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.