The Sopranos Sessions480
The Sopranos Sessions480
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About the Author
Alan Sepinwall is currently the television critic for Uproxx. com. Prior to Uproxx and HitFix, Sepinwall spent 14 years as a columnist for the Star Ledger of Newark, New Jersey. His thoughts on television have appeared in the New York Times, Time magazine, and Variety. Slate has said Sepinwall “changed the nature of television criticism” and called him the “acknowledged king of the form.” Sepinwall lives in New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
Woke Up This Morning
"It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end.
The best is over."— Tony
From its opening credits, through its introduction of its depressed gang-boss hero and his unflappable psychiatrist, to its unnervingly quiet closing song "The Beast in Me," The Sopranos entered with a swagger, upsetting expectations and telling you to brace yourself.
The pilot episode of The Sopranos, created by TV veteran David Chase, aired on January 10, 1999, with little advance fanfare outside the hermetically sealed world of TV critics who'd watched the pilot and the next three episodes on VHS tapes supplied by HBO the previous summer. Despite collective bullish- ness, reviewers had a hard time persuading people that the show was significant. Skepticism was valid. Consider the cultural context. The 1990s featured numerous genre-upending series — Twin Peaks, The X-Files, ER, NYPD Blue, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, My So-Called Life, Oz — but people couldn't believe a weekly TV series could be art, or even something other than "pretty good, for TV." Self- contained theatrical films could be art; this had been common wisdom for forty years. TV? Not so much.
Plus The Sopranos was about gangsters, and there'd been no shortage of gangster stories in preceding decades. The genre helped build commercial cinema, along with Westerns, musicals, and film noir, and kept producing popular and critical successes even as postwar movie attendance diminished. Nineteen-ninety alone saw the release of six notable entries: My Blue Heaven, King of New York,State of Grace, Miller's Crossing, The Godfather Part III, and Goodfellas. That last one, a sprawling whack-fest set across Brooklyn and Long Island, was the most popular crime film yet by a master of the form, Martin Scorsese. Not only did it deal in some of the same notions as The Sopranos — mobsters posing as unremark- able suburbanites, and gangsterism as capitalism at its rawest — its style informed Chase's show, including nasty shocks balanced with jocular humor, and an eclectic musical sensibility that mixed opera, show tunes, pop, and rock (including Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," an actual Goodfellas soundtrack cue). The Sopranos also shared cast members with Scorsese's classic, including Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore, and Dr. Melfi herself, Lorraine Bracco. So already The Sopranos risked being dismissed as Goodfellas: The Show.
On top of all that, Scorsese regular Robert De Niro had just starred in a comedy called Analyze This, about a gangster in therapy. It was set to open in March 1999, less than three months after the Sopranos premiere, and trailers were already in theaters. Some writers generally assumed The Sopranos was a light comedy, too. Maybe it was the lingering whiff of the misfire My Blue Heaven, starring Steve Martin as a now-suburban mafioso in witness protection who can't give up his old ways. Maybe it was the title The Sopranos, which conjured prewar, whatsamatta-you Italians singing arias across red-checkered tablecloths.
But these misconceptions hid unimaginably richer depths. Written and directed by Chase, the pilot is a hybrid slapstick comedy, domestic sitcom, and crime thriller, with dabs of '70s American New Wave grit. It is high and low art, vulgar and sophisticated. It mixes disreputable spectacle (casual nudity, gory executions, drugs, profanity, and retrograde sentiments) with flourishes from postmodern novels, dialectical theater, and mid-century European art-house cinema. The series is sometimes as much about the relationship between art and its audience as it is about the world the artist depicts.
This self-awareness gives the opening scene, where Tony stares up at the statue in Dr. Melfi's office, another layer: this is a show that gives mass audiences the double-crosses and rubouts they expect from a Mob tale, but also psycho- therapy and dream analysis, economic and social satire, commentary on toxic masculinity and patriarchal oppression, and a rich intertextuality that positions The Sopranos against the histories of cinematic and real gangsters, Italian Americans, and America.
