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The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

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by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall
November 30, 2012 8:34 AM
10 Comments
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The Sopranos Effect

Matt: You deal with a lot of the influential pre-1999 shows—which is the year The Sopranos debuted—in your opening chapters, then you go into The Sopranos and move on from there. It seems to me you could easily have titled this book The Children of The Sopranos, because to some extent, even though a show such as Lost or Battlestar Galactica outwardly has nothing in common with The Sopranos, those shows wouldn’t have existed if The Sopranos hadn’t gotten on the air, stayed on the air, and been a hit.

Alan: That’s exactly true. A lot of the writers I talked to from Battlestar were writing on Deep Space Nine when The Sopranos came on. They all said, “We’re all going home at night and watching The Sopranos and thinking, ‘God, this is what we want to do!’” And they kind of got to do their version of it in the sci-fi realm. Damon Lindelof from Lost talked a lot about The Sopranos. He said that many of the influences on Lost were the same things that influenced Chase, like European film. The Sopranos made all these shows possible.

But then, Oz made The Sopranos possible—but without the commercial success that was ultimately going to lead to all those other shows.

Matt: What was the common thread in all these showrunners’ obsession with The Sopranos? It wasn’t the crime and violence, because some of these shows aren’t into any of that. Is it the postwar European cinema influence that you alluded to? Does it have something to do with the worldview, or the way in which the characters were portrayed?

Alan: It was all of those things. But it was mostly that, here was a show that was not beholden to any of the formulas that other people had to deal with in their [TV] day jobs, and them looking at The Sopranos and saying, “Wait a minute. You can do exactly the show that you want to do, you can make it intensely personal, make it really emotionally and narratively complex, you don’t have to treat the audience like they’re five years old, and you can still get millions and millions of people watching? Why can’t we try this?”

Matt: I was intrigued by the section in the Sopranos chapter where you and Chase get into the idea that, on The Sopranos, people don’t change.  About a year after that show went off the air, I had an email exchange with Chase about my recaps of the show. It was cordial, for the most part, but he did take exception to my endorsement of the idea that The Sopranos was about how people don’t change. I didn’t mean it in quite the absolutist terms he thought I did, but he seemed sensitive to it, because it was a more depressing view of human nature than the one he meant to communicate.

But it seems that you got that impression, too. And we certainly weren’t the only ones. And, when you talked to him five years after the conclusion of the series, he still seemed concerned about that perception.

Alan: The ultimate version he gives is not that far removed from what you or I or other people thought, which is that on The Sopranos, people can try to change, but it’s incredibly, incredibly difficult to do so, and we saw a lot of examples of that on the show.

Matt: That’s a pessimistic view, but I wouldn’t say it’s an unrealistic one. How many times have you taken stock of your life and resolved to make some fundamental change, then ended up two weeks later wandering around blithely like Homer Simpson, going “La la la la”?

Alan: Can you think of characters on the show who tried to change their inner natures, and succeeded?

Vito - Sopranos
Matt: Yes. But unfortunately, those people tended to end up dead.

Alan: [Laughs] Yes! That’s what I’m saying. They hung themselves in the garage.

Matt: Like poor Eugene Pontecorvo. Or Vito, who has his sojourn in the gay Shangri-La of Connecticut, then returns to New York City and gets clubbed to death.

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10 Comments

  • Plashy | December 11, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    Love the book, Alan! People who read it might also be interested in this article that gets into why cable dramas since the "golden age" (Sopranos, Wire, et. al) haven't quite been able to live up to the greatness that pre-dated them.

    Interesting read: http://ahorizontalmyth.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/bad-lessons-learned-from-great-television-pt-1/

  • Halloran | November 30, 2012 9:10 PMReply

    Also, regarding current shows -- Alan you really hit the sweet spot with this book, because nothing on the air now compares with The Sopranos and The Wire. Mad Men is the only thing that comes remotely close, but its central conceit is so poor -- the self-made, artificial man who sells artifice LITERALLY has a secret identity! Homeland has the same problem -- the agent who personifies post-9/11 American paranoia and self-doubt is LITERALLY crazy! Homeland has also already resorted to the kind of insane, ridiculous plot contortions that only Breaking Bad has ever pulled off with any dexterity and in-the-moment believability.

    Seriously, when did subtext and text become the same thing with these shows? That was part of The Sopranos' genius -- leaving much under the surface to be initially misunderstood, endlessly debated, and extracted years later by smart folks like you guys.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 9:38 PM

    Very true although I do love Mad Men and do think it's in the same class as the Sopranos. I have grown wary of some of the more ridiculous plot contortions in Breaking Bad. It's funny, someone commented on my site that I should explain the ending of Lost. I have maybe seen 2 episodes and it just didn't connect. The Sopranos has really spoiled me for other shows. They just can't touch it.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 8:53 PMReply

    Again, without telling him anything else about my piece except the title, his first reaction was to jokingly comment about its length. Unless there is another well known, gigantic essay on the ending, I stand by my belief that he read it. In 2008, I was also was able to get a smaller version of it (which I originally wrote on a popular but now mostly inactive sopranos fan site) to him through his good friend Allen Rucker who had previously wrote a hbo sopranos tie in book. In any event I suppose it's possible he was joking about some other mammoth essay but it's also possible he didn't want to get into talking about explaining the final scene with you.

