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Cut to Black: "The Sopranos" and the Future of TV Drama, Part 5

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 5 looks at the lessons that TV producers took away from The Sopranos' success, for good and ill. 






MZS: Another thing that I think people don't take into account when they're thinking about how television is made is the 24-hours-in-a-day rule is a big, big factor. When you think about, just think for a minute: if you are writing a letter to somebody, that you want to say something important, and you want to make sure you're not misunderstood, think about how much time you spend writing that letter. And then think about how much time it would take to outline a one-hour episode of a television drama that's maybe a dozen, or two dozen characters' stories, all of which need to touch upon each other in some way in order to satisfy the audience. And then, you've got two or three weeks to shoot that episode, maybe another two, or three weeks to edit it. 

Then you can't touch it anymore. It's gotta go on the air. 

Bunting: Then past a certain point, you gotta trust all the other technicians to do their jobs, trust the actors will have an ear for what they're supposed to say. You have to trust the costume designer not to put somebody in a distracting orange tent. You have to think, "Ok, who's hiding that Charisma Carpenter is enormously pregnant? She's just gonna be in bed, and possessed for three episodes.' There are a lot of things you can't control, and then there are the things you can control. You know, language is imperfect.

MZS: Television shows are an artistic achievement, but they're also an athletic event. 'How can we get this done? We have six months to put together a season of a show: how in the hell are we going to do this?'

McGee: I wrote a piece in the fall [of 2012], it was in reaction to the [second] season of Homeland, the fourth episode, where all of a sudden, the character of Brody's storyline took a twist that nobody thought was going to happen in that episode. And in spite of that, I talked to a couple of show-runners. This was inspired, I think, by [Homeland executive producer] Howard Gordon's interview with Andy Greenwald from Grantland. He said, 'The only surprise they have left in the arsenal is timing.' Because audiences are so sophisticated now. They understand how the sausage is made much more than even during the time of The Sopranos; that every possibility that you can think of has probably been already put on a message board somewhere, and been delineated, and has been executed in that way.

But one of the problems was the factor of timing, especially on network [programming]. Bill Lawrence [William Lawrence, creator of Scrubs and Cougar Town] equated the idea of doing 22 episodes to having 22 term papers due every Sunday for 22 weeks. And there's a beauty to it: because if it's bad, you just gotta let it go. But if it's great, you can't sit on your laurels too much, because you have to make another one almost instantly.

MZS: Maybe we should talk about this: what did The Sopranos do to television? What did it enable other people to do? What effect has it had? And has that been largely positive, or have there been some downsides?

Ryan: Well, I think the enormously positive thing was that...I would bet that when David Chase set out to make this, he thought, 'Well, I'm going to make this thing that's influenced by the filmmaking I've loved. It'll be this existential piece, but it'll have this candy-coated shell of mobster stuff.' I don't think he could have had any idea of how culturally important it would become.

I think, in talking to people that make TV, it was enormously freeing for them to see characters that were that...they could be dumb, they could be vicious, they could be cruel, they could be heartless, they could be wonderful, all at the same time.

"College" is the most cited episode of television among people who make TV. It's sort of like seeing the Velvet Underground if you're a musician in the '60s. There's something that was unlocked by that that I think was incredibly helpful.

The downside is that then what people took away from it was not, 'Hey, we've unlocked this toy box,' but, 'Hey, we've unlocked the toy box of the brain of the white male protagonist who is a middle class guy.'

So, television is all about imitation. It doesn't surprise me that there's so much of that. But I just think there are signs that people are kind of maybe just starting to play in other arenas. Because that other field has been farmed enough. Maybe we should look for other things. But I think, as an influence...

MZS: It's interesting to see what these other shows seem to have gleaned from The Sopranos. Like, what they thought the takeaway was. And on a show like The Shield, for example, it was the plot, this machine of the plot. And the characters were important, but it was the propulsive forward motion that was the thing that was most critical.

But you also see shows where it's also the psychology. The psychology is the main takeaway, and it's sort of like the story of the blind men trying to figure out that they're looking at an elephant. Everyone's fixating on different aspects of The Sopranos, and making their own show out of it. Boardwalk Empire is another of those.

Bunting: [to MZS] There's something you said earlier that made me think of the expression, that if you try to make your story, or your art, very personal, and true to your personal thing, then that lets it be universal. But if you try to do a show that's universal, or art that's universal, then it sort of winds up being not for anyone. 'If you do it for yourself, then it's for everyone. If you try to do it for everyone, then it's not for anyone.'

Whatever, I'm quoting that wrong. But David Chase's take on this world was extremely personal, so it happened to be appealing to a whole bunch of different demographics: mafia fantasy people-- [points to Ryan] and I really think you should knit the hats for that.

Ryan: [laughs] I can, I can do that.

Bunting: 'But I'm a Genovese girl.' Just kidding; don't call me. And then there were the film referents, both American classics and Italian classics. There was the psychology of the antihero.

