Martin Scorsese‘s gangster film The Irishman promises to deliver classic cinema to Netflix while the rest of the movie-going public ride marvelous theme park attractions on the big screen. David Chase is doing post-production on The Many Saints of Newark, a film prequel to the series which changed television. The Sopranos premiered on HBO on Jan. 10, 1999, immediately eclipsing the groundbreaking series Sex and the City which debuted only six months before. The crime family saga blurred the lines between cinematic and televised art. It also transformed the way people see New Jersey, a borough of Manhattan, where the show’s most rabid fans gather for SopranosCon, a place where the DiMeo crime family never dies. It doesn’t matter whether Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini, the head of two Jersey families, got popped at the end by some guy in a Members Only jacket and whacked the rule that every show needs its ends tied up. The Sopranos did for crime on TV what The Godfather did for gangster films: It elevated it to fine art.
In spite of producing classic and influential films like Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Scarface and Dead End, gangster movies were relegated to the genre film ghetto. The films occasionally rose to be works of true onscreen beauty, like High Sierra, White Heat, and Once Upon a Time in America, but the majority of criminal cinema came out as B pictures. Francis Ford Coppola changed that with his adaptation of Mario Puzo‘s bestselling novel The Godfather, getting inside the family of mob royalty. Scorsese took the gangster from the fine lawns of New York’s suburbs, where Don Corleone threw the wedding for his daughter, back to the streets. Low level street hoods ruled Mean Streets and mid-level working capos gave the orders in Goodfellas, based on Nic Pilleggi’s book Wise Guys. Scorsese’s 90s classic paved the way for a glorified crew in New Jersey to think of themselves as a borgata.
David Chase didn’t see The Sopranos as a television series. He saw it as a filmmaking experience. The show featured two main actors from Goodfellas: Lorraine Bracco, who played Dr. Melfi, and Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti. In the opening season Christopher even pays his character’s arc forward to a bit player by shooting him in the foot for making him wait too long for sfogliatelle at a bakery.
Dr. Melfi continues the tradition of Billy Crystal’s character in Analyze This. He gives psychiatric aid to Robert De Niro’s mafia boss character, enabling him to get over his anxieties and become a more effective leader, and a better criminal. While the head doctor in Harold Ramis’ mob comedy doesn’t have too much of an ethical problem with his work, Dr. Melfi agonizes over it until she has to dump her infamous client by the last season. The series also drew talent from Coppola’s classic. Dominic Chianese, who played Johnny Ola, the real reason Fredo got executed in The Godfather Part II, brought gravitas to his role as Tony’s Uncle Junior. By combining aspects of the big screen offerings, The Sopranos made the small screen respectable for what seemed to be the least respectable characters.
The Mob Breaks Bad
“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” Tony told his therapist Dr. Melfi in the very first episode. “I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Coming after television’s mid-70s Golden Age with Norman Lear’s All in the Family pushing boundaries in comedy, and Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues changing drama in the eighties, this kind of thinking makes sense. Chase came from network TV, making his bones on shows like The Rockford Files, The Magician, and Northern Exposure. But The Sopranos ushered in a new standard. It inspired antihero-led programming like Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Mad Men, which was created by Matthew Weiner, a writer for The Sopranos.
“That’s the guy, Adriana,” Christopher tells his soon to be ex, Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo). “My uncle Tony. The guy I’m going to Hell for.” This is my favorite line of the entire series. It encapsulates everything about the head of the family and the fealty both he, and the organization he belongs to, inspires. Tony Soprano was the perfect face for the mob on TV because of his imperfections. He got depressed. He fed ducks, which led to bears showing up in his backyard. He fucked around, occasionally getting emotionally involved, which always made situations worse. He stole, made neighborhoods worse, and broke the law on a daily basis. Sometimes just for fun, like lifting crates of wine from some bikers while on a road trip with Christopher. Other times with more serious consequences, like the environmental regulations he’s complicit in breaking because of bad asbestos cleanup. He’s also killed. Occasionally, and most memorably, with his bare hands. Once with two fingers.
