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Cut to Black: "The Sopranos" and the Future of TV Drama, Part 6

You're watching Part 6 of "Cut to Black," a videotaped roundtable discussion about the end of The Sopranos and the future of television drama. Participants include RogerEbert.com editor and New York Magazine critic Matt Zoller Seitz, Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan, A.V. Club TV critic Ryan McGee, and previously.tv contributor Sarah D. Bunting. The program was shot and edited by Dave Bunting, Jr. 

The sixth and final chapter, "The Spark, The Journey and Integrity," deals with the show's long-term impact on the medium.


 

Ryan: Right, and it's interesting to me: there are a couple of threads that are running throughout this entire discussion. Like, 'Why didn't they have more whackings, and was that shocking at the end?' And I feel like, based on what we've been talking about, there's this strong desire for people to surprise us, and to keep our attention. 

So how are they gonna they do that? It's like this whole swirling discussion of violence in the media. And I do think that things are more violent, in general, but that's partly understandable because people want to keep their jobs, essentially. And if there are more zombies getting killed, and more werewolves, and more blood, it's because actual life-and-death stakes matter to people. 

But we can sit here and have that discussion, and I think it's an interesting one to have. But something like American Horror Story...I actually think that there's a commonality with something like Louie in that I'm entering someone else's dreamspace...

McGee: Yes!

Ryan: And it's not going to make total sense to me, but it makes total sense to them. And I'm along for the ride, and...

MZS: Trying to see why it makes sense to you is part of the experience, too.

Ryan: And I don't know what's going to happen. As a viewer, I want to be involved and engaged, obviously. Maybe it's the characters that they gave me, or maybe it's the weird-ass tone. Like, 'I don't know, what is happening right now?' The tone can shift, and it can shift, and then shift again. 

But it all kind of makes sense together. But I like not knowing. 

And we all watch a lot of TV. So maybe I'm over-served in that regard, and I never know too much about how the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling work. I love the fact that there are a number of creators where I have no idea what's going to happen. Like the end of season one of Girls: she's just gonna go out to Coney Island, and sit in the sand. I didn't expect that. And that to me is a very personal sort of vision. That's one way it can become...not universally appealing, but [for] the people it appeals to, it  hooks them. Because you're taking me on a journey, and I don't know the destination. And that's exciting to me.

McGee: Yes, the flipside of that is my least favorite phrase in all television: the mid-season finale. They build up to these arbitrary points in December, because it has to explode, or someone has to decompress...

Bunting: Yeah, the hero has to fall 10,000 feet? Okay.

McGee: Exactly. 'Just because we're going to have to be off the air for seven weeks, we have to keep your attention until that point.' And that's the least arbitrary thing in the entire world, when you get the notes: 'All right, in eight episodes...'

MZS: Well, that's a factory approach. That's a factory approach to art.

Bunting: Well, I also wonder if it also has to do with our perception, maybe not even consciously, that the shows we are invested in, that we are trusting to see where they go next, even if we don't always get it is our unconscious perception that it is cared about deeply. Not just by us, but by other people, not just a by [the] numbers show like...I can't think of a good example. Like Deception. Deception feels very, 'Tab A, Slot B...' [snores] There are some zippy things in it, but I wound up kicking it off the DVR. Because...it's not that it was cynically built, it's that it was built.

MZS: Too obviously built.

Bunting: Yeah, or...

Ryan: Assembled from constituent parts that you'd seen before. 

Bunting. Or this could be good if it has all the right parts, but that doesn't always do it. Someone in charge, whether it's someone at the networks, or some creator--someone has to really love this baby.

Ryan: And even a big show like that, like the first season of Revenge: not all of it worked, but I'm like, 'There's an intelligence about how soaps work that I find amusing here.' So it's not like it has to be something that was really very narrow at the start and it's become more and more popular. It can be a factory-produced product, but there's some driving force to it, I completely agree. Something that put a personal stamp on it somewhere along the line.

Bunting: There's the emotional investment, and with Revenge now, I can't even be bothered to keep track of the various MBA twist because I don't know what happened, what changed, but now this deeply personal mission of hers, no matter how baroque, has been extended to the entire cast, many of whom [snores].

Ryan: Exactly.

MZS: Well, when you lose that personal spark...I think when a show loses that personal spark, that edge of almost-mania, it's over. It's over.

Ryan: Mm-hm, that's right.

Bunting: Even in a soap opera, okay, it's a soap opera.

MZS: And with The Sopranos, they never really lost that. 

Ryan: I feel like I can almost pinpoint it for myself. The later seasons of Alias, I would write about it, going, 'They got the band back together, but they're not making the same music.' It's just that something isn't there, and when something goes out of a show, it's very hard for me to stick with it.

