So, as I struggle with life and more importantly, struggle with keeping up with this year's award season while still catching up on last year's movies, I was looking for something to write about, and I came across this observation from Sasha Stone of AwardsDaily.com, who I follow on Facebook.
I really loved The Sopranos. I'm thinking that if made right now it would not have thrived. It was just such a good show, top to bottom. I can't point to a reason why I don't think it would do well today but I feel like it wouldn't, that what does well is aspirational stuff rather than hard truth stuff.
Originally, I was just kinda gonna ignore this comment, although tacitally agree with it, which, yeah, I kinda do basically agree with it. That said, it got me thinking.
You see, I actually have never been that big on "The Sopranos". I respect it as a great show, but, even at the time I never really understood why everybody kept signaling it out as the best. Was it a great show? Yeah, I can't argue it wasn't. Was it groundbreaking and innovative? Umm...- well,- (Scratches head) I'm, honestly not sure it is.
Influential, definitely, but was it all that different or unique at the time, even? I mean, I might argue that something like "Oz", which came onto the TV landscape a couple years earlier might be somewhat more innovative and groundbreaking, at least for what we think of as the modern premium cable drama series. I'm not the biggest "Oz" guy either, but that show played with first person narration, multiple perspectives, multiple narratives and it was dark and gritty and realistic and had surprise and shocking deaths among other things, as well as a great all-star cast. Problem is, nobody watched it. Well, that's not true, my mother among others was and still is a huge fan, but it didn't break into the national consciousness the way "The Sopranos" did. That might be because it was a prison show and those aren't particularly well-watched or beloved.
(Sigh) Okay, so that wasn't it.... But enough about "Oz"; back to "The Sopranos"...
Was the subject matter unique? I guess it was for television, well, unless you want to count "Wiseguy" but I can't imagine people thinking that it was entirely new. The mafia was by no means unrepresented in pop culture prior to "The Sopranos", there were dozens of examples, prominent examples dating back to the beginnings of the medium of film. Personally, I thought at the time and still do think that "Six Feet Under" was far more innovative and unique at the time. Not only in it's format and structure but also in it's subject matter and approach. That kind of elegaic and subversive look at the traditional American nuclear family was pretty different for the time and quite groundbreaking, influencing film and television for years. Sure, "The Sopranos" was too, but the Sopranos was mostly a look at a mafia family, while compared to say, "Six Feet Under" which came out a year later and was twisted and sardonic. It also with love, lust, sex, romance, getting older, death, Hollywood, homosexuality, intelligence even among other things and family above everything else; I always thought "Six Feet Under" had a lot more to say about a lot more things but I always kinda read "The Sopranos" as mostly on face value. There's definitely more depth and subtlety going on, but narratively, I always saw the series, kinda one-dimensionally. I mean, I guess you can put in the subtext about what is says about Americana and it could be considered it's own subversion of the modern nuclear family, but I don't think it plays any differently from just considering it as a look-in in on a crime family. What was it saying about anything? I'm told it's accurate, I didn't have to be told that, I could pretty much tell that it was, not that I have inside info on the Mafia, but being an Italian from Vegas who's family from New Jersey originally, eh, let's just say nothing in the show particularly shocked me in terms of content. I'm not saying accuracy isn't good, it is, but I never saw "The Sopranos" as a series that was saying anything more than that. Others did, I'm not anything else you can read into the show, actually make the show deeper than it being a portrayal of a mafia family.
Okay, so if the material isn't new, and the perspective isn't new, than it must be the approach to the material that's innovative and different, the most unique and appealling thing, right? Um...-
I mean, yeah, I guess so. It certainly a quality show, so it was a great approach to a tried-and-true topic and collection of archetype and it's certainly credited as being the series that has jumpstarted this modern Golden Age of narrative dramas for television. Now personally I've always questioned this notion that television is so much better than before myself, but that's about today's show, looking at "The Sopranos" specifically, have you ever noticed how many episodes of "The Sopranos" are, well, basically just normal, and relatively inconsequential episodes, at least narrative-wise?
Especially for a cable series that generally had less episodes per season as most series at the time and was critical on the narrative arc for the series, there's just as many episodes that you can basically come into cold and not really need much background to follow, especially the early episode. Think about, what's a good example here, how about "College", one of the first episodes of the series that I truly loved. It's the episode where Tony is off looking at colleges with his daughter Meadow and a former mobster-turned-snitch happens to be on tour, and now he has to kill him. Other than that, there's not much else that happens. Carmela invites the priest over for dinner, and she talks with Dr. Melfi on the phone and discovers she's a woman, and those incidents have more everlasting impact on the narrative than either Meadow's college choice or the fact that Tony kills the former mobster. It's one of the most famous episodes of the series and it doesn't actually have much impact on the overall narrative, lots of episodes don't; they usually just outline things mobsters do. "The Sopranos" is way more slice-of-life in it's approach than I think most of it's fans realize, but more importantly, for a series that supposed changed television forever, it's actually more reminiscent of traditional, classic television drama narratives than people realize.
If anything, that's the secret of "The Sopranos"'s greatness, not the fact that it was this wholly new innovative reimagining of what television could do or be, but the fact that it's really, much more grounded in classic television. David Chase is a great writer, but the reason how he seemed to know how to reinvent the television narrative was because he spent his prior career perfecting the TV drama narrative. His earliest big breaks included writing 20 episodes of "The Rockford Files" and episodes of critically-acclaimed cult series like "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and "I'll Fly Away". among others. Those were series that also circumvented a lot of television cliches and conventions and did it with an unusual high level of quality; the guy is a protege of Stephen J. Cannell, and this was before Cannell invented the drama series that nearly every drama series since has borrowed from, "Hill Street Blues", another show that was known for combined multi-narrative ensembles with suddenly episodes that seem to have absolutely no baring on anything other narrative that was previously focused on in the series.
