Some writers see it coming when they forge a culture-shaking hit. Not David Chase.
He remembers sitting around on the set of The Sopranos — the HBO series he created and midwifed under conditions of near-total anonymity in the summer and fall of 1998 — saying ”Who the hell is going to watch this?” More than audience indifference, Chase dreaded a critical drubbing. ”I was sure they were gonna go, ‘Another Mafia thing? Let’s kill it!”’ He abruptly pantomimes raising a rifle — ”Pull!” he calls — then pretends to squeeze an imaginary trigger: ”KaBOOM!”
To Chase’s shock, The Sopranos proved a target only for accolades, blowing away critics and audiences alike. The 13-episode series pulled in as many as 10 million viewers a week this past year on HBO—a record for any of the cable net’s original series. It was dubbed a virtual masterpiece (if not the smartest TV series ever) by pundits, scored 16 Emmy nominations, and nailed 4 of them, including a statuette for Chase as an episode cowriter. The show’s effect on most people who saw preview tapes was so strong that the ramp-up started even before it began airing last January. ”There was a wrap party that was supposed to be just cast and crew,” Chase remembers. ”It turned into a huge thing in Times Square with 800 people. I saw it happening before we hit the air.”
Chase’s eyes glaze over a bit, as if he’s still shaken up. He’s got just cause for shock: In keeping a dream project as narrow, specific, and personal as he could, he wound up striking a universal chord.
The irony here is that if Chase’s inspired update of the milieus mined in The Godfather and GoodFellas had been picked up by the Fox TV network, for which it was developed in the mid-’90s, it might well have lost its soul. ”There’s been a lot of talk about how everybody at Fox and a couple of the other networks is so sorry they didn’t say yes,” Chase says. ”That’s not really true. If Fox had said yes, everybody would have been unhappy. The fit wasn’t there. This turned out to be a show that you could not put on anywhere but pay cable.”
Beyond the obvious sex and violence reasons, there’s rhythm. Broadcast TV requires crescendos every 12 minutes or so, just in time for commercials, but the leading qualities in the saga of Tony Soprano, a suburban New Jersey crime boss laid low by anxiety attacks (made profoundly sympathetic by James Gandolfini), are understatement, indirection, and denial. ”Network TV is all about people saying exactly what’s on their minds,” says Chase. (He ought to know: He’s got an impressive resume of writing and producing for The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, and I’ll Fly Away.) ”This show is about people not saying what’s on their minds, and then acting in very passive-aggressive ways.”
When they do speak, the hard women and violent men let fly with F-word-laden epithets whose expressiveness depends on the cadence of the delivery. ”If you’re not going to say ‘f — -‘ out loud, you pretty much can’t do a good Mob story,” says ”Little” Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band foil to Bruce Springsteen whom Chase hired to play Tony Soprano foil Silvio Dante because he ”looked like an amalgam of people I grew up with in Jersey.” Chase insisted that cast members have East Coast ”tri-state area” roots, and into their mouths and bodies he channels authentic-sounding behaviors and expressions culled partly from family history (one of his Italian grandparents shortened the clan’s moniker to Chase from De Cesare in the ’20s), partly from voluminous readings of Mob books and articles, and partly from ”hearing things from people who know people.”