McGee: Also, it depends. If it's a plot-driven show, if you have a goal to which you are always going, you can feel the delays a lot more. The shows that are about character pieces, and the characters more organically drive the show: those can go on forever. But if you feel like, 'All right, they're going to have to get off the island.'

Ryan: People did try to do that with The Sopranos. They tried to sit here talking like David Chase is on Artist Island. And you could tell that all of the backing, and feeling that people had was because people felt that HBO was pulling up a Brinks truck to his house, and begging, 'Please make more, please make more.'

MZS: Yeah, and there were several points where he was thinking about packing it in.

Ryan: And they just said, 'We will give you all of the money.'

McGee: Then they took the truck to Vito in New Hampshire. 

Bunting: Oh my God, seriously, with another truck of Bisquik pancakes.

McGee: And the Morgan Spurlock lookalike cook.

Bunting: We used to call those the April Doldrums, back when TV was more traditional in its layout -- that those two episodes would air in April. And it was like the gentle splashing of dog-paddling, trying to keep one nostril above waterline while everyone gets pregnant, or starts shooting each other, depending on the show. Sometimes it's both.

McGee: But it's fascinating to see what people learned, people who were working on the shows. Comparing Boardwalk Empire to Mad Men, you need to watch certain episodes as try-outs. We were talking about this on the way here, but "Candy and Heidi" feels like a Mad Men spec script.

MZS: It does.

McGee: Figuring out the rhythms, what works here, how much forward momentum you have to have? How much time can you just linger on people? At what point does it just turn glacial? At what point is it just okay to not actually move forward, and just spend time with these people?

MZS: Well, the fact that we can even consider those part of the artist's tool kit is, I think, a big part of The Sopranos' achievement.

Ryan: Yes.

MZS: That you can ask that. Now you can say, 'Well, what if we were to just throw in a 20-minute dream sequence into the middle of this episode? Would that be okay?' 'Well, yeah, we could do that.' 

Ryan: I sometimes can be a really cynical person. There's that really Chase-ian side of me. But I think there's a cock-eyed optimist buried somewhere deep within. And what I find really interesting is I like Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, which took a lot of their cues from The Sopranos. You might say that they were destined to have a more niche existence. But I've actually talked to TV executives about that. They put the first three or four seasons of Breaking Bad on Netflix, and suddenly the next season premier does extremely well. These things don't have to be niche-ified. Or what a niche is is now actually being redefined. 

So I find it incredibly encouraging now that these very, very different, but personally driven projects can be, not necessarily for the people that watch them, they can really be broad. And that's another thing: The Sopranos proved to a major media conglomerate that something artistically, thematically, and aesthetically ambitious can be an enormously huge hit. Lost and The Sopranos, around that mid-aughts period, those ruled popular culture. That's, to me, incredibly encouraging. 

McGee: The numbers that The Sopranos were getting in season four, NBC would whack a lot of people to get those numbers right now. [all laugh] Anything that doesn't involve The Voice, they'd be dying to get those numbers.

Bunting: Crossover event! Sopranos, The Voice, c'mahn....

McGee: Turn around to Cher, and kill somebody? Sure.

MZS: So if you could sum up in just one word, or sentence, what do you think is the most important contribution of The Sopranos?

Ryan: One word?! They have to go first.

McGee: Uh, integrity. 

Bunting: Can I quote Tony Soprano? 'Fuckin' intahnet.' [all laugh] If only I could get tattoos of sound effects. Integrity's good. Faith, I would say, faith in the audience, and faith in yourself, which was borne out. 

McGee: I guess I'm torn between two, but the one I would go with ambiguity.

MZS: I'm not quite sure what you mean by that.

Ryan: I'm not either, so I thought that was a good vague answer. But also just complexity. I don't think we're meant to have an opinion about how it ended, like an opinion. We're meant to have as many opinions as Chase had. Like, Tony Soprano is such a jerk, and a selfish sonuvabitch. And he cares about the ducks, and he cares about those kids. He tries. Is it more important that he fails, or is it more important that he tried? I don't know.

MZS: I don't know. The word that I would choose that I keep coming back to is surprise. Because all the shows that I really, really loved have that constant sense of surprise, where every time you heard the opening music to the show, you got a little bit excited. Because you didn't know what you were going to get. 'What are they gonna do to me this week? Where are they gonna take me this week?' 

You just don't know. And for a long time, The Simpsons had that. And Hill Street Blues had that, St. Elsewhere had that, a lot of the great shows had that quality, where they're not going to give you the same thing every time. In fact, they'd make it a point of pride not to.

Ryan: I would say that one of the things that unifies everything from Archer to Girls to any number of shows that I love right now is: the creator doesn't want to bore him- or herself. And I think that was always true of Chase. 

MZS: That sounds like a good... [Sound and picture cut out without warning.]

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