When Tony disappeared to garrote a rat while visiting colleges in Maine with his daughter Meadow, played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler, he didn’t order the killing. He did it himself. And he liked it. He took pleasure from a job well done. TV protagonists didn’t do this. In season 1, Tony finds out Meadow’s soccer coach is molesting girls and orders a hit on him. After a session with Dr. Melfi, Tony calls it off. “I didn’t hurt nobody,” he tells Carmela as he stumbles home drunk, celebrating the fact that someone lived through the night. It was very unlike him. And it was a red herring. He could have changed his mind at any time.
The characters all committed unpardonable offenses to old school television. Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), who is already dragging around a bunch of pissed off ghouls he caused, strangles an old lady for the money she hides under her mattress. Tony’s own mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) grins as Tony crouches over her hospital gurney to tell her he knows she set him up for execution. Tony’s Uncle Junior Marvin Gayes his own nephew. Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) beats a Bada Bing dancer to death after she tells him she’s pregnant with his kid. Christopher sits on his girlfriend Adriana’s dog while he’s high and kills it. That’s worse than gunning down 20 people in terms of television etiquette. Fans write letters about that kind of thing.
Tony killed Ralph in the season 4 episode “Pie-O-My” just for being indifferent to the burning death of a racehorse. This happened while Ralphie’s son was lying in a hospital bed with an arrow stuck in his head. Dr. Melfi would later see signs of psychopathy in Tony because he cared for animals. The series was layered in a way film didn’t have time to explore and networks didn’t trust audiences to sit through.
The Sopranos ran on the premium station with the balls to proclaim “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” The pay-cable network was known for showing an equal balance of popular and cult movies, boxing, Not Necessarily the News, and The Larry Sanders Show. Their gangster series raised the bar for all TV. It was so good, Saturday Night Live could only make fun of how good it was, taking on the critics’ zealous enthusiasm with a skit on the reviews.
But it did more than that. The series made relatives us of all. Tony Soprano brought two families into our homes every Sunday night. And if you didn’t show up, Carmela (Edie Falco) might come to your house with ricotta pie. But if you skipped a week, Bobby Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa) would come to get the tray back, with vig.
Burying Bodies in the Garden State
“Highways were jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive,” Christopher gives Tony as an excuse for being late to a meeting. He is paraphrasing a singer songwriter from another exit in New Jersey. The Sopranos may have had as much influence on how people see the garden state since Bruce Springsteen greeted the world from Asbury Park.
The Sopranos captures New Jersey from the tail end of the Bill Clinton era through the George W. Bush presidency, bridging pre-9/11 and post-9/11 America from the shadow of the towers themselves. The feds chased terrorists more than organized crime dealings for a while, but it was a short respite. The Sopranos was a stand-in for the crumbling American Dream.
The Soprano reign begins at the end of the heyday of organized crime and continued right through the beginning of major crackdowns and RICO convictions. Even though he admits to Melfi, he misses as much as he missed out on the ways of the past, he is not one to let others dwell on it. In episode 80, Paulie learns Tony thinks “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” But some things shouldn’t be forgotten.
“New Jersey will always be known as where The Sopranos took place,” says Michael Mota, one of the key organizers of SopranosCon. The club which was redone as Bada Bing changed hands because it apparently had mob ties, but it remains a landmark, as does the house in North Caldwell. “Local Sopranos tours and hot spots are still hot. I have been to the house several times and I have eaten at Holsten’s often. There are spots that will never get old.”
SopranosCon holds its expo at the Meadowlands in Secaucus, N.J., which holds has a special place in gangster mythology. It’s where Clemenza (Richard Castellano) told Rocco Lampone to “leave the gun, take the canolli” in The Godfather. Word on the street says Jimmy Hoffa is part of the concrete landfill under the old Giants Stadium. Tony and Carmela’s daughter Meadow was named after the swampy area. She was conceived in a parked car there. From the first season, The Sopranos “had scenes that took place in the Meadowlands,” says Mota. The fourth episode, written by Jason Cahill and directed by John Patterson, was named after it. It is where Christopher faced a mock execution.
SopranosCon is an interactive street festival inspired by the Feast of St Elzéar from the series. It is thrown by the church which convinced Paulie religion is a protection racket. “Yes, zeppoles will be ready to go,” promises Mota. The convention will present an as-yet-untitled documentary about the series and its fans which was narrated by Federico Castelluccio, who played Sicilian zip Furio Guinta. “They can also sit down at the Executive Game or go through the Pine Barrens Maze,” Mota promises.
