GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"The Sopranos" changed television. The HBO series was centered on mobster Tony Soprano, a deeply flawed, male antihero. That then innovative approach cast a long shadow and would be duplicated by many shows in the years that followed, series like "The Shield," "Breaking Bad," "House Of Cards," among others.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
Its debut also coincided with the rise of Netflix's original DVDs-by-mail service, making it among the first truly bingeable television shows. But the thing that really set "The Sopranos" apart was the fact that Tony was in therapy, a genius touch that granted viewers special access to his inner conflicts. I'm Aisha Harris.
WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. As we prepare for a new prequel movie, we're looking back on "The Sopranos" in this episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WELDON: Joining us today is writer and film critic Shea Vassar. Welcome back, Shea.
SHEA VASSAR: Hi. Thanks for having me.
WELDON: Always great to have you. OK. Now, we are going to be talking about "The Many Saints Of Newark" on tomorrow's show. But we thought the best way to prepare for that was by talking about "The Sopranos" and taking some of your questions about the show. The HBO series ran for six seasons, beginning in 1999, and concluding after 86 hourlong episodes in 2007. Created by David Chase, it followed New Jersey-based mobster Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. Tony's struggles with work-life balance weren't like yours or mine. He led a fractious mafia family filled with colorful characters who were forever beefing with other mafia families in and around the New York metro area.
Edie Falco played his wife, Carmela, who mostly looked the other way, pretending to ignore the mistresses, murder and mayhem of Tony's world as long as doing so kept her and her children comfortable. And then there were Tony's sessions with his therapist, Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi. These scenes gave the writers several opportunities to emotionally unpack both Tony and Melfi separately and together.
"The Sopranos" helped position HBO as a source of quality original content at a time when its reputation had rested on shows like "Dream On" - ask your parents - and "Arliss" - ask your straight parents. It was, at once, a prestige, nuanced character study and a violent, pulpy - sometimes literally pulpy - soap opera that delivered genre thrills to its increasingly online audience, who gathered on message boards to speculate about who'd get popped next. And, yeah, don't worry. Don't stop believing. We are going to be talking about how it all ended.
Aisha, let's start with you. What is your relationship with "The Sopranos"?
HARRIS: Well, I just finished "The Sopranos" for the first time earlier this year.
HARRIS: (Laughter) It's fairly new.
HARRIS: I was definitely very much a latecomer to the show. And I think part of the reason for that was because when the show originally aired, when it premiered, I was all of 11 years old. And HBO was also definitely not in our house. Like, my parents were not paying for the premium cable package back then.
HARRIS: By the time I got to college and it ended, I just wasn't checking for that show. And no one I knew was checking for it. But I did know how it ended because it was impossible not to know how it ended if you were just online...
HARRIS: ...Or if you were reading any sort of newspaper. And it was that show that everyone was talking about. I think that's partially why I put off watching it for so long. I was like, I know how this ends. I don't know if this is going to be satisfying. I know everyone says it's the greatest show of all time or one of the greatest shows of the last some-odd years. But knowing how it ended, I was like, no, I don't know. I have to say, it is worth it. And even when you know exactly how it's going to end, the characters are so fascinating. One of my favorite characters is probably Meadow just because she is woke white woman before we knew what woke white woman could be...
HARRIS: ...Or before we had a name for it, anyway.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) For your information, crime is an economic issue, not a racial one. White or African American, you're more likely to steal if you're in a lower income bracket, which most African Americans are.
JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Good. Then you'll feel better when the next one takes your car stereo.
SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) You are such a hypocrite.
HARRIS: And the way in which her arc occurs throughout the seasons is just really, really fascinating to watch. I really enjoyed it even knowing how it ends. And I probably enjoyed the ending better - like, actually watching the ending - than people who seemed to like it when they were watching it in real-time because I actually think that it's a stroke of genius. And I think the show is good. And I think that there are some things about it that have not aged quite well, but there's a lot of it that has. And I think the people saying that it's one of the greatest shows of all time, I get it. I can say that I get it.
WELDON: Cool. Now, Shea, you were nodding when Aisha mentioned the fact that she knew how it ended. And did you also because you came to it later?
VASSAR: Yeah. I came to it later. I came to it, probably, 2017. I had moved to New York. And I was just catching up on all the shows that I hadn't seen before. And "The Sopranos" is obviously one of them. I was - oh, gosh. What year did it come out? Yeah, I was young. And my parents definitely - we were in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, so it was already hard enough to get cable, much less any kind of premium channel. So I had no idea what it was about until I started watching it, really.
