Of all the beatings, beatings and ritual humiliations served during the 86 hours of The sopranos, one of his cruelest attacks is verbal. It arrives late, in the middle of the sixth and last half of the second half of the season, and takes place on a 20-hour drive down I-95 from the regular show location in North Jersey. Tony Soprano is on the run and getting paranoid in Miami with his mostly loyal capo Paulie Gualtieri, who entertains his much younger dinner companions with stories from the good old days. Noticing that his employer looks irritated, Paulie asks if everything is okay. The normally sociable boss is a bit quiet.
“That’s because,” says Tony, James Gandolfini pushing his big grizzly figure away from the table, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”
On a sunny late spring afternoon in Santa Monica, David Chase, the Sopranos The creator who got an order for an HBO series in 1998 was pretty sure he wouldn’t and then revolutionized the very idea of American television for the next nine years, he laughed when the line was introduced to him. Before landing on the script, it had bounced off his head since a friend from West Essex High had said it decades ago.
“He was a really smart guy, a great guitar player, kind of annoying in a way,” says Chase. “It is so horrible. It’s so cutting. It really is so disgusting. “
It is also indelible. So much so that when news broke out a few years ago that Chase was going to visit the Sopranos characters from a prequel movie set in part against the 1967 Newark riots, some of the show’s most obsessive online fans held it up to justify their anxieties about the project. Not that such concerns about treading back into the past in search of new material would baffle the man who once had Dr. Melfi explain Proust’s muffins by way of gabagool to the chief of North Jersey, and who drew his own experiences with a Italian-American dominant lowercase:F family for the great work of his life.
“That’s being a writer,” says Chase with a shrug.
Chase was already a television lifetime when Tony Soprano entered American cultural consciousness through that posh therapist anteroom on January 10, 1999. Now 76, Chase grew up in North Jersey and went to film school in the era director as author. After a long and lucrative career in network television writing and producing for the likes of The Rockford Archives other North exposure, he thought he was on something with a pilot script about a mob boss solving (among other things) his mom’s problems in therapy. HBO, then in the early stages of becoming the best thing to happen to television since coaxial cable, ordered a pilot and then sat on it for more than a year. At one point in the lengthy process, Chase was perhaps hours away from taking a job running the X files cleave millennium for Fox.
“The way I see it, they pulled me out right at the last minute,” says Chase, still genuinely in awe of his own good fortune. “Before the train came.”
In 2021 it is impossible to really remember how shocking The sopranos It was in 1999, for the quality of his writing and execution, of course, but at a more elemental level, for his willingness to explore the inner life of his characters and the attraction of his audience to them. He had antics and Jung. It shocked and transgressed, excited and left viewers hanging. Most exciting of all, at the turn of the century, it respected the intellect of its viewers up to and including, although some will debate this, the final painting. (For those of us who didn’t have premium cable and had to rent a DVD at a time from Blockbuster, it also encouraged a kind of proto-binge-watching.) The sopranos it paved the way for all the prestige content to come: a bit shiny, most of it now as hackneyed as the network points out that Chase was trying to escape back then.
“The chains had this unwavering sense of going for what made it good and telling you to take it out,” he recalls. “They would always know that’s where your heart was.”
One more year of quarantine helped make The sopranos a hot property once again. It’s the stuff of Gen Z memes and fan accounts. Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, who played Christopher Moltisanti and Bobby Bacala, respectively, have a hit podcast based on the rerun of the show. In July, the second “SopranosCon” fan convention was held in Atlantic City. This renewed interest has taken Chase a bit by surprise, who has said in the past that he didn’t think the series would age particularly well in audiences’ minds. “What I really thought was that a lot of their references were no longer in play,” he says. “The phones are different. That is the most important for people. “
“People started telling me: ‘My son is 17 years old. He wants to go to film school, ‘”says Chase. “’He watches your show all the time…’. It was very interesting for me. I thought, what the hell is going on now? “
The best that can be imagined is our eternal fascination with outlaws, a subject of the series that is investigated often. Or it could be the appeal of exploring the idea, expressed in the pilot, that all 21st-century Americans have arrived for the last chapters of history. So: “I think Christopher and Paulie were probably big draws.”