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Overview

On January 10, 1999, a mobster walked into a psychiatrist’s office and changed TV history. By shattering preconceptions about the kinds of stories the medium should tell, The Sopranos launched our current age of prestige television, paving the way for such giants as Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones. As TV critics for Tony Soprano’s hometown paper, New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz were among the first to write about the series before it became a cultural phenomenon.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut, Sepinwall and Seitz have reunited to produce The Sopranos Sessions, a collection of recaps, conversations, and critical essays covering every episode. Featuring a series of new long-form interviews with series creator David Chase, as well as selections from the authors’ archival writing on the series, The Sopranos Sessions explores the show’s artistry, themes, and legacy, examining its portrayal of Italian Americans, its graphic depictions of violence, and its deep connections to other cinematic and television classics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781419734946
Publisher: ABRAMS
Publication date: 01/08/2019
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 9,361
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Matt Zoller Seitz is the television critic for New York magazine and the editor in chief of RogerEbert.com. He is the author of Mad Men Carousel and The Wes Anderson Collection. He lives in Brooklyn. Alan Sepinwall is the chief television critic for Rolling Stone and the author of Breaking Bad 101. His thoughts on television have appeared in the New York Times, Time, and Variety. He lives in New Jersey. Laura Lippman, a New York Times bestselling novelist, has won every major mystery‑writing prize in the United States. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, David Simon.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

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.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Sopranos Sessions"
by .
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

The Foreword 1

You Get What You Pay For

The Introduction 5

It Goes On and On and On and On

The Recaps 9

Season One 9

Woke Up This Morning 10

S1/E1

"Pilot"

A Soy's Best Friend 20

S1/E2

"46 Long"

Protocol 24

S1/E3

"Denial, Anger, Acceptance"

The Casual Violence 27

S1/E4

"Meadowiands"

The True Face 30

S1/E5

"College"

Like a Mandolin 36

S1/E6

"Pax Soprana"

White Rabbit 39

S1/E7

"Down Neck"

Spring Cleaning 42

S1/E8

"The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti"

The Devil He Knows 46

S1/E9

"Boca"

Mystery Box 48

S1/E10

"A Hit Is a Hit"

The Other Forever 53

S1/E11

"Nobody Knows Anything"

Tiny Tears 56

S1/E12

"Isabella"

Skyscraper Windows 59

S1/E13

"I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"

Season Two 63

A Very Good Year 64

S2/E1

"Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist's Office"

Pot Meets Kettle 70

S2/E2

"Do Not Resuscitate"

Old School 73

S2/E3

"Toodle-Fucking-Oo"

Con te Partirò 76

S2/E4

"Commendatori"

Total Control 79

S2/E5

"Big Girls Don't Cry"

This Game's Not for You 82

S2/E6

"The Happy Wanderer"

God the Father 85

S2/E7

"D-Girl"

The Last of the Arugula Rabe 88

S2/E8

"Full Leather Jacket"

The Admiral Piper 91

S2/E9

"From Where to Eternity"

The Scorpion 94

S2/E10

"Bust Out"

Alexithymia 96

S2/E11

"House Arrest"

Pine Cones 98

S2/E12

"The Knight in White Satin Armor"

Temple of Knowledge 101

S2/E13

"Funhouse"

Season Three 107

The Sausage Factory 108

S3/E1

"Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood"

Miles to Go 110

S3/E2

"Proshai, Livushska"

The Hair Apparent 113

S3/E3

"Fortunate Son"

Attack Dog 116

S3/E4

"Employee of the Month"

Witness Protection 120

S3/E5

"Another Toothpick"

Work-Related Accident 123

S3/E6

"University"

Blood Money 129

S3/E7

"Second Opinion"

Early Retirement 133

S3/E8

"He Is Risen"

Each Child Is Special 136

S3/E9

"The Telltale Moozadell"

Ho Fuckin' Ho 140

S3/E10

"… To Save Us All from Satan's Power"

Rasputin 143

S3/E11

"Pine Barrens"

A Mofo 147

S3/E12

"Amour Fou"

The Garbage Business 151

S3/E13

"Army of One"

Season Four 155

The Haifback of Notre Dame 156

S4/E1

"For All Debts Public and Private"

Mr. Mob Boss 159

S4/E2

"No Show"

Reservations 161

S4/E3

"Christopher"

All of Her 164

S4/E4

"The Weight"

My Rifle, My Pony, and Me 166

S4/E6

"Pie-O-My"

Reflections 168

S4/E6

"Everybody Hurts"

All the Girls in New Jersey 170

S4/E7

"Watching Too Much Television"

The Boss's Wife 172

S4/E8

"Mergers and Acquisitions"

Straight Arrow 174

S4/E9

"Whoever Did This"

Intervention 178

S4/E10

"The Strong, Silent Type"

Versales 181

S4/E11

"Calling All Gars"

Meeting's Over 183

S4/E12

"Eloise"

Who's Afraid of Virginia Mook? 186

S4/E13

"Whitecaps"

Season Five 191

Class of 2004 192

S5/E1

"Two Tonys"

Tony Uncle Al 195

S5/E2

"Rat Pack"

Small Strokes 198

S5/E3

"Where's Johnny?"

Steamrollers 200

S5/E4

"All Happy Families"

Telephone 204

S5/E5

"Irregular Around the Margins"

Fish Out of Water 206

S5/E6

"Sentimental Education"

Happy Birthday, Mister President 210

S5/E7

"In Camelot"

Truce and Consequences 214

S5/E8

"Marco Polo"

Arch-Nemesis 216

S5/E9

"Unidentified Black Males"

On the Farm 219

S5/E10

"Cold Cuts"

Three Times a Lady 222

S5/E11

"The Test Dream"

Take Off and Drive 228

S5/E12

"Long Term Parking"

Glad Tidings 231

S5/E13

"All Due Respect"

Season Six 237

The Noose 238

S6/E1

"Members Only"

Heating Systems 241

S6/E2

"Join the Club"

Complicit 244

S6/E3

"Mayham"

Kung Fu 247

S6/E4

"The Fleshy Part of the Thigh"

Jackals 251

S6/E5

"Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request …"

Deep in the Valley 254

S6/E6

"Live Free or Die"

The Haves and Have-Nots 257

S6/E7

"Luxury Lounge"

Imitations of Life 259

S6/E8

"Johnny Cakes"

A Pair of Socks 263

S6/E9

"The Ride"

The Totality of Vito 265

S6/E10

"Moe 'N Joe"

City of Lights 267

S6/E11

"Cold Stones"

Least She's Catholic 270

S6/E12

"Kaisha"

Season Seven 273

Boardwalk Hotel 274

S7/E1

"Soprano Home Movies"

Spinning Wheels 277

S7/E2

"Stage 5"

Take Me Home, Country Road 281

S7/E3

"Remember When"

A Pebble in a Lake 285

S7/E4

"Chasing It"

Heltfighters 289

S7/E5

"Walk Like a Man"

Comfort's End 293

S7/E6

"Kennedy and Heidi"

They Are the Bus 296

S7/E7

"The Second Coming"

Leadbelly 300

S7/E8

"The Blue Comet"

No Enoore 303

S7/E9

"Made in America"

The Debate 314

Don't Stop Believin' You Know

Exactly What Happened at the End of The Sopranos

The David Chase sessions 327

Session One 328

Session Two 344

Session Three 350

Session Four 360

Session Five 371

Session Six 382

Session Seven 396

Bonus: "Pine Barrens" 408

The Morgue 415

The Eulogies 459

Acknowledgments 471

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