And I thought it was so brilliant because I imagined what the pitch room looked like of this idea of, yeah, we have this mobster who needs to go to therapy, right? Like, it almost sounds like a - sort of a joke. But it purposely uses its different techniques in order to have this really interesting commentary on things like racism, toxic masculinity, immigrant diaspora - especially generations removed from the immigration - not knowing how to belong to anything but what your family has taught you.
So for me, I just felt like it was something that I could dissect over and over and over again in a way that television had never done for me before. I had seen "Mad Men" before that. And I can see how "Mad Men" is similar. And I love "Mad Men." Don't get me wrong - brilliant show. But "The Sopranos" is - personally, I think, it's on a whole different level.
HARRIS: I agree.
WELDON: Now, it's interesting that both of you talked about what you love about this show. And neither one of you mentioned, you know, explicitly the mob stuff, the whackings (ph), the - all that stuff. And I'm going to come from the same place even though I was watching it in kind of real-time - a little bit delayed because we had the Netflix DVD because we also didn't have HBO. This was the first series we ever binged. We had just gotten commitment-ceremonied (ph). We were in the nesting phase. So we would spend entire Saturdays, entire Sundays in bed watching our Netflix "Soprano" DVDs, eating too many pints of Starbucks Java Chip ice cream. And I have no regrets about that. I'd do it again.
HARRIS: No cannolis - what?
WELDON: No cannolis, no.
VASSAR: Tiramisu, something?
WELDON: I haven't done a rewatch. But, man, preparing for this show, I can feel the itch. And that has nothing to do with the plot. That has - because when we were watching it, you know, I knew all the major players without a scorecard. But coming from the outside after this many years, it is like a Tolstoy novel, man.
WELDON: It is almost impossible to get into. But I was struck by how many of the things that I love about the show, that I remember about the show, have nothing to do with the mob stuff because this show is incredibly, on a human level, well-observed. And it's often a very funny show. Like, there's a moment when Christopher is trying to be a screenwriter. And he runs into Martin Scorsese. And he shouts after him, Marty, "Kundun" - I liked it. And "Kundun" is such the perfect pull. It's so funny.
There's a plotline - I think it's even only in just one episode - where we learn that Junior Soprano's willingness to perform a certain sex act marks him as somehow unmanly. That just so perfectly captures the wildly illogical way that toxic masculinity works. And when you learn that about this culture, you start to look at every heterosexual relationship on the show in a new way. And you're like, oh. And you see all these women and you're like, I knew you were miserable.
WELDON: And the last thing I want to say - speaking of well-captured, can we, all around this virtual table, hold hands and agree that A.J. Soprano, Tony's son, is the worst?
HARRIS: Yes. Oh, my God.
VASSAR: The absolute worst.
WELDON: The absolute worst.
HARRIS: Like, even before he's - like, understands exactly what his parents are involved with, even when he's at the youngest age, he is such a little twerp. I can't - ooh. And I went to school with - like, middle school, I had to deal with those kids. And I - yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
ROBERT ILER: (As A.J. Soprano) She's not coming.
EDIE FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Who?
ILER: (As A.J. Soprano) Grandma just called, started crying and hung up.
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) She needs a purpose in life.
FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) No. Your mother is tougher than you think.
ILER: (As A.J. Soprano) So what - no [expletive] ziti now?
FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) Hey.
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Hey.
WELDON: Everyone knows that kid...
WELDON: ...A horrible kid who is doomed to become a horrible adult. He's entitled. He's stupid. He's lazy. He's sullen. The thing that I think is the best thing observed about him is he's just a font of excuses and blame-shifting...
HARRIS: He's whiny, so whiny.
WELDON: He's so whiny.
WELDON: Tony does a lot of bad things on this show. Let's agree on that. But, like, creating this monster and unleashing him upon an unsuspecting world might be among the worst. I want to ask about the tone of this show. I was struggling with, as I was looking back - we can agree that, like, "The Godfather" films treated this world of the mafia as, like, the quintessential story of America, which is kind of cynical. But the tone from scene to scene of those films is kind of way up here. It's elegiac. It's operatic. And this show ain't that. This is much more ground level, much more workmanlike.
