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As Tony opened up, so did television

The Sopranos has inspired an explosion of explicit, complex dramas.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published April 1, 2007


If you want to know how The Sopranos has forever changed the face of television, Vincent Pastore has a story that explains it all.

 

Years after he played Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, the first of Tony Soprano's lieutenants to be executed, Pastore was hanging with 24 star Kiefer Sutherland at a roast for comic Denis Leary.

"Kiefer said to me, 'Vinnie, I would never have done 24 if The Sopranos didn't make the impact that it did . . .' Before that, he had no desire to do television," said Pastore, calling from his home in the Bronx.

"I think the same pertains to Jimmy Woods and Alec Baldwin and a lot of movie guys that are doing television now that didn't want to go near television," he added. "Because television changed after The Sopranos."

One week from tonight, The Sopranos begins a nine-episode season ending a hugely successful show that has brought TV an explosion of explicit, complex dramas - and built careers for some of the hottest actors, writers and producers in the industry.

The Sopranos made HBO's slogan - "It's not TV, It's HBO" - sound more like a description than a boast. And its use of movie storytelling techniques is now so common, even on the cheesiest TV shows, it can be easy to forget how groundbreaking the mob drama has been.

Working on many levels

"Somebody asked me why The Sopranos was successful - I say because it's two shows: It's a Mafia show and it's a show about a family with the intimacy of Edward Albee," said Allen Rucker, author of the tongue-in-cheek book, The Sopranos: A Family History.

"In the book, (series star) James Gandolfini told me, 'You know why this works? (Creator) David Chase and me and Tony Soprano, we all have the same level of self loathing,' " said Rucker. "There's a mindset that David has and James has that all gets turned into Tony Soprano. This is the first self-reflective mobster in the history of television."

Pastore sees the Mafia drama as a modern-day western. "Watching The Sopranos is like watching a John Ford (western) every week," he said. "What people were seeing each week was a mini movie - an experience you could only get in the theater."

Chase described the show's appeal simply during a 2004 press conference: I'm always "trying to give people a lot of bang for their buck, because it's not free," he said. "I've always tried to cram the show just full of this humor, suspense, violence, sex, great rock 'n' roll music . . . just cram it tight as we can and have it be almost bursting with stuff."

Already, critics have seen the first two episodes of the show's final run, and the themes should be familiar to fans.

(SPOILER ALERT! Discussion of key plot points to follow in the next few paragraphs!)

Tony Soprano's sister Janice has settled down with husband Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri, inviting her brother and his wife to their home in upstate New York for Tony's birthday. The evening ends, shall we say, awkwardly. Later, Bobby gets an assignment from Tony he can't refuse.

Meanwhile, Sopranos soldier Christopher Moltisanti finally sees his filmmaking dreams pay off, making Tony nervous. New York boss Johnny Sack, captured by the FBI in last year's episodes, finds a challenge more daunting than prison.

The list of celebrity guest stars is typically idiosyncratic, including Geraldo Rivera, Sydney Pollack, Daniel Baldwin and Nancy Sinatra.

(SPOILER ALERT ENDS HERE.)

New roles - for TV, and for people

It all promises an intriguing finale. Which isn't to say everyone's quite ready for the end.

"I was just thinking the other day, 'S---, I'm not going to be Janice anymore,' " said Aida Turturro, who plays Janice Soprano, in a January interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "In a lot of ways, it's like leaving your family. We all really care about each other . . . (so) it's going to be hard."

Still, it may help that the show leaves an impressive legacy, including:

- The show expanded possibilities for TV dramas:

From the beginning, The Sopranos broke just about every rule in series television.

The hero was a fat, selfish, cold-blooded killer. Plots were dense and required close attention. Story lines often didn't resolve neatly - or at all. More than a year could pass between each season, which only delivered about 13 episodes, or half those produced on network TV.

And the villain, at least in the first season, was the hero's own mother.

But the show caught on, drawing a peak 13-million viewers for its fourth season premiere (HBO has 30-million subscribers).

