Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at Abrams’ The Sopranos Sessions, a review and interview anthology book out now…
The Sopranos Sessions
Writers: Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall
It’s been twelve years since the Sopranos ended, but the series is still invoked with considerable awe by casual fans and cognoscenti alike. It was, as received wisdom goes, a behemoth that launched a whole new era in television – no Sopranos, no Wire, Breaking Bad or even Game of Thrones. For every season it was on, there was hype, expectation and blanket media attention, leading to scores of books about the show with the sociopathic, amoral brute who you still rooted for, thanks to David Chase’s ability to beguile through ambiguity, wit, acres of cinematic tropes, pop culture references and irony. It had a magnificent ensemble cast that was both familiar and unknown – often extras from Goodfellas or bit part actors specializing in heavies or outsiders, who somehow ended up being virtuoso leads in a genre that is both grotesque and human. Indeed, it managed to effortlessly subvert, transcend and celebrate the genre at the same time, while casually pointing out that it was long overdue that such a thing was done. The dominance of cable over traditional terrestrial companies started here.
With so much written about the eighty-six episodes of this long-form, pioneering show, is there room for another book about it? The answer remarkably is yes – one could say that Star-Ledger journalists Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall’s anthology / reference book is perhaps the last word on the matter, a middlebrow, forensically assembled work that leaves no stone unturned, and no nuance left unnoticed. Every scene of every instalment is intelligently dissected, cross-referenced and annotated – this is a definitive tome put together over a number of years, with the participation of series creator David Chase himself.
What is evident is the affection and obsessiveness that both writers have for the series and its constituent parts. The book is adept at delineating the importance of key episodes and how they represent both the development of the series (such as the classic College chapter, which perfectly illustrates the duality of Tony’s existence while making it plain that although he’s a devoted father, he’s also a cold-blooded murderer – a sea change for the genre) or the changes wrought on the medium itself (such as Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist’s Office, which the writers point out is where for once the show is forced to adhere to televisual convention rather than attempting to ape “pure cinema”).
No stone is left unturned – the grip that mob life has on anyone connected to it, button or not, such as the doomed Adriana or Vito, who cannot escape its pull, as well as the producers’ ability to cover all bases – undercutting or wilfully toying with audience expectation, or even criticising the viewer for being voyeuristic. Plus the deliberate anti-climaxes, such Janice killing Richie Aprile, Tony killing Ralph, or the way that Pussy Bonpensiero is dispatched. The writers are fully conversant with Chase’s demands on the viewer as well as his desire to incrementally diminish viewer ambivalence about these people – the last two series are far darker and are focused on removing any empathy we may have had for these stone gangsters, along with their enablers and numb dependents. By the time we get to the final story arc, we are detached from the fate meted out to Bacala or Silvio Dante. Breaking Bad’s central theme, widely considered to be innovative, about the protagonist morphing into the antagonist, owes a huge debt to Tony Soprano, who is both at once – a toxic presence who destroys so many who are drawn into his orbit while being a caring family man. The essays on Tony’s decision to kill his surrogate son Christopher Moltisanti (having weeped with despair for him in series 2 after he was shot) are excellent, although the debate regarding what actually happened in the series’ final scene (Chase’s least favourite question, apparently, apart from whether the Russian in Pine Barrens survived) does get caught up in overwrought speculation. Not to mention that the reviews do tend to concentrate on the drama rather than the brilliantly written humour that is a key hallmark of the first two or three series. Minor criticisms, though.
Aside from the in-depth chapter by chapter critiques, there are also extensive interviews with David Chase, and even one with James Gandolfini, who was never all that keen to discuss his work with the press. Despite having been obsessive about the series during its run from 1999 – 2007, I have rarely given it a look in recent years, perhaps due to over-exposure (I bought many a book or magazine about the show back then, while repeating memes from it endlessly). This book, which is compelling while being on the right side of exhaustive, should be enough to rekindle my interest in the show as it definitely adds to the experience. And with the movie prequel on its way, it’s timely that the series is returning to the spotlight. Break out the shfooyadell and gabagool.