They can call it a tribe, but it's still the mob

HBO's popular 'The Sopranos' fills a human need to connect to a family, creator says.

January 23, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- David Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos," thinks he understands at least part of the appeal of his hit HBO drama about New Jersey mobsters: It's tribal.

Chase says he came to that realization when he was reading an interview with feature film director John Boorman last year.

"I mention Boorman, because it is his idea, not mine, and I don't want to take credit for it," said Chase, in Los Angeles for a "Sopranos" press conference last week. "Boorman said he thinks shows about the mob are appealing to us because of what's happening in society today. Things are so fractured, and corporations and governments and different commissions have so much control over our lives, that the tribal essence has been lost.

"And a mob show is very tribal. It's our tribe against that tribe. When I read that, I thought, `He's got it. That's it.' And, yeah, it's a year later, and everybody's talking about what makes the show so successful, and I still think Boorman's absolutely right: It's tribal."

Chase and four members of his tribe came to TV's Winter Press Tour last week riding a wave of critical praise and record ratings for the premiere of season two for "The Sopranos."

The reviews are so effusive that "Saturday Night Live" has done a parody of them. The ratings for last Sunday night's episode were the highest for any show on HBO since the 1996 premiere of "If Walls Could Talk," an acclaimed trilogy of short films dealing with an abortion. In New York, "The Sopranos" was the highest-rated show on any network, beating even ABC's hit, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

A smart bunch

With Chase to meet the press were: James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano, a middle-aged mobster with an acute anxiety disorder and a mother who ordered a hit on him; Emmy Award-winning Edie Falco, who plays Tony's wife, Carmela; Michael Imperioli, who has a supporting role as Tony's nephew and wise-guy-in-training; and Lorraine Bracco, who plays Tony's psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi.

It's a smart bunch, but Chase is the smartest. In that respect, he's also part of another tribe -- this one populated by Tom Fontana, David E. Kelley, Aaron Sorkin, Steven Bochco and a handful of other top TV producers shaping our culture with the programs they create.

Membership in that tribe has its price, though. A breakthrough show brings greater expectations the next season.

"The biggest pressure in coming back this year," he said, "was the fact that there were plot developments at the end of last year that by their nature were going to change the show." He's referring to the fact that at the end of season one, Tony wound up estranged from the two women with whom he had spent the most screen time -- his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), and Dr. Melfi.

"We looked at [the first season] like this: You could always count on a Tony-Livia scene, a Tony-Melfi scene. Now, we didn't have those scenes any more.

"I mean, his mother tried to kill him, he's not going to be over at her house," he said. "And his shrink isn't going to embrace him after what he put her through." Bracco's Dr. Melfi had to go on the lam after Tony's enemies found out he was discussing his mob activities with her.

"So we had some work to do, and it was hard work, filling those spaces," Chase said.

The work was complicated to some extent by Marchand's health; she has lung cancer. Chase said he's always aware of her situation, but at the same time he refuses to think about how her illness might affect future story lines as he's writing. "I mean, she comes to work, she does her work, she's great," he said. "Like any of us, she has her good days and her bad days. Her bad days can be worse than ours. But, by and large, she just does it. So to think ahead that way would be just too strange."

Actually, the death of Marchand's Livia was planned for the cliff-hanger ending of season one. But that was in an earlier version of "The Sopranos" story that Chase had crafted as a feature film after failing to sell the show to any of the broadcast networks.

"I sort of brought that idea [of Livia dying] to this HBO version," Chase said. "But, as the season went on, it became obvious to me that she wasn't going to die."

Despite the rejection of "The Sopranos," Chase shows none of the anger or condescension toward the broadcast networks evidenced by some producers working in the commercial-free, prestige-rich environment of HBO. He says the main advantage HBO has over a network (he worked with CBS on "Northern Exposure") is the freedom to tell the story his way.

"No one is freaking out if it's not clear from the first moment what the end of the story is going to be. Nobody's freaking out if it takes a little while for a story to get going -- or even a long while," he said. "No one [from HBO] calls us and says, `Geez, what's gonna keep them there? Why don't you blow up an oil truck or something?'

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