The “Pine Barrens” episode from season 3 is one of the most popular episodes of The Sopranos. It was set in turf of the Jersey Devil. Directed by Steve Buscemi, who played Tony’s cousin Tony Blundetto, from a script by Terence Winter, the future creator of Boardwalk Empire, it mixed murderous intent with killer jokes. It’s where a member of the Russia’s Interior Ministry who killed 16 Chechen rebels single-handedly got transformed into an interior decorator whose house looked like shit. In multiple interviews, David Chase said he thought of The Sopranos as a comedy, but during the events of the comedy of errors in the Russian hit, the target disappeared.
Closure is Over-rated
The Sopranos‘ greatest legacy may be the death of closure. Up until the series, everything always has to be wrapped up neat and clean by the end of any television episode. Tony and the gang weren’t so tidy. The X-Files left some participles dangling, but even Vince Gilligan who cooked the antihero lead into 96 percent purity on Breaking Bad had to deliver El Camino. The Sopranos is famous for its open-ended ending, but the series left stuff in the woods and in stables. It’s part of the code for mobsters to play things close to the vest, think Johnny Tightlips from The Simpsons, “I ain’t saying nothing. Tell the doctor to go suck a lemon.” Tony is on record as pining for the days of the strong silent type, like Gary Cooper, and most secrets are better left buried. It is a pain in the ass to have to go back and move a body years after a hit, and explaining what happened on a show someone just watched is just as tedious.
As far as Chase was concerned, the audience got as much closure as the deserved. He didn’t care what happened to some Russian. Or if he did, he wasn’t telling. Terence Winter, who went on to create another gangster epic series Boardwalk Empire, got a few words of explanatory dialogue into a script, but Chase changed his mind and the lines were cut. The audience will never conclusively know if Ralph is responsible for the fire that killed the horse. The man who raped Dr. Mefli remains at large. Nobody picks up the car Christopher left in “Long Term Parking.” Fairuza Balk pulls a big-haired Houdini with barely a trace of DNA. Tony’s daughter Meadow, who was on her way to becoming a civil rights lawyer defending mobsters like her father, would advise you to say nothing.
A lot of things, and people, are buried in secrecy or subterfuge on the series. When characters get killed on the show, their disappearances are as often as not explained as witness relocation. F.B.I. informant Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) missed his chance to testify because he overslept with the fish. Even “Manson lamps” Richie Aprile (David Proval), who Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) left in a downward dog pose, was rumored to have joined the program.
The ending of The Sopranos became legendary TV before the credits rolled. “Made in America” was the first series finale of its kind. During rising tension of a family restaurant, the screen goes black. Someone pulls the plug on the jukebox, forever turning Journey’s song “Don’t Stop Believing” into the ending of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy), and possibly pulled the plug on the head of the crime family of New Jersey. “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right,” Bobby Bacala mused about death while relaxing on a boat with Tony. The event happened weeks after Consigliere Sylvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) experienced the unexpected suddenness of finality restaurant settings can bring.
Some fans immediately hated the ending. Critics were puzzled. Pundits were frustrated. But as sudden as it happened, audiences were also thrown when a comatose Tony lingered on as a salesman on an extended business trip when he was fighting sepsis from a stomach wound. Tony probably died in the diner. Chase calls it “that death scene” when he talks about it in interviews.
Tony’s first death watch, after his own uncle shot him in the stomach, happened shortly before New York gang boss Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) had a near death experience, and his final exit comes shortly after he puts the hit on Phil. Nobody seems to be left who wants Tony dead. We have no real clue who takes over the family or if it even remains a family or reverts back to a glorified crew after the decapitation of leadership. Newly appointed New York boss Butchie might have given the whole thing over to Paulie.
The Sopranos changed TV, leaving a lasting legacy on how dark characters could go without the need for redemption. It played with the form of televised drama, and expectations, which it raised and razed. The crime family became our family, for better or worse. It was there at the beginning of organized crime’s slide into its final denouement, and stands as a testament to the close of the wild ride of the 20th Century itself.
SopranosCon runs from Nov. 23 through 24 at The Meadowlands Expo.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.