Twenty years ago, HBO was only beginning to establish its now-sterling reputation as a provider of top quality original series that took viewers to places network programs simply couldn’t dare venture. But soon enough David Chase’s “The Sopranos” would break out as a signature series and inspire a whole new wave of antihero-led programming.
Dark, funny, bold, ambitious, quirky, addictive: the mob family drama with the repellent yet compelling New Jersey capo Tony Soprano at the center was all of those things and more. And the show ushered in a glorious new era of television — one that celebrated rich, sharply delineated characters that didn’t always say what they thought or act in their own best interests, as well as gloriously cinematic storytelling fueled by striking visuals and sweeping camerawork, and, of course, a deeply flawed protagonist that, despite despicable acts, inspired deep relatability with the audience.
“The Sopranos” soon dominated conversations at water coolers, dinner parties and then-nascent chat rooms, and its symbolism and deeper meanings were dissected in college classrooms, academic thesis and other intellectual analyses. It was, in short, the ultimate harbinger of everything that TV would soon become. Two decades later, the profound impact of “The Sopranos” on television storytelling, the industry itself and the way viewers watch TV continues to reverberate sharply.
But, the series started which much humbler beginnings — and lower expectations, even from the creator himself.
“I didn’t think it was gonna be a success at all,” Chase tells Variety. “The whole thing was a surprise. We worked on the first season…all year. The show was completed by the time it hit the air…and I remember Edie Falco saying, ‘Well, I guess that’s it for us?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ … Thankfully I was wrong.”
Here, Chase and key members of his “Sopranos” family reflect on the series’ seismic effect.
Robin Green: Near the end of filming [the pilot] David said, “What do you think is gonna happen?” I said to him, “It’ll either change the face of television forever, or sink like a stone.” That was my opinion, and he rolled his eyes and said, “Wow, hopefully somewhere in between.” We really didn’t know, but we knew that we loved it.
Chase: I asked HBO and Brillstein-Grey if they would put on a little screening at MGM Studios with some Italian food, and they wouldn’t pay for it, so I did it myself, and it was mostly my friends, but they laughed a lot. … They seemed to really enjoy it, and I thought, “Wow, I didn’t think it was that strong.”
Green: In the subbasement of the Tower Records in Times Square, there was a screening room. That’s where we had the premiere. When we saw all the faces on the people who came out of the theater, even my highbrow friends were just aglow. They were all excited. … We went around the corner to John’s Pizza, that was where we had the first premiere party. A modest beginning.
Chase: When it finally aired, all the reviews were ecstatic except for one bad review, and it was somebody from the TCA [who] made a joke that I was floating in some bay in Miami, or something. But that’s when I really knew it, right from the first.
Michael Imperioli: The reviews when it went on the air were so over the top and hyperbolic that “Saturday Night Live” did a skit on the reviews. They didn’t do a spoof of the show, they did a skit about the reviews of the “The Sopranos” that were so ridiculously good for a TV show that it was way out of the ordinary. Then we knew. Those reviews that were across the board raves forced the public to watch it, basically.
Chase: After the first season I didn’t know if we’d be coming back at all. I thought we were gonna be canceled, but we weren’t canceled. I came back from quite a long vacation in Europe, and everybody in America seemed to be saying, “Where’s Pussy?” And that completely stoned me, you know? I wasn’t prepared for that at all, and I knew it was something unusual.
Pop Culture Phenomenon
Winter: I didn’t anticipate how much the episode “Pine Barrens” was going to resonate with people. I knew it was really fun and funny when we did it, but the whole run between Paulie, Tony and Christopher when they’re on the phone and Tony’s trying to explain that the guy they’re looking for was in the interior ministry, and he killed 16 Chechen rebels, and then that whole thing being misconstrued by Paulie as the guy killed Czechoslovakians, and he was an interior decorator. I’ve heard that quoted back a million times, and people just really love that episode so much. We were howling on the set watching it unfold in front of us.
Green: My favorite lines that we wrote [were] in “Knights in White Satin Armor”: “Is this the handsome boy? I like my new pony boots, Tony. Do you like my pony boots, Tony?” Or “He disrespected the Bing” — that went viral.
