopranos premiered. Starting in January 1999, for its debut, my parents tuned in every Sunday night from our split-level house in a middle-class New Jersey suburb. When I finally got around to watching the series as an adult it felt as though I had already seen it. I had always existed in relation to the mob—peripherally, surrounded by it but never really acknowledged. I had heard stories, or would witness them in front of my face with no future explanation. As an Italian American, whose family moved from the motherland to Newark’s Ironbound and small towns outside the city, it was clear Jersey and the people I knew were pleased to, in the very least, simply see themselves portrayed. Somebody, at long last, hadn’t completely fucked it up—even if there were some Italian American organizations not too thrilled about it. (They didn’t know how easy they had it then; soon, they would have Jersey Shore to worry about.)
I obviously didn’t realize, pre-puberty, the impact the show was having on the evolution of television, and American culture at large. But at the time, I recognized what happened around the show. Everybody—or at least those adults I would frequently overhear—was talking about it. About the temper of Tony Soprano, the main man, and how he had murdered someone when he was taking his daughter on a college tour. About the sheer brutality of Silvio Dante, and how the guitarist of the E. Street Band would surprise you with his practical ruthlessness. About the slapstick, off-the-cuff one-liners of the wing-tipped Paulie Walnuts.
Matt Zoller Seitz, of New York Magazine, and Allan Sepinwall, of Rolling Stone, were there from the beginning. They both wrote as television critics for The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s most prominent paper, and Tony Soprano’s preference, for the duration of the show. To celebrate the drama’s 20th anniversary, the pair got together and collaborated on a book, The Sopranos Sessions, that includes extensive episode recaps, eight brand-new conversations with Sopranos creator David Chase, and newspaper clippings of their own writing from the period.
Below, we discussed the legacy of The Sopranos (how it changed TV, and their own careers), the state of New Jersey, the mob, the philosophy of David Chase, and, of course, that ending.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Spoilers for a 20-year-old show ahead.
VICE: How much do you believe the success of The Sopranos, and both of you having covered it in The Star-Ledger, the show’s hometown newspaper, helped propel your own careers as critics and television writers?
Alan Sepinwall: I grew up one town over from where Tony Soprano lived, and where David Chase grew up. So, I recognized all the places that were on the show, and we—and Matt, especially—knew even before the show came on, that this was going to be a big deal. Production had approached The Star-Ledger just to mock up the newspapers to be at the end of Tony’s driveway. As it turned out, too, James Gandolfini had gone to college with our editor, who had put that dent in Gandolfini’s forehead, when they were horsing around in the dorm or something. So we felt very connected, and almost embedded in the show, from the beginning. There was endless demand from our editors, from our readers, from everyone we encountered, really, to write more and talk more about The Sopranos. There could never be enough content, and we were spectacularly fortunate to be in the exact right place at the right time, as the two TV columnists for Tony Soprano’s favorite newspapers.
What was it like in New Jersey as The Sopranos was airing? I’m from there as well—though I’m 28, so I wasn’t even ten yet when the series was premiering. But I do recall the general atmosphere. Everybody seemed to be discussing it, even deconstructing the opening credits.
There was always a mixed reaction. There was one faction who were thrilled to recognize this or that place. I shop at that Sports Authority, or I’ve eaten at that restaurant. And then there were the people who could not have been more embarrassed about it—and that was both a New Jersey thing, and an Italian American thing. Both of us heard, all throughout the run of the show, complaints from people about how the show was defaming them in one way or another.
At what point did you realize The Sopranos was actually going to be as big as it was? Truly, from the beginning?
Matt Zoller Seitz: I think it was when the episode “College” aired. The reaction to it the next day, when I came into the office, was seriously out of control. I remember people in my neighborhood—I lived in Brooklyn and reverse-commuted to Jersey—and they were talking about it. People in the newsroom were talking about it. I even heard someone on the radio talking about it, and that’s when I knew this was a buzzy show. This wasn’t just going to have a cult audience. Like Oz, for example. It predated The Sopranos by two years, but it wasn’t a hit, at least not on the level of The Sopranos. It wasn’t as if you were walking down the street, and you heard people talking about what had happened on Oz the night before. The Sopranos was, like, infiltrating everybody’s DNA.
Have your opinions changed at all, having had to rewatch it?
Sepinwall: I definitely went in with a trepidation about whether it—it was this landmark show that made both of our careers and changed TV forever, would it hold up? Or would it seem like this embryonic thing that television then copied and improved upon. But, if anything, I ended up liking everything more than I initially had. Part of it, watching it the first time, we’re conditioned as viewers to try to guess what’s going to happen next. We’re focusing so much on speculation. Another time around, I knew everything that was going to happen. For instance, in season four, there’s that long flirtation between Carmella and Furio, and it ultimately goes nowhere. Watching that at the time, that was frustrating. Watching it again, though, I could appreciate the emotional nuances, which The Sopranos had always been, and still is, the best at, and how it set up what would come at the end of season, regarding Tony and Carmela’s relationship.
Zoller Seitz: I watch television differently now as a result of having seen The Sopranos.
It’s been 20 years since that pilot hit HBO. Why publish this book now?
I’m the artistic director of Split Screens’ television festival, and in our first summer, in 2017, we gave out a couple of awards, and one was given to David Chase—the Vanguard Award, which was presented to somebody who changed television. I gave it to him, because I had known him for 20 years, and he certainly was deserving—but I also knew that he was local, and that he would agree to do something like that. I thought, then, basically that we should do a book, because the show was turning 20, and I had already done a book with Alan. We have our own things we want to do separately, of course, but if someone told me I could only collaborate on books with Alan, I’d be, like, OK [laughs].
