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Cut to Black: "The Sopranos" and the Future of TV Drama, Part 4

You're watching a chapter from "Cut to Black," a roundtable discussion about the ending of The Sopranos and the show's effect on the development of TV drama. Participants include RogerEbert.com editor and New York Magazine TV 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 series was shot and edited by Dave Bunting, Jr.  

Chapter 4 deals with The Sopranos' sense of satire, and whether it's possible for a TV show to have "a plan" and stick to it. 





Ryan: What came through to me when I was rewatching the series recently is these people are stuck on a nexus. It's almost a Hieronymous Bosch vision. They can't...they make these efforts to break free, but by the end, you've got Meadow saying, 'Well, I'm going to work for this kind of law, because Italians are oppressed.' And she knows that everyone around her is incredibly corrupt, and violent! And Carmela has made endless compromises. Give A.J. a BMW, and suddenly, all the world's issues aren't as important. And so these people...

MZS: The greater the betrayal of Tony's, the larger the present he gets her. 

Ryan: Exactly!

MZS: And she's fine with that.

Ryan: It's all about, “Are we fine with the compromises they make?” There are people who are not willing to engage, or who are not comfortable with engaging with the fact that a lot of the show is an indictment of the lies people tell themselves about the compromises that they make. That's hard to bear. So that's the reason the show was a hit for six seasons, because he took this trope of the mobster thing, and used it as a subversive vehicle to get in all this existential stuff...

Bunting: We are all of us trapped in our own mafia...

MZS: I was going to say, to what extent are we all in bed with the mob, in some sense? We all have different versions of it, probably.

Ryan: And there's an incredible darkness to that. But I do think I have revised my view of how Chase viewed the people, or viewed the situation. Sometimes he views them with a kind of bemused fascination, and sometimes he views them with a kind of disgusted pessimism. And so, you can't boil that down to one thing. But he's always got a certain detached view of them. It can be amused, or it can be sad.

MZS: It is, it is. And it's a tone that reminds me of certain filmmakers who also have that sensibility, like [Luis] Bunuel, or Todd Solondz. A lot of The Sopranos reminds me of Todd Solondz, like a Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness sense of humor.

Bunting: Fonder though, I would say.

MZS: Yeah.

Bunting: Particularly Meadow, who we are meant to understand. I mean, Chase has a daughter. She was on the show, usually as a fuck-up. 

[all laugh]

MZS: Right.

Bunting: She does show up in the last two episodes, and she's pulled it together.

Ryan: She's in med school.

Bunting: Yeah, she's in her second year of med school. But there is a certain fondness that he has for some characters, and I think there's also something about Paulie that is like vibrating on a different frequency.

MZS: Yeah.

Bunting: I can't say why.

Ryan: This is my favorite moment in the finale. This guy, over the years, he's been...Paulie hates that stupid cat that they somehow acquired when they were on the run. 

But as a filmmaker, Chase just sort of gets it. In Alan [Sepinwall]'s book [The Revolution Was Televised] and elsewhere, [Chase] makes these references to classic Italian films, and the New Wave, and all this kind of stuff. And to me, what makes it all so worthwhile is...well, it's a lot of things, the affection for the characters. 

But there's a moment in the finale where Paulie's sitting outside with his little sun reflector and the cat just flops down on the pavement. He just holds the shot. I think he is conflicted. He's conflicted about the audience, he's conflicted about how much he cares about these people. But there's some aspect of this world that he really loves. He just lingers on that shot for a minute. I kinda just enjoyed the hell out of that.

Bunting: And then the shot previous to that, where he's about to broom the cat with that guy Walden? He's like, 'Leave it, who cares? It catches mice.' And, 'This animal leaves today!' He's got the broom. Tony comes in [makes hand gesture to mime Paulie hastily putting his broom away]

MZS: I think, because it is such a dark, violent show, that we do tend to forget that it is, at its heart, a comedy with a very strong satirical streak. And it manifests itself in these tiny, tiny, almost throw-away, fast-forward sight gags. 

I think it's in the last episode where you see Chinatown. And anyone that's lived in New York knows that Little Italy has been basically taken over by Chinatown. And there's that tour bus that is rocketing through Little Italy. And you hear the tour guide talking about Little Italy, but it looks like they're doing 45mph, because there's nothing to see. [motions to McGee]  Which sort of plays into your idea about the glorious past that never really was.

McGee: Sure. I also tend to give shows more slack about how they end things, because of all the mediums--we've talked about film, we've talked about books--it's the hardest to control every aspect of. Who knows what the show would have done if Libby Soprano had been around longer? Things like that. You can look at it one of two ways. Art should not reflect life. It should be a cleaner version, or it should say something. Or, it should reflect the messiness of it. 