It redefined what TV executives assumed was possible.

"I don't think The Shield would be on the air without The Sopranos," said Shawn Ryan, creator of FX's explicit cop drama. "The Sopranos opened the door . . . (for FX) to consider making its only show at the time one that centered on a deeply flawed character, who has much that is admirable about him, but also much that is not."

Initially, The Sopranos (along with comedy hit Sex and the City) helped make a juggernaut of HBO, turning it into the hip home for sophisticated dramas such as Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood. But as HBO's fortunes cooled, the market for ambitious dramas traveled to FX (Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me), Showtime (Weeds, Dexter) and even network TV.

When producer Ben Silverman (Ugly Betty, The Office) began developing a drama about 16th century British king Henry VIII, he gave the writer DVDs of two shows: The West Wing and The Sopranos.

"My original pitch was Henry VIII as Tony Soprano," said Silverman, whose 10-part series The Tudors premieres tonight on HBO's premium cable rival, Showtime. "It's the last name. The family. And (Henry) is highly flawed . . . a despot and a king."

Sound familiar?

- It created careers for talented actors, writers and producers:

Before The Sopranos, Edie Falco was the cute guard on HBO's gritty prison drama Oz and James Gandolfini was the beefy bodyguard John Travolta threw down the stairs in Get Shorty.

Eight years, six Emmys and three Golden Globe awards later, Gandolfini and Falco are the tip of a talent pyramid that enjoys better opportunities and attention thanks to the show.

"It brought back Lorraine Bracco's career . . . I remember she was saying she was having money problems (before The Sopranos)," said Pastore of the actor who plays Tony's psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi.

"Now she wrote a book and she's got a wine out there," added Pastore, who scored his own post-Sopranos program on Sirius satellite radio, The Wiseguy Show. "So many people probably just would have stayed in the independent film world, and they were able to break through because of this television show."

The quality of the talent - mostly little-known, Italian-American talent - even helps blunt criticism from those who worry The Sopranos furthers an awful stereotype.

"Personally, I would love for it to be called The Johnsons, or some generic, Anglo-sounding name, like The Smiths," said comic Joe Piscopo, a longtime crusader for positive images of Italian-Americans in film and TV. "And yet, the way it is now, you cannot skirt the fact that the writing is brilliant and . . . other than Law & Order, it might be the best show on television. And everybody on the show is Italian-American."

Will it end as it began, with a bang?

Some say The Sopranos' best years are behind it.

In its first few seasons, the show juggled complex, dangerous themes: Tony's children guessing his real occupation, Tony's Uncle Junior angering his underlings by grabbing too much money, Tony's best friend turning FBI informer, and his mother and uncle teaming up to have him killed.

But in later seasons, the stakes lowered. Tony's chief rival, New York mobster Johnny Sack, is in jail. Uncle Junior is under house arrest and barely lucid. Christopher Moltisanti, once barely able to hide his ambition to move up in the organization, is busy with a film career. Tony is surrounded by former players who are less interested in running the mob than leaving it.

Mark Winegardner, the Florida State University professor who wrote two sequels to Mario Puzo's classic Mafia novel The Godfather, compares The Sopranos' entire run to a great 19th century novel that experiences a lull in the action before a big finish.

But Pastore isn't so sure. "A good thing lasts for a certain while, then it's over - like a romance," he said. "The Sopranos did its due. . . . How long are you going to continue with these story lines? David doesn't want to do it, Jimmy doesn't want to do it. Everybody's tired."

Gandolfini seemed to confirm as much during a 2004 press conference. "I'm not yet ready to say goodbye to the character, but I'm not going to miss him . . . Does that make sense?" he said.

"I want to end this the right way and I know he has something in mind, Mr. Chase, and I trust him completely . . . (And) when it's over the right way, I'll see you later."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com.

 

ON TV:

The Sopranos begins airing its last nine-episode season next Sunday night at 9 on HBO. The finale airs June 11.

Grade: A.

Rating: TV-MA (Mature audiences).