And it got into some trouble while it was on the air for humanizing these monsters. But while it humanizes them, I'm not sure that it treats them empathetically or even sympathetically because it's only too eager to show you how ignorant, how dull-witted, how - it goes out of its way to make fun of these mobsters' lack of intellect and lack of refinement in a way that might seem classist. Or it's Hollywood writers looking down their noses. I couldn't quite put a finger on what the show was doing in terms of how it treats these characters. Any thoughts?
VASSAR: I think that's a good point because something that I've always picked up on is how Tony is not upper class. I mean, we see that especially with A.J.'s girlfriends and how they are attracted to him mostly because of the power that is connected, not the money. They sometimes come from houses that are much bigger, from parents that are much richer. I mean, he's definitely living a lifestyle that a majority of Americans don't live. But he's not really in the kind of 1%.
At the same time, we're looking at an era where the middle class, which we now don't even really have, is dwindling down. And Tony Soprano is in it because he is a mobster. I think your point about this idea of, like, Hollywood writers kind of looking down on, I definitely get that sense at times. You know, bringing it back to Meadow and those moments when she's at Columbia and she starts to kind of experience these things that are outside of her comfort zone. And she becomes kind of like a social justice warrior at different points. And she's reading more even than what she did in high school. And her parents can't keep up with her anymore. The fact that it's Columbia, I think, says a lot because of just the reputation that Columbia has as a liberal university when we know that the Soprano family is not left-leaning. I don't know if the writers are necessarily pointing their nose down. But I do think that they're pointing out some of the way that class is constructed by different people. And I kind of like that.
HARRIS: I think also to your point, Glen, about being criticized for being too sympathetic or empathetic of these characters - anyone who would say that, it probably says more about them than it does about the show because it feels like the same conversations we had when it came to something like "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad," all these difficult men that Tony Soprano more or less spawned in its wake, where it's like, these characters are clearly terrible people. They're all complicit in some way or another.
And so to me, I think that it walks a fine line between depicting badness and also making us, you know, feel as though we could be those characters. And it's the same issue that people had with something like "The Godfather." It's like, people wanted to be Don Corleone. But also, he's a terrible human being. So I think it says more about the audience and the way in which many of us project ourselves into these characters than it does about the show itself.
WELDON: Yeah. Let's talk about the audience because David Chase, the creator, famously has professed while the show was running and after the show went off the air that he just didn't understand the audience's eagerness for characters to get whacked. And I always found that completely disingenuous because this guy came from genre TV, right? He came from "Kolchak." He came from "The Rockford Files." He should know, as much as he's layering character study, nuance, emotional depth over top of this thing, the bones of it are a genre piece. And that means you have to kind of deliver visceral thrills. It's the contact you make with your audience. And you have to know that.
That said, this was the first instance that I can remember, again, because message boards - Television Without Pity was a thing - that you'd go on those message boards, and you'd find a sector of the audience that really saw Tony as the hero, not the antihero, and rooted for him to end up going through everybody else like a hot knife through butter, becoming king of the mafia atop a pile of bodies. And they hated any character who got in his way. We would see this again with "Breaking Bad." We'd see this again with a lot of shows with antiheroes, where there's - a big, or at least a vocal, section of the audience doesn't get that this guy's a bad dude.
VASSAR: I do want to say I think it has something to do with James Gandolfini...
WELDON: Let's get to this. Yeah.
VASSAR: ...Just because he is such a brilliant actor. Like, he's so charismatic that it's hard at times not to want to root for Tony. Like, I just thought he embodied that character so well. Like, he's so real. The kind of television that I want to watch is the kind that has me think about my humanness as well. It reminds you that you are also human and have these kind of weird places that you can go. And the fact is that we choose every day not to go there. And I think that James Gandolfini was truly a charismatic person. And you could see his dedication to the role. And I think that that really comes across. But I think that's also kind of the point of the character...
VASSAR: ...That sometimes gets, you know, misused or propped up to be, again, a hero, not an antihero.
WELDON: Gandolfini is brilliant. He's got a huge range if you see him in other things that you might not necessarily see here. But anyway, Tony is not stupid. He's ignorant. But he's got this emotional intelligence, right? He can read a room. And that's a very important skill in his position. He does project this kind of brute force backed by something like an emotional intelligence, yes?