And I think that that was the influence I see, whether it's Breaking Bad, Homeland. These shows may not sound very personal, like one man's journey. But they are.

And I agree that this middle class white male becomes sympathetic, with some humor thrown in. That field has been plowed enough for now, and needs to be allowed to lie fallow. But then you have something like Girls, which gets a ton of flack, but it's like, 'You're right: this is really me. This is almost no one’s experience.'

MZS: She's describing the inhabitants of a particular zip code, for the most part.

Bunting: I think [Girls creator Lena Dunham] is quite a bit less successful than some other examples at universalizing these personal stories because they feature such privileged and obnoxious behavior. But I respect the effort. I think that's clear that that's what's trying to happen. So, I don't know, if we can get that sphere of influence translated to a more diverse...

MZS: I'm intrigued more by-- [points to McGee] you talked about timing being the only surprise. I'm more intrigued by form now. The Sopranos was sort of unusual in the way it split the difference between a short story, and a novel. But there are a lot of show on the air that are taking a lot of chances with form. Either the way that they structure a story over the course of a season, like American Horror Story, the idea of doing an anthology series, where instead of doing a particular episode as a self-contained story, it's a season. I like that.

Bunting: And that guy [American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy] is the most ruthless planner. There are a lot of balls in the air, but he knows exactly at what altitude they're at.

MZS: And then you've got something like Louie, which is like the most stylistically bold show on TV, hands down. Because it's the first really significant show I've seen that does not delineate between what really happened, and what might be figurative, or a dream.

And they do that to some degree in almost every episode, and you don't know if you're seeing a dry documentary-style representation of this guy's life, or if it's the kind of hyperbole you'd get from a stand-up comedy routine where he's exaggerating. Like, Richard Pryor's crack pipe is talking to him: obviously the crack pipe didn't talk to him. Louie finds ways to cinematically do that, that kind of exaggeration. And then you get something like the New Year's Eve episode, which starts off as a part standard stand-up comedy type account of Christmas with my kids. And then it suddenly becomes this nightmare, like Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

[all laugh] You kind of don't know where the dream begins...

Bunting: Wow, that was the most obscure reference. Deep cuts, folks.

MZS: He falls asleep three different times, and it's almost like they're deliberately telling you, 'You don't know if this is a dream or not, and if so, where it started. And it doesn't matter!'

And it's the, 'It doesn't matter,' part that excites me so much. Because if you think the ending of The Sopranos is frustrating for the way it rips you out of the story. I think that New Year's Eve episode of Louie is ten times more frustrating if you're not used to that kind of ambiguous or artful way of telling a story. Because we want to know: is this a dream or not? We want to know that. We're trained to want to know that, and this show is telling us, 'You don't know that, and you shoudn't even want to know that. It doesn't matter.'

That's really bold.

McGee: What I love about Louie--I had it as my favorite show of last year--is I said that in ten years, we're going to see that we're coming out of the Golden Age of television, and we're going into something else right now. A year ago, I had a piece at the AV Club. And I didn't title it, but the name everyone read was one people yelled at me about in the comments: 'Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?'

MZS: Yeah, I remember that piece. I almost left an angry comment, too.

McGee: That's right!

MZS: And then I read the piece!

McGee: Nostalgia for what was lost: what I think pulled out of The Sopranos, the critical love of it, was that novel-ization. And The Sopranos is not a novel, as a show. You want to know why? There's lots of short stories in there. But the perception that there was this long journey told over there.

So what did people do? They got their flash-forwards, they got their five-year plan before the [first] episode was even shot, they thought about the plan before thinking about a character.

And Louie is a show that forces you to lie within the episode itself, hermetically sealed. You can take them as a whole, as an expression of an artist. But you don't need to have watched the past ten episodes to get what's going on in this particular one always. And this glut of, 'Well, do I want to spend five years catching up on Breaking Bad? Or do I want to jump in on three-episode arc where [Louis CK] is taking over for Letterman?'

And again, with the auteur theory: what can you do? What can you get away with? How many hands can get into the pot, and at what level can people just be left alone to express themselves?

MZS: And you have to gauge how far you can go, too. Because if you're trying to go too far every single week, eventually, people get tired of you.

Bunting: Well, it starts to feel a little cynical. I didn't track the response to the New Year's Eve episode, but I do feel like it was kind of polarizing. 

MZS: It was, very.

Bunting: But do you think that ending of The Sopranos has dulled our reactions to this kind of thing? Not to ambiguity in general in art, but that feeling of dislocation? Because I wasn't aware if people felt that was a really bold episode of Louie, or if that...

MZS: Well, I think Louie trains you to be okay with it. I think one of the wonderful things about that show -- and I wish other shows would be reassured by it -- is that the very nature of Louie is so experimental that not everything is going to work. And there are many episodes of it over the course of any season that really don't do it for me. But I know that that's the way he works, and I know that it's not going to all come out perfectly, or please me. There may be other people that really liked the thing I didn't like. And that's okay.

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