Monday, March 26, 2007

Bright lights, baked ziti

Back in 2001, The Sopranos was one of the hottest, most talked about drama shows on TV. It was winning awards, critical accolades and big audiences everywhere. Virgin Books asked me if I wanted to write an unofficial, unauthorised programme guide to the series. The publisher had struck gold with Keith Topping's guides to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and decided similar tomes could earn it even more. I happily signed on for the Sopranos, a show I was already watching avidly. At the time Season 3 was just starting in the US, so I arranged to have copies of each new episode sent to me on VHS. [Yes, 2001 was that long ago - before broadband, DVD recorders or bit torrents were commonplace.]

So I wrote fast and the book, Bright Lights, Baked Ziti: The Sopranos - An Unofficial and Unauthorised Programme Guide [boy, did it need a shorter, snappier title] was published in September 2001. Due to legal issues, somebody at Virgin bottled out of putting a Sopranos' star James Galdolfini on the cover. They'd plastered Buffy star Sarah Michelle Geller all over those books, but some genius decided differently for mine. Instead The Sopranos book featured a picture of a New York bridge. Yeah, like that'll attract buyers. Way to go.

Fast forward a few months and I get a message: Virgin has 8000 copies of the book in a warehouse somewhere, gathering dust. Did I want a few before they pulped the rest? So I bought a box of 50 for a fiver. Still got them somewhere, if they haven't been eaten by mice. In time I reclaimed the rights to my book from Virgin, fully intending to update the text and hawk it round other publishers. But more pressing priorities intervened, so I let it lie. Now The Sopranos are about to start their final series in America, and the penultimate series is getting a showing on Channel 4 in the UK. To mark the occasion, here's one of the essays I wrote for Bright Lights, Baked Ziti.

The Sopranos: Generation XXX

The Sopranos began life as a movie idea for creator David Chase. A veteran writer and executive producer for television series like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, Chase always wanted to write and direct feature films. Television was something he fell into while trying to break into movies.

The original story revolved around a mobster’s trouble relationship with his mother, a relationship so aggravating that it drives him into therapy. It had been inspired by Chase’s fractious relationship with his own mother. Chase proposed the story as a pilot and America’s Fox Network paid for a script to be developed. But Fox passed on the project when Chase finished his screenplay. The script was pitched to every major network in America and every one of them turned it down. This was undoubtedly frustrating at the time, but proved to be a godsend for the show. Enter Home Box Office, better known as HBO.

HBO is a cable network in the USA that commissions and broadcast original films and television series. Viewers have to pay for their cable connection, which restricts the potential audience. However, it enables HBO to screen programmes with extremely adult content – nudity and sexual scenes, graphic violence and profanity – and without breaks for commercials. Both these factors would be enable to break new ground for a US TV series.

HBO paid for the pilot episode to be shot, which Chase himself directed. Six months later HBO commissioned a further twelve episodes to create a three month long season of thirteen episodes. The Sopranos made its TV debut on January 10th, 1999. The impact was immediate and unprecedented for a series on HBO. Critics raved about the show, audience numbers began climbing rapidly and people began subscribing to HBO just to see what all the fuss was about. By the time the final episode of Season One screened on April 4th, The Sopranos was a smash hit – a cult had been born.

That cult soon became a phenomenon as the show was nominated for 16 Emmys – America’s most prestigious television industry award. The cast and crew attended the ceremony is a New Jersey bus but only took away two major awards. Edie Falco beat co-star Lorraine Bracco and three other nominees to win Best Actress in a Dramatic Series. The ‘College’ episode won for Best Writing in a Dramatic Series, but that was hardly a surprise. Four of the five scripts nominated were from Season One episodes, so the law of averages dictated The Sopranos virtually had to win that category.

The Sopranos went on to win almost every other award it was eligible for, picking up trophies from the Screen Actors’ Guild, the Writer’s Guild and the Golden Globes. But its poor showing at the Emmys rankled with the cast and crew. The Sopranos was the first cable show ever nominated for Best Dramatic Series and everyone thought it the clear favourite to win. Instead, the award went to The Practice, a series about a law firm from the creator of Ally McBeal.

Despite the Emmy snub, the impact of The Sopranos was enormous. Within weeks of its broadcast, real life gangsters were recorded by law enforcement authorities talking about the show and comparing themselves to its characters. One of the major networks approached the programme makers to see if a sanitised version could be created for mainstream broadcast – they politely refused. For HBO, the show was a massive boost. By the time the second season began in January 2000, people were having cable television connected to their homes just to watch The Sopranos. The show dominated magazine covers on newsstands. The final episode of Season Two attracted more than nine million viewers, the largest ever audience for a drama broadcast on cable television. The premiere of Season Three broke that record, with an audience of more than 11 million people. It got a larger audience than shows screening at the same time on some of the major networks, despite the fact they reach four times at many homes in America.