The opening credits display this graceful interplay. They seem straightforward enough: here is the hero, this is where he lives. But they do at least five more things that dispel expectations and prepare us for something beyond the gangster-film usual.
Surprise #1: The man behind the wheel. If the overweight, balding, cigarsmoking driver who snatches a ticket from a toll booth is the show's protagonist and a Mafia boss (and we quickly learn that he is), the actor looks more like a henchman — one who'd get beaten up by a much smaller hero or shot by his boss to prove his ruthlessness.
Surprise #2: The music; "Woke Up This Morning," by Alabama 3, aka A3. Now universally recognized as the Sopranos theme, it was an unknown quantity in 1999. The song's rumbling bass line, warbling synthesizer effects, Leonard Cohen–esque vocals, and repetitive harmonica lament signal that this isn't the gangster story you're used to seeing. Notwithstanding oddball outliers like King of New York, post-1970 gangster pictures were usually scored with sweeping orchestral compositions (The Godfather, State of Grace, Miller's Crossing); playlists of postwar pop, blues, and rock (see any modern-day crime film by Scorsese), or some combination (Donnie Brasco). The pilot will use plenty of the second kind of music, but the present-tense newness of the A3 still throws the viewer off-balance.
Surprise #3: The filmmaking. Shot by series cinematographer Alik Sakharov with a handheld 35mm camera, on a route roughed out on videotape by series locations manager Jason Minter, the sequence is an assemblage of "caught" footage, taken in New Jersey locations without permits and edited in a jagged, unpredictable way. Eschewing the uninteresting technique of always cutting on the beat, the sequence holds images for unpredictable durations. It also avoids the cliché of showing cast pictures next to their names, instead going for a cinematic style that prizes journalistic detail and atmosphere.
Surprise #4: Immediately after the HBO logo is a shaky shot of converging perspective lines — actually a low-angle view of the ceiling of the Lincoln Tunnel, connecting New York City to New Jersey. If you know the Lincoln Tunnel and gangster movies, you'll be surprised when the light at the end of that tunnel coalesces to reveal Jersey instead of New York — not what's supposed to happen. East Coast movie gangsters only go to Jersey when going on the lam or dumping a corpse. Numerous classic gangster films are set in Manhattan and/or the surrounding boroughs of New York, because Manhattan is just more glamorous; it's where real people and movie characters go when they've Made It. East Coast gangster stories might move to Brooklyn, where the mid-level crooks live in duplexes with their aging mothers, or farther east to Long Island, where the bosses of bosses (and Jay Gatsby) buy palatial estates, but in Big Apple Mob films that's usually it. If the story travels farther, it'll probably beeline west to Chicago (historically the second most popular location for gangster movies), Las Vegas, Reno, or Los Angeles. Aside from some outliers (like the rare films set in small towns where gangsters are hiding out, or get entangled in film noir scenarios), the unspoken rule is to set the drama "anywhere but New Jersey" — except to depict the characters as losers.
So by entering New Jersey rather than leaving it, The Sopranos declares it intends to explore the characters' state as well as their state of mind, how each informs the other. The Cape Cods of East Orange immediately outside of Newark at least have some blocky, post–World War II anti-charm, but we fly past those, winding uphill through woods before parking in the driveway of a pale-brick house with no architectural personality. It's the kind of place a man of no imagination whose regional auto-parts chain was just acquired by Pep Boys would buy for his wife.
Surprise #5: The mythic resonance of Tony's drive.
The American assimilation story has one component if you're a native-born WASP, two if you're an immigrant.
The first component is the migration from East to West, as prophesied by Horace Greeley ("Go West, young man!") and enshrined in Tony Soprano's beloved Westerns — films about rugged individualism and steely machismo. They depict the tension between civilization and the frontier, but also the reinvention of the self, American style. You go West to leave your old self (and sins) behind and become someone new. The first time we meet him, Tony is heading (roughly) West.