Sepinwall: When Matt called me up and asked if I wanted to do the book, I responded “yes” in, like, a picosecond.
Zoller Seitz: We had to bang it out. That was the only thing. Alan and I have both done enough books to know that the time table for producing these sorts of things is a few years. We wrote the recaps in about three to four months.
Sepinwall: Yeah. And we did the interviews with Chase over the span of about two months—eight different lunches at various French and Italian bistros on the Upper East Side.
Did you have a strategy when you were interviewing Chase?
Initially, I was trying to get really granular. I was asking very detailed questions. But a lot of this stuff was going back 20 years, and Chase did not strongly remember the specifics of this, or that, or the other thing. But what he always remembered were the emotions behind it, his creative instinct. So I stopped, within the first or second conversation, honing in on the super nerdy stuff.
Zoller Seitz: Another thing that I thought opened Chase more up was when we would ask him more aesthetic or philosophical questions. One of my favorite sections of the book is where he talks about violence and slapstick comedy on the show—and about what big fan he was of, say, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, and Laurel and Hardy. Not only how that informed his approach to comedy on the series, but also how the level of violence that was depicted varied on how helpless the person suffering the violence was. So if it’s a full-of-himself, pretentious, vicious mobster who’s suffering violence, it’s more likely to be funny than if it’s an innocent bystander.
Sepinwall: It’s funny you ask about strategy, because I remember, as we did each one of these, when we were done with some of the earlier ones, Matt and I would turn to each other and discuss how we were ever going to talk about the series finale. Chase has spent dozens of years now not wanting to talk about the ending. Before we had a chance to cement what our strategy was, he basically just blurted it out: “You know, I had that ‘death scene’ in my head.” And Matt, God bless him, immediately followed up, and said, “David, you realize you just said ‘death scene.'” Then, realizing what he said, told us, “Fuck you guys.” [laughs] He never told us exactly what happened—as he said in the past, it’s not a mystery that has a solution—but he talked a lot about the meaning behind the scene, and his creative instincts behind the scene, in a way he never had before, and in a way I hadn’t expected him to.
Zoller Seitz: Two things about that, though. One is that, when he said “death scene,” he wasn’t referring to the scene in Holsten’s. He was referring to an earlier conception of a scene, where the show would have ended with Tony getting in a car and driving through the Lincoln Tunnel—and it was basically the mirror image of the opening credit scene, ending with a burst of white light. The implication being that he had gone into a meeting with Johnny Sack, the head of the New York mob, and that presumably he didn’t come back from it. That would have been, quite unambiguously, Tony died. But he very quickly moved away from that, and settled on the ending that we got, which is the one people are arguing about.
I asked him, too, if it’s possible that even though he tried to deliberately move away from this idea of Tony explicitly getting killed, a lifetime of watching gangster movies might have given it a flavor of “death scene” anyway, and he conceded that that was possible. That’s something that people are going to have to grapple with if they read this book: Artists do things on purpose and accidentally—and, sometimes, they do things accidentally on purpose. And all three of those decisions result in a finished work.
The second thing is that, Chase insists the show has seven seasons, not six, and Alan and I agree, so we wanted to structure the book like that—seven interviews, and then an eighth one for follow-ups. We figured we would get to the series finale in the seventh interview, but we got to it in the sixth. In that way, it was even more like The Sopranos, I think: You got the climax a little earlier than you anticipated. It was like Janice killing Richie Aprile in the kitchen, when the ending came up like that. Alan and I we’re like, Shit, we didn’t think we’d have to deal with this for another week.
Was the intention to structure the book the way you did all along?
Yes, though we had struggled to come up with a title. We eventually settled on The Sopranos Sessions, because it had a double-meaning. Chase was a musician in high school, before he was a filmmaker, which is the subject of his film Not Fade Away, and he still retains the instincts of a musician, so I thought this was sort of like a series of jam sessions, our conversations with him. And also, of course, like a therapy session. The more it went on, interviewing Chase, it did start to feel like therapy sessions—to the point where we we were studying Chase’s language, studying for Freudian slips, like “death scene.” By the time we got to the final interview, I was asking very explicit follow-up questions, because I wanted to be sure Chase wasn’t going to be misconstrued. I wanted to be sure, in other words, that he meant what I thought he meant.
Alan and I were also adamant that we include clips from the actual writing that we did at The Star-Ledger at that time. We wanted people to see how we were reacting to the show in real time. We thought that was important, because when a show leaves as big of a cultural impact as The Sopranos, there’s a tendency for everyone to sort of retroactively go back and lie a little bit about how they saw the show, to get on the same page. Because when you first confront something this new, you can make a lot of assumptions that are kind of wrongheaded or embarrassing, and you certainly don’t want to be reminded of them. But I wanted Alan and I to be honest about that. We produced a bunch of speculation that was laughably incorrect, and there were clearly moments where the cast and crew of the show purposefully threw us off the trail.
Is The Sopranos Sessions for everybody, or just those who have seen it?
Sepinwall: We went out of our way to make sure that if you had never seen it before, you could safely read each recap without getting spoiled. There were a few times where Matt was a real hard-liner about it, where a footnote or a parenthetical would allude to something, not really giving it away, and Matt would axe it.
Zoller Seitz: [Laughs] You had one footnote where you alluded to A.J.’s fart references, and you telegraphed, basically, that there was another good fart joke coming, and I was, like, “No, Alan, you can’t.” You have to leave that pristine for the uninitiated.
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