In Canada, the CTV network aired uncut reruns of Season One against a rival channel’s coverage of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the ratings battle every night. It also bested other popular US TV series like Ally McBeal and The West Wing. The screenings sparked a national debate about sex, violence and swearing on Canadian television.

When The Sopranos held an open casting call for extras in Harrison, New Jersey, the organisers expected between 500 and 1000 people. In fact the event attracted more than 14,000 hopefuls – effectively doubling the small town’s population for one day. More than 150 police had to be called in from neighbouring towns and cities to sort out the chaos.

But what makes the series so significant and its followers so fervent? A major factor must be the level of reality it brings to its subject. In a society stricken with angst over the collapse of the family unit and the loss of traditional values, The Sopranos addresses those same problems in the context of compelling drama. People’s lives are fracturing into two halves – your family life, and your life at work. Most people find themselves spending more time with their work colleagues than they do with their families. For Tony Soprano, this conflict is heightened by the conflict of his family versus his Family. As the show’s publicity material suggests, if one doesn’t kill him, the other will. That’s what a murderer has to go into therapy. It’s a sad commentary on life in America where a mobster needs the help of psychiatry to cope with the stresses and strains of modern society.

The Sopranos seems real because it is able to break the rules which bind other television dramas. The characters swear and have sex like real people. No major network show could ever contemplate having a strip club like the Bada Bing as a central locale. America is a violent society where gun ownership is a right enshrined in the Constitution – yet this is rarely reflected on television screens. The Sopranos pulls no punches in holding a mirror up to the bloody face of a culture where a million children take guns to school with them.

Thanks to HBO’s respect for the programme makers’ wishes, The Sopranos does not suffer from the supermodel syndrome visible in most television shows. Unlike them, The Sopranos is not populated by a cast of beautiful people with perfect teeth, narrow waists and pouting breasts. Instead, characters are played by men with paunches, women with wrinkles and children who don’t conform to some impossible stereotype.

The lack of commercials in The Sopranos gave its creators the chance to pace the show entirely at their own discretion. A one-hour drama on the major networks has to be written and produced in four acts, to accommodate breaks for adverts. This creates an article structure requiring the creation of several cliffhangers within each episode to keep the audience watching. The Sopranos has the luxury of ignoring that stricture. Viewers outside the USA do have the episodes interrupted by commercial breaks, but it is a sign of The Sopranos’ quality that this does not lessen the show’s impact.

Episodes can be given whatever pace the makers want. In interviews Chase says his creation is actually much slower than network series, but this has the effect of making what happens all the more absorbing. The show also doesn’t feel obliged to explain itself for some imaginary viewer with lowest common denominator intelligence. Most TV shows tell you something is going to happen, show it to you and then tell you what just happened afterwards. The Sopranos doesn’t bother. Even its dream sequences are oblique slices of surrealism which mostly go unexplained, rather than trite devices used by lazy writers to infodump crucial plot information at the audience.

The use of music in The Sopranos is another area where its embrace of reality will have a major impact in the way television dramas are made. Conventional dramas have an especially composed score that swells and surges at appropriate moments to prompt the audience into an emotional response. The Sopranos uses real songs, carefully chosen to complement or comment on its action. Securing the rights to broadcast this songs is far more expensive than having incidental music written to order, but Chase insisted this money be factored into the budgets for the show and HBO agreed.

Clashes between Chase and HBO are rare, but two examples of the cable channel behaving like a normal network have been reported. When the series was in development, HBO objected to its name. The executives thought viewers would be turned off by the title, perhaps thinking it was a drama about high voice classical singers. HBO suggested Family Man instead. Chase and company objected right back and dozens of potential names flew around. The matter was finally settled when Fox, the network which first got the show rolling, launched a series called Family Guy. That killed HBO’s suggestion and The Sopranos became the permanent title.

The other clash was over the award-winning ‘College’ episode. During that instalment Tony sees a mobster who turned rat for the FBI. He tracks the informant down and murders him – the first time in the series Tony is seen killing someone. HBO objected because the series had spent five episodes establishing an audience empathy with the mobster. If he murdered someone, that empathy could be fatally eroded. Chase stood his ground, saying that if Tony did not kill the rat it would alienate the viewers. Chase won the argument and the result won an Emmy award for outstanding writing. Since that incident, HBO seems to have kept its opinions to itself.

1 comment:

Jason Arnopp said...

I'm feeling your remainder pain, sir. I wrote an unofficial book on popular rockers The Darkness for Virgin. Eventually got that dreaded letter. Didn't buy any, though. Which I'm thankful for, as I'm presently moving flat and surrounded by cardboard boxes...