    In any event, he wouldn't comment one way or the other about whether I was correct. Without prompting though he was quick to tell me it wasn't an f-u to the fans. To me that really showed me how much the fan reaction bothered him.

    By the way I bought the book on iBooks. Thanks for the shout out about my site. I'm really digging the book so far. It's very thorough.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 8:53 PMReply

    Again, without telling him anything else about my piece except the title, his first reaction was to jokingly comment about its length. Unless there is another well known, gigantic essay on the ending, I stand by my belief that he read it. In 2008, I was also was able to get a smaller version of it (which I originally wrote on a popular but now mostly inactive sopranos fan site) to him through his good friend Allen Rucker who had previously wrote a hbo sopranos tie in book. In any event I suppose it's possible he was joking about some other mammoth essay but it's also possible he didn't want to get into talking about explaining the final scene with you.

    In any event, he wouldn't comment one way or the other about whether I was correct. Without prompting though he was quick to tell me it wasn't an f-u to the fans. To me that really showed me how much the fan reaction bothered him.

    By the way I bought the book on iBooks. Thanks for the shout out about my site. I'm really digging the book so far. It's very thorough.

  • John | November 30, 2012 6:41 PMReply

    Um, sorry, but Skyler *was* a weak character in the first couple of seasons. She's gotten significantly better in the later seasons, but not liking her at first is not an indication of misogyny or any other such nonsense. It's an indication that she wasn't an appealing character (she still isn't very appealing, though she is more interesting now). Having "no patience" with people who don't care for her is an indication of a lack of actual logic to make your case. If you can't see the case against Skyler (not saying you have to agree with the case, just recognize its validity), you're either biased or not paying attention. And she's not the conscience of the show. That's just asinine. That role is very clearly served by Hank and/or Jesse.

  • MOS | November 30, 2012 4:17 PMReply

    Alan,

    I am the writer of the Master of Sopranos blog. You don't have to believe me, but I met Mr. Chase while he was in Manhattan filming "Not Fade Away" (the scene was filmed on West 26th st. between 6th and Broadway). I walked up to him and introduced myself as the writer of the the essay Definitive Explanation of the End. Chase shook my hand and playfully joked "that's the one that's like 40 pages." I'm sure you know my piece is partly famous for it's length so I do figure my site is what he was talking about. He would not discuss the ending more than "I just want people to know it wasn't a F-you". He nicely introduced me to a couple of members of his crew and said goodbye. So yes, I think he read it.

  • Mos | November 30, 2012 9:04 PM

    Thanks halloran. By the way, sorry for posting twice. I also can't post directly under the discussion thread. Very frustrating.

  • Halloran | November 30, 2012 8:47 PM

    I'm sure Chase has at some point or another at least heard of the MOS essay, whether or not he's "read" it start to finish. I don't remember whether that essay was the first place that popularized the POV / "never hear it when it happens" argument, but it's certainly the most famous and the most effective piece on the topic, so kudos for writing it, whether Chase acknowledges it outright or not. In my opinion he's smarter not to telegraph it and be at least a little coy on his intentions even years later, because it maintains an element of ambiguity that in hindsight makes the ending even more revolutionary and compelling.

    My own view has always been that the scene is clearly a metaphorical "death" scene; whether Tony's death literally happens is irrelevant, because the show is over. That scene is like a metaphysical coda that exists outside the narrative. It's an encapsulation of Tony's paranoid existence and, to the extent that Chase was commenting on post-9/11 U.S. life and putting the viewer in Tony's head, the existence of every American. At the same time I dispute Chase's retcon that the scene "wasn't a F-you" -- it clearly was, based on Chase's post-airing comments about not wanting to give the audience the payoff they expected. Chase is a brilliant guy -- he knew the viewers would be flipping out in anger and confusion. He gave intelligent viewers a lot of credit by telling a very difficult, layered, complex narrative, but he also had blatant contempt for the more casual viewers that craved easy answers and "payoffs." Steven Van Zandt likened the ending to Chase smashing his guitar at the end of a rock show. Apt description and more power to Chase -- nothing in TV before or since will match the mystery, dread, and sheer brilliance of that scene.

    Finally, Alan and Matt, I've been reading you guys for years -- great discussion, keep up the great work. I very much look forward to reading the book.

  • Alan Sepinwall | November 30, 2012 8:09 PM

    I was very specific in describing the thesis of your essay, the length, the arguments, etc., before asking if he had read it. He said, and I quote, "I have not read that."

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