The second component is the movement from the big, bad city — where first-generation immigrants replicated rough versions of their home countries in neighborhoods prefaced with "Little" — to the boroughs or first ring of suburbs around the core city. The houses were small, but they at least had lawns. Second- generation immigrant families could live in places like the ones shown in The Sopranos credits and feel as if their family made it — or at least made it out. Their kids can play sandlot baseball, join civic organizations in Fourth of July parades down Main Street, and eat Chicken à la King, hot dogs, and apple pie in addition to spaghetti, lo mein, or lox. It's the kind of place where Giuseppe and Angelina or Murray and Tovah can raise kids named Ryan and Jane.
This abbreviated migration, in which ordinary car trips become reenacted journeys toward becoming "real" Americans, continues into the third generation, as the grandchildren of immigrants move still farther out, settling into remote housing developments carved out of fields and forests — communities without community, where deer snack on rosebushes, and you have to put chains on your car tires to get downhill when it snows.
It's here that the driver and his family live. A journey of cultural transformation starts with a shot of the Lincoln Tunnel's ceiling and ends with a man pulling into the driveway of a spacious house in hilly northern New Jersey and exiting his vehicle. This sequence of shots compresses the twentieth-century East Coast immigrant experience into 59 shots lasting 89 seconds.
But the image of the driver shutting the car door and leaving the frame doesn't feel like a neat and comforting conclusion. There's an unstable, unfinished quality, conveyed by the needle scratch in the song (universal signifier of something cut short); by the unmoored and jittery way the filmmakers present the terrain; and especially by the character who guides us through it. The rings on Tony's meaty fingers, the thick dark hair on his forearms, the cigar between his teeth, the smoke trailing from his mouth as he checks the rearview mirror, the shots of the neighborhoods where he grew up but would never live today: these details describe a leader and father who was raised a particular way but aspires to be something more — or something else.
Cut to the driver, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), sitting in a handsomely decorated waiting room, looking up at a statue. The first shot finds Tony in the background, between the statue's skinny legs. The second is a close-up of the statue from Tony's seated perspective, framed from solar plexus up: an inferior POV, looking up as if in awe, fear, or adoration. The statue is a female form, bare breasted. Her arms crossed behind her head. People don't generally hold their arms like that unless they're posing or stretching athletically. The outline of the arms evokes wings — angel or demon wings? The elbow points suggest horns. The body is lean but strong. It is an image of mystery and power, strong without seeming noble.
This is a woman of secrets.
The framing in the first shot makes Tony seem like a child gazing up at the opening from whence he came.
This is also an image of biological elimination/evacuation: Tony is a human turd, shat out by a mother who treats her son like shit. Tony, we learn, is a "waste management consultant" who frequently feels like shit, or a piece of shit — because his uncle is in charge of the Mob Family Tony holds together; because his son is a doofus and his rebellious daughter hates her mother; because the Mafia is in decline and "things are trending downward"; and, most of all, because of his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), whose profile vaguely resembles that of the statue Tony can't stop staring at.
Livia is a dour, relentlessly negative woman who cannot accept the love Tony gives her. She rejects the new CD player he brings over and the recorded music he knows she likes — what a good son! — and rebuffs his sad attempt to dance with her in her kitchen. She grouses that Tony isn't taking care of her in loving, respectful way, even though he's supporting her in the house where he and his sisters grew up — a house that Livia suddenly treats as her own little Eden once it becomes clear that Tony is about to move her into a nursing home.
Between his emotional deprivation as a child, and the oppressively patriarchal culture of the Italian American Mob and gangsters generally, Tony has issues with women, period. We see this between Tony and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), who knows he's a cheater and tells him right before his MRI that he's going to go to Hell when he dies; his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), who resents Carmela for posing as a righteous person after decades as a mobster's wife; and Tony's mistress (or "goomar") Irina, a Kazakhstani kitten who stubbornly dons JFK's yachtsman's cap. Then there are the dancers at the Bada Bing, the strip club/ money-laundering front Tony frequents: silent, sexually available, semi-nude, yet rarely ogled Tony by and the other gangsters, like part of the decor.