And sometimes, you think there's going to be a build up to something, and it dissipates before you can even get there. How you view television in that way is obviously going to affect how you view a show like The Sopranos, which was interested a lot of times in these very small stories that maybe added to something whole. But if nothing else, they just filled out the world, and that was okay.

MZS: There's also...when I talk to people about television who maybe don't know as much about how television is made, there's a set of misconceptions about storytelling on TV. They think that it's like a movie, or a novel. And when you get a show that has a lot of tightly interwoven plotlines, and they're wondering how are these going to pay off, they say, 'Do you think they have a plan? Do you think they know what they're doing, or are they just making it up as they go along?' And it's like: 'If you know how TV is made, you know that they are making it up as they go along.' 

But maybe they go into it with a plan. Maybe they go into it with a general outline: they've got 10, or 12, or 22 episodes mapped out, and they know, 'Well, we want to start here, and end here.' But then things happen. Maybe they cast a particular person in a part that's not working, or they realize, 'We gotta get rid of this guy, let's whack him.' Or, 'Let's have him go to prison, and we'll replace him with another character.' Or, 'Maybe this antagonist we've chosen is not as interesting as we thought,' which is what happened in season three of Breaking Bad with the cousins. They were simply not interesting enough to be at the center of an entire season of Breaking Bad. And so they had to make a change. And it took them in a more interesting direction.

Bunting: The Good Wife just did that this [past] season. And that goes back to what we were talking about before, with how much input viewers should have. Because my non-carnal work spouse Tara Ariano [co-founder, with Bunting, of the web site Television Without Pity] were talking about it, and she's like, "Look, I'm happy we're talking to get rid of Kalinda's husband, Nick. He's just not working: the actor's not good, it's not credible that she'd be in this guy's sexual thrall.' Or anyone's. She is the thrall. [everyone laughs] She's everyone's thrall. But Tara was like, 'But while the end result is good, I'm not comfortable with the stated reason, which is that the viewers aren't really responding to this, and are writing him off. If that's the reason, great. But don't give people ideas. Don't tell us that. Don't make us think we have control over it.' 

So you have to wonder how often that's the motivation for getting rid of various characters, and we never hear about it. Who was the guy on Sopranos who couldn't learn his lines and...

MZS: Robert Loggia.

Bunting: ...and they were like, 'We're gonna violate his parole.'

MZS: Right, because, 'This can't continue.'

Bunting: What was that one scene where he's speechifying at the card table? Apparently, it took them three days to shoot it because it was just impossible.

MZS: Right. And you run into these problems. And in a way, making a television show is like making a Mike Leigh, or Robert Altman movie in that you sort of know what the story is, but you're also sort of finding it.

McGee: The flipside of what your saying is: if you overplan, you don't allow yourself to find the happy mistakes.

Ryan: And this is what frustrates me about, 'Well, you're just making it up as you go.' Isn't that the best possible answer?!

MZS: It's awesome! It's awesome.

Ryan: Because then you get to season five of 24, and it's like, 'We're just going to do the Nixon White House.' And they'll be like, 'Let's just do that!' And sometimes you can just hear the machinery go... [makes grinding noises]

MZS: Well, that's what makes TV so exciting.

Bunting: Like a cruise ship trying to turn. I think there might be a sort of...not class resentment, exactly. But I think if enough people know how TV is made, they'd know that everyone is getting paid a lot more than we proles are to watch it. But, 'I want to know that you have a plan, and that you are working 19 1/2 hours of your day on your plan. I want to hear some valid excuses.'

Ryan: You wonder how many different things have an impact on that plan. If you're David Chase, and you're HBO, your plan is the plan. If you're David Simon, your plan is the only plan. If you're anyone else--maybe David Milch. The three Davids; holy trinity. They can just do their thing. But even Milch's most recent show, Luck, they changed the plan fairly regularly. They weren't just allowed to hand actors script pages hot off the presses. But anyone else, you have the studio, you have the network, you have...

Bunting: Agents, any number of practices...

Ryan: There's this auteur theory of television, which is great, and Alan's book goes into in some detail. But even there, it becomes clear that in some extremely rare outlier cases, there is an auteur who controls most, if not all, aspects of things. But that is incredibly rare. And they live in this echo chamber...

MZS: I was going to say that I disagree with that, though the only word I would disagree with is, "control." Because in a lot of instances, they're more like impresarios. Or they're presiding over accidents.

Ryan: Absolutely.

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