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, just the fact that he is going to therapy and has to hide it, too, for - early on in the show, he's, like, keeping it from everyone 'cause obviously there is a stigma to therapy. And, I think, also at some point once some of his cohort finds out, they're also worried that, like, that might interfere with their work or he might, like, wind up snitching. So there's all those layers to add to it. And I think we really do see that emotional intelligence come out, especially when he's talking to Dr. Melfi...
HARRIS: ...Because she draws it out of him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
LORRAINE BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) How do you feel about the fact that your own mother would have testified against you?
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Oh, come on. Would you listen to yourself? I mean, is that right - wishing her dead? Is that being a good son?
BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) A good son.
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Yeah, a good son. I mean, bad sons...
BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) Bad sons what?
GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) They should [expletive] die.
HARRIS: That whole relationship to me is just so incredibly fascinating. And I think sometimes the writing kind of veers into this weird territory, you know, where he, like, has a sex dream about her. And I'm like, do we really have to layer all of these, like, sort of Freudian things onto it?
But overall, I think that that Gandolfini performance - the way in which he can blow up but then also really just keep everything sort of simmering underneath and just convey something with a glance or, like, a smirk - it's just one of the greatest performances, I think. I don't think it's a hyperbole to say that. Like, he keeps you on your toes, and you're always wondering how he's interpreting whatever interaction he's having at any moment. And yeah. It makes me miss him a lot just watching it and knowing that, you know, this was what we got from him. I will say I want to shout out "Enough Said," the movie with Julia Louis-Dreyfus where you get a totally different...
HARRIS: ...Version of Gandolfini...
HARRIS: ...Because, yeah, he was great.
WELDON: Yeah. You mentioned Dr. Melfi, and, you know, we get a chance to see how deeply conflicted she is, how disgusted she is by Tony's world but how fascinated she is and occasionally even enticed by it. And it seems to me that we talked about how the writers and directors tend to make fun of the mobsters. But it strikes me that the people who come in for the harshest critique, harshest moral critique are the people who on the show think of themselves as above Tony's world, but they're still benefiting from it. So his sister, Janice, of course, is no gift, also another horrible person. And we talked about Meadow's moral center, which is so performatively I just took a humanities seminar, you know?
WELDON: And even that gets abraded away. But when we're talking about compromised morality, we have to talk about Carmela, who is the subject of our first question.
FARRAH: Hi. This is Farrah (ph), and this is the question about "The Sopranos" that my husband and I have always debated. Is Carmela just as guilty as Tony?
HARRIS: Short and sweet.
WELDON: Short and sweet. I mean...
WELDON: Not just as guilty, maybe. But what do you guys think?
VASSAR: I mean, she's not innocent by any means because she purposely turns away when she knows things are going on. And I think we see that most after - spoiler alert - you see her realize that Adriana is gone because of mob activity and, most likely, Tony's involvement. And she doesn't really do anything. I think for Adriana, she really was the most moral character who got kind of caught up in the bad stuff. And so I think Carmela always knows that. Like, she didn't just broke up with Chrissie and, like, left. But the fact that she never questions it until she runs into Ade's mom - and even then, it just kind of goes to the background again.
VASSAR: And I think that's what really, really solidifies all the seasons before, all the episodes before where Carmela is not really saying much. She's not asking questions because she thinks if she doesn't know the specifics, she's not guilty. But she is.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, this just goes back to this whole complicity question. And how complicit is she? And I'd say as much as one can be without actually having killed anyone or murdered anyone, you know? Like...
HARRIS: There's a scene in Season 2 where Tony and Carmela want to get Meadow into Georgetown. And she, like, basically, very subtly but not too subtly threatens a neighbor's sister who is, like, a prestigious alumni of Georgetown. And when the woman's like, I don't really want to write a letter of recommendation; I've already done my letters for the season, she's like, well, I want this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) I don't think you understand. I want you to write that letter.
SAUNDRA SANTIAGO: (As Jeannie Cusamano) Excuse me?
FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) I said I want you to write the letter.
SANTIAGO: (As Jeannie Cusamano) Are you threatening me?
FALCO: (As Carmela Soprano) What - threatening (laughter)? I brought you a ricotta pie and a high school transcript so you could write a letter of recommendation for my little daughter to Georgetown.
HARRIS: Carmela was not above using all of Tony's connections, even if it was in the most subtle or, like, insidious way possible, not directly explicit about it. She knows that she can do that. And she knows she has that power. And so she's absolutely - like, I wouldn't say - obviously not as guilty. But she's definitely complicit and, as Tony tells her several times while they're fighting, is very happy to, like, spend all of his money and be a stay-at-home mom. Like, she doesn't have a job, you know?