By the way, I don't consider this a flaw in "The Sopranos", if anything I think it's it's greatest strength. We're so busy looking at the minor details of the episodes sometimes, and that's a good thing too, it means that we care enough about the character to look closer and to try to piece together a larger greater narrative with the series, but I think with "The Sopranos" we don't always realize that, you don't really need to to enjoy it. Look at how much is talked about with the series' last episode, and going back and trying to seek out clues and hints and casting and re-castings and trying to figure out what happened when the screen went to black, when the whole point of the show might be that it doesn't matter. It was good, you enjoyed it, what difference does it make whether Tony or anybody else is suddenly killed or not? Chase is a television veteran who knows better than to simply base his show around those intricate moments where you have to continually play close attention to everything, sometimes Paulie and Christopher nearly freeze to death in the woods after stupidly trying to kill a Russian because Paulie and Christ nearly freeze to death in the woods after stupidly trying to kill a Russian. Does the fact that we don't know if the Russian lives or dies afterwards mean anything? How often does whoever's found guilty on this week's "Law & Order", live or dies afterwards ever mean anything?
This is also why I'm somewhat reluctant to appreciate this batch of drama series we've gotten for the last 20 years or so, since "The Sopranos" because too many of these series learned how to tell the long-form narrative that shows like "The Sopranos" and others mastered but they totally missed that the long-form narrative of the series is secondary to just creating interesting complex characters and putting them in different and fascinating situations that we want to see them in. "The Sopranos" is generally accepted as the forebearer of this era, and I'm okay with that, but too many series that came afterwards completely missed how classic the series was and how the roots of the series wasn't based in reinventing and challenging the conventions of television narratives. Despite a few exceptions like say "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Breaking Bad" among other, they miss how classic the show was, how you can actually walk into the middle of a random episode and for the most part enjoy the show. That's ultimately what makes "The Sopranos" great and keeps it great all these years afterwards.
But, back to Ms. Stone's observation would "The Sopranos" actually have the opportunity to succeed today, and what does that say about today's television landscape? Honestly, mostly that the television landscape has so drastically changed that, yeah, she's probably right. Part of it is that the drama series evolution that it created has become so evolved and inspired by it that it wouldn't be recognized as great necessarily, but mostly that there's more networks and more series now, and most options to watch,-, "The Sopranos" thrived in an era where quality respected programming on HBO was still a novelty. I remember when those Emmy nominations came out that first year, everybody was shocked that "The Sopranos" showed up everywhere, not because it was a bad show, but mostly nobody thought anybody was watching it and taking it seriously as an award contender. Myself included; I didn't take the show or the network seriously until a couple years later. It also didn't help that it never won Series until years after, losing regularly to "The Practice" and "The West Wing", and like I said, I'm still reluctant to put it on the highest pedestal of the time, because I frankly think there were better, more innovative and important drama series at the time. (Not a lot, almost a handful, 3 or 4 better ones, I'd say) Nobody knew HBO was reinventing the wheel so severely, giving free reign to creators, allowing them to make as much or as little of their show as they want and on the timeline that they want,- "The Sopranos" was the series that first thought, "Eh, let's take a year off or two," they were the ones ttha changed the format expectations for the audience and HBO was the network that showed Netflix, Amazon and all the others how to do it, and only really, recently are we finally getting to the point where the networks have caught up to their strategy. That's why people are making such big deals out of shows like "The Good Place" or "This is Us", having so much freedom to play with the form. Honestly, HBO is the real big reason "The Sopranos" survived, 'cause they chose to allow it to thrive and survive.
Nowadays, all the drama series and series in general that are supposedly better, they don't always get the option or choice to survive. They're canceled or renewed almost arbitrarily at times. It happens too often for me, I get into a series that I suspect has many more years ahead of it and then suddenly, "Ahh, "One Mississippi" got canceled!"? They're just like every other show now. I have no idea whether HBO would allow them to go on now if the show came out today. They might've ended up, one or two season and a movie for the fans like many series seem like nowadays. They might've broken through; I doubt they'd be the hit that say "Game of Thrones" is, but at the time they were the "Game of Thrones" of it's day, in a far less competitive television landscape but still. Nowadays, a modern-day mafia families did seem unusual; it stood out from all the lawyers, cops and hospital dramas it was competiting against. Now it's up against fantasy, science-fiction, historical fiction, and those are the expectations of the drama series genre these days and not the exceptions. We're in an era where "This is Us" looks out-of-place for being a modern-day family drama and even that show plays with flashbacks more than most drama series, so half the time it's not even a modern-day drama. "The Sopranos" could've easily gotten lost in the shuffle today.
That doesn't take away from it's greatness today though; it's responsible for creating this landscape. It's had the same impact on the landscape that "Hill Street Blues" had, everything's so influence and derivitive of the series that now at this point, it would seem like a cliche or throwback if that series aired today, and "The Sopranos" more-or-less has the same problem. Both series took the classic television drama formula and found a way to pump it up on steroids for a new generation. The SAG nominations came out yesterday, we've got two shows that take place in the past, one that takes place in an alternate future, one, that modern-day and involves the Mafia, and the Ozarks..., what else, a zombies sci-fi series, several other costume or period dramas, we're definitely in a world where "The Sopranos" would have trouble breaking through the way it did, but who cares now.
I wish every show I love would never go off the air and all the shows I can't stand by canceled yesterday; but in the meantime, let's enjoy the series for what they were and for as long as we got them and hopefully if they're even half as good as "The Sopranos" were, it won't matter that they're not making new episodes now 'cause we'll be able to rewatch, revisit and look deeper at them whenever we want.