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Married to This Mob

HBO's 'The Sopranos' ends its first chapter of Mafia life in New Jersey with viewers firmly attached to the assorted twists of series' oh-so-human characters.

April 03, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Chase, Nancy Marchand and James Gandolfini are seated in a private dining room at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, lunching on swordfish and discussing their HBO show, "The Sopranos," which has fast become the most talked-about series on television.

But the setting for this lunch is all wrong. Chase, the series' creator, has invented such a convincing mother and son that to interview them in a posh L.A. hotel requires a suspension of disbelief. You want to meet Livia Soprano, the larger-than-life Italian American matriarch played by Marchand, and her son, Tony (Gandolfini), the putative head of the Soprano crime family, on their own turf--specifically, the New Jersey backdrops that give the series its authentic texture.

"The grande dame is here," Gandolfini had said when Marchand made her entrance into the dining room--a deadpan remark Tony might make at one of the Soprano family's Sunday night dinners of pasta and passive-aggressive behavior.

The first season of "The Sopranos" concludes Sunday night at 9, and if you've never seen the show you're advised not to jump on the bandwagon without doing 12 hours of homework first. Initiates are waiting to see how the plots and sub-plots play out: Did Livia really order a hit on her son, and if so, is she feigning Alzheimer's disease to cover up some plan to give Uncle Junior control of the business? Which of the crime family capos is wearing a wire, and who's going to end up in jail and / or dead? Have Tony and his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, resolved the sexual tension so apparent between them?

Describing the show thusly makes it sound like soap opera, when, in fact, "The Sopranos" is so smartly written and well-acted that it plays like good television in the key of real life. True, the success of the show reflects the enduring entertainment value of mob life, and the series did begin with a high-concept conceit (Mafia guy seeks out shrink, starts taking Prozac), but "The Sopranos" has hit home on a far deeper, more visceral level.

In fact, while being on cable affords Chase creative freedoms he wouldn't get on a network, the show's violence and sexual content are hardly the engines driving its popularity. In what is quickly becoming TV industry lore, "The Sopranos" was developed by Fox in 1996 before the network passed on the show. NBC and CBS also took a look, but the pilot ended up at HBO. The reasons the series was rejected at the network level are not necessarily obvious.

"I pitched this show to a network, which will remain nameless," Chase says, "and the head of the network said to me, 'Does [Tony] have to be in psychotherapy? I got no problem with any of this. Does he have to take Prozac and be in psychotherapy? Because I think a lot of people out there in America don't understand it.'

"Killing and pillaging is fine," Chase adds, "but complaining, and trying to get to your feelings, no."

Viewers' emotional connection to the show was evident in the almost smothering testimonials given by fans Tuesday night, when Chase and some of his cast gathered at the Writers Guild of America for a screening of the first season's final episode followed by a question-and-answer session, an event sponsored by the Museum of Television & Radio and HBO. One after the other they stood up--one man to lament that new episodes won't arrive until January.

Chase gently explained that the creative care given "The Sopranos" means episodes can't be turned around as quickly as viewers might like. But with 13 installments in the books (season one begins reruns June 9), and shooting on season No. 2 scheduled to begin in early summer, "The Sopranos" already has generated the kind of manic following that, in the hands of less levelheaded artists as Chase and his band of New York actors, mightthreaten to impair the quality of the work.

Says Chase: "We used to wonder who's going to watch it, when we were making it. Who's going to watch these mooks going about their business?"

More than 10 million people, if you count each episode's four weekly showings on HBO, where viewers have come to know not only Tony and Livia but Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese); Tony's wife, Carmela (Edie Falco); his kids Meadow and Anthony Jr. (Jamie Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler); psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and the various mob lieutenants who light up the screen.

A Guilt-Ridden Son and Tyrannical Mom

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