WELDON: Yeah. There's certainly a parallel here because, yes, she is benefiting from Tony's world, even though she pretends that she's not. And then, in the first season, she has the storyline with a priest where a part of her is seeking Catholic absolution. But she's trying to sample it. She's trying to take advantage of it without committing to it, and yet trying to seek absolution over something she knows she is guilty of. And, you know, Tony's guilty, too. But he's seeking absolution, you know, in the therapy room. And he is untroubled by any kind of religious concern, she is. And yet she manages to push that down if it means she can keep going on with her lifestyle. Now, our second question is about the series' much-debated ending scene in the finale. Yep. We're going to be talking about it. It comes from Pamela (ph).
PAMELA: I think that "The Sopranos" has pretty much the perfect series finale. I know it's kind of "Thelma And Louise"-y (ph). But in my mind, "Sopranos" series finale is just perfect. And I would be curious to hear your thoughts.
WELDON: And we should say, OK, so "The Sopranos" family goes to a diner. Tony comes in, puts "Don't Stop Believin'" on the jukebox. They're eating communion wafers/onion rings in a...
WELDON: ...In a very religious overtone kind of way. He's looking over the plastic encased menu with lots of pictures of food on it. And after Meadow has a very tough time parallel parking...
SANTIAGO: (Laughter) She - very tough time.
HARRIS: She reminds me of myself.
HARRIS: I hate parallel parking.
SANTIAGO: Right (laughter)?
WELDON: And we cut to black.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'")
JOURNEY: (Singing) Don't stop...
WELDON: I assumed, like many, that something had gone wrong with the TV, that HBO had cut out. What'd you guys think of the ending?
VASSAR: I think that the ending sums up this television series, and it has aged really well. This idea of cutting to black is something that, at that time, was pretty experimental in a way that especially the second part of the final season really is - parts of Season 5, which is my personal favorite, where we get into the dream sequences. And I think that there is no appropriate way to give real closure to the story that we have experienced for so many episodes, gone through so many deaths, traumas, ridiculous storylines. There's really no other ending I could imagine that would satisfy anyone. So I think this idea of it being in a wholesome moment with the family is something that we don't really get often in the show. It kind of ends on a happy note, if you think about it.
Obviously, there's theories on what that fade to black means. And I watched - when I first finished my initial watch of the show, I did watch, like, quite a few YouTube videos that, like, analyzed every second, every shot. Like, that's fun. Like, I like listening to other people's theories both ways, you know, like what happened or whatnot. But it really does bring the show to a nice ending. Maybe I would think differently if I was, yeah, one of those people watching it on HBO, and then all of a sudden, I'm like, what's going on? But I think it's a nice completion to the story.
HARRIS: For me, the genius of that ending is the fact that this show, in many complicated ways, wants you to align itself with Tony. There's a scene earlier in Season 6 before Bobby, who's, like, his side - one of his side guys and is married to Janice by the end of the show - before he dies - spoiler - where he and Tony are talking and having, like, a real heart-to-heart. And he's like...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")
STEVE SCHIRRIPA: (As Bobby Baccalieri) I mean, yeah. Our line of work - it's always out there. You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?
HARRIS: That foreshadowing is, to me, sort of aligning ourselves, like, so we know that this is what happens. We know that Tony's dead because it fades to black. And so we are experiencing this through Tony's point of view. If you're going to read it that way, I think that that's just, like, a brilliant thing to do. And there are ways in which some might see it as, like, a cop-out. But I think it's kind of crucial - we've seen all of these horrible deaths. And I think it's crucial that we don't see this death on screen.
WELDON: And I've always taken that as David Chase giving the audience a polite - not necessarily, but F you. Like, as you mentioned, Shea, there are lots of dream sequences, lots of dream episodes that kind of point towards some kind of quasi-mystical or afterlife. And that last shot, the cut to black - it's not really a fade to black, it's a cut to black - is negating that, saying absolute - nope. There's nothing. And it's all Members Only jacket guy's fault. And that's it. We're done. He's out.
WELDON: We want to know what you think about "The Sopranos." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both for being here.
HARRIS: Thank you. Don't stop believing.
VASSAR: Thank you for having me yet again.
WELDON: And we will see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about the new "Sopranos" film "The Many Saints Of Newark."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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