Tony treats men and women very differently. With men like his protégé, nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli), he communicates through jocular banter that feels warm and knowing even when he's "breaking balls." He's clearly more emotionally accessible to men in, say, the pork store scenes. When he's with women, Tony alternates between courtly and protective, and peevish, possessive, and crude, depending on the woman. He's most likable around Meadow, who's not as cutting with her dad as she is with her mother. But Tony always shows a suppressed, volatile helplessness around women — an undertone of childlike delight, predatory anticipation, or beleaguered resentment — and it's captured in Tony's study of Melfi's statue.
The angles signifying the statue's dominance and Tony's inferiority continue in an exchange of dolly shots that move us closer to both. Tony is staring hard at the statue — as if that will help him figure out why he can't stop staring at it.
When Dr. Melfi opens her office door and invites Tony in for the first time, Tony is still seated, which means that when he acknowledges her, he's looking up at her just as he was at the statue, from an inferior, "awed" position.
Images matter here as much as words — not a common approach in 1990s television. Despite inventively directed predecessors like Miami Vice, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Sex and the City, dramatic information on scripted shows was conveyed mainly through close-ups of people talking. Critics noticed the evident care that Chase and his collaborators took in deciding what to show us, from what angle and for how long, and what to cut to next. This care proved crucial to the series's success: it invited audiences into the drama rather than spoon-feeding them exposition. The implacable wordlessness of images, scored to music or just ambient noise, sends the imagination pinballing from one association to another. This is crucially important on a TV series concerned with psychology and therapy. Therapists look for connections and symbolism in the text of the patient's life story, analyzing it as scholars might parse a novel or painting. They find deeper meanings in dreams, fantasies, and seemingly random events, and uncover suppressed truths by perceiving patients' tone and word choices when talking about themselves, their relationships, and their thoughts.
Excerpted from "The Sopranos Sessions"
Copyright © 2019 Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Woke Up This Morning, 10,
A Boy's Best Friend, 20,
The Casual Violence, 27,
The True Face, 30,
Like a Mandolin, 36,
White Rabbit, 39,
Spring Cleaning, 43,
The Devil He Knows, 46,
Mystery Box, 48,
The Other Forever, 53,
Tiny Tears, 56,
Skyscraper Windows, 59,
A Very Good Year, 64,
Pot Meets Kettle, 70,
Old School, 73,
Con te Partirò, 76,
Total Control, 79,
This Game's Not for You, 82,
God the Father, 85,
The Last of the Arugula Rabe, 88,
The Admiral Piper, 91,
The Scorpion, 94,
Pine Cones, 98,
Temple of Knowledge, 101,
Season Three Season Four,
The Sausage Factory, 108,
Miles to Go, 110,
The Hair Apparent, 113,
Attack Dog, 116,
Witness Protection, 120,
Work-Related Accident, 123,
Blood Money, 129,
Early Retirement, 133,
Each Child Is Special, 136,
Ho Fuckin' Ho, 140,
A Mofo, 147,
The Garbage Business, 151,
The Halfback of Notre Dame, 156,
Mr. Mob Boss, 159,
All of Her, 164,
My Rifle, My Pony, and Me, 166,
All the Girls in New Jersey, 170,
The Boss's Wife, 172,
Straight Arrow, 174,
Meeting's Over, 183,
Who's Afraid of Virginia Mook?, 186,
Class of 2004, 192,
Tony Uncle Al, 195,
Small Strokes, 198,
Fish Out of Water, 206,
Happy Birthday, Mister President, 210,
Truce and Consequences, 214,
On the Farm, 219,
Three Times a Lady, 222,
Take Off and Drive, 228,
Glad Tidings, 231,
The Noose, 238,
Heating Systems, 241,
Kung Fu, 247,
Deep in the Valley, 254,
The Haves and Have-Nots, 257,
Imitations of Life, 259,
A Pair of Socks, 263,
The Totality of Vito, 265,
City of Lights, 267,
Least She's Catholic, 270,
Boardwalk Hotel, 274,
Spinning Wheels, 277,
Take Me Home, Country Road, 281,
A Pebble in a Lake, 285,
Comfort's End, 293,
They Are the Bus, 296,
No Encore, 303,
Don't Stop Believin' You Know Exactly What Happened at the End of The Sopranos, 314,
The David Chase Sessions, 327,
The Morgue, 417,
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