Imperioli: Sitting on the dog, that really kind of pushed a lot of buttons. You can gun down 20 people, shoot them up full of bullets and stuff, and people won’t blink an eye. You sit on a dog and people complain about it for years!
Chase: The thing I liked best was the fact that there were “Sopranos” parties. I tried not to read about the show too much. I didn’t read or watch stuff about the show. I really tried very hard to be the boy in the bubble about that. I don’t know how successful I was, but the “Sopranos” parties I thought was a great thing. It made me really happy.
Landress: When you watch a movie for two hours it might stay with you, but those people are gone. The thing about “The Sopranos” was that every Sunday night people could go home have their ziti, cannoli parties, have a glass of wine and feel like their friends were coming over. They knew “The Sopranos” were going to entertain them. They wanted those people over on Sunday night.
Winter: When we got into Mad Magazine, that was the highlight for me. That said everything. The artist did “A Mad Magazine Behind the Scenes look at ‘The Sopranos,’” and it was caricatures of the entire cast and David. And I had every actor and David sign it for me, and I’ve got that hanging in my office. Also, “MADtv” did a great parody early on as well that I thought was great.
Chase: There were porno movies made of it, and that was great! It was fun.
Breaking the Rules and Raising the Bar
Chase: I was prepared to take the risks, and I was convinced that that was the way to go. I just wanted to do it. … Mostly it was the storytelling. It was the pace of the storytelling and the length of the storytelling. I was very happy to see that that people were gravitating toward it. Our show sometimes moved much more slowly than a network show — sometimes more quickly, but mostly more slowly, and I like the idea that was successful with an audience.
Mitchell Burgess: When we wrote the scripts, we really tried to best each other. It was still very fresh the second year and third year. We really were trying to do the best work we could possibly. We really worked like maniacs. Everybody did.
Green: We wanted to keep up the standard that we had set. That standard was just to make it as good as we could and have as much fun as possible, and make it as entertaining and thought-provoking as possible.
Terence Winter: It was writing more the way people actually speak in real life. People very often don’t say what they mean. They lie to each other. They speak in half sentences. They misuse words, and they come at things in very oblique ways in a lot of subtext where you talk to each other. In network TV, you basically have to say exactly what you mean, and say exactly what you think the moment you think it as a character, and it’s got to be crystal clear, and you’ve got to repeat the information 10 times. God forbid there’s anybody in the audience who doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say. On “The Sopranos,” it was very different. For the first time, I felt like I was writing exactly the way I would speak, or the way I imagined these characters would speak, and that was OK — that was encouraged.
Ilene S. Landress: I came from film…and it was before there was a ton of television in New York. I knew that David had worked in television but had this love of movies and really wanted this movie crew and I really only knew how to hire a movie crew because there really wasn’t a television crew. People who came from huge movies all of a sudden were getting the feedback from people how much they were loving the show, and all of a sudden all these people who film snobs, myself included, are realizing that more people are watching this television show than probably any film you’ve ever worked on. … It really became the example of, “Hey, wait a second — doing television isn’t some sort of compromise.”
Imperioli: “The Sopranos” basically brought a cinematic quality to television that had been there very rarely — maybe “Twin Peaks.” That had not been explored very much. It was a type of cinema that, obviously, Scorsese and Coppola and those things had — it has that pedigree, and I think that was really engaging for a lot of people.
Chase: HBO liked it – we didn’t have to fight for it very much. It’s all about the money, you know? All that stuff is more expensive. The reason everything used to look like “Marcus Welby” is because it was cheap. Two people talking in an office is cheap, so when you take it outside and do something other than car chases, when you have scenes on bridges or boats — the kinds of things you saw on “The Sopranos” cost more.
Winter: It really opened up the world of television writing, and elevated it to the point where it blurred the lines between movies and TV. Not only did it blur the lines…in terms of drawing actors to the medium who traditionally wouldn’t want to do TV. Actors were lining up, saying, “Give me something like that. Where do I sign?”
Imperioli: Around that time I had started to get a little bit of success as a writer, mainly because of Spike Lee directing a script that I co-wrote called “Summer of Sam.” At the same time we had just finished the first season of “The Sopranos” and I really fell in love with the show, all the characters. I took a shot and did a spec script of “The Sopranos” and showed it to David, and he took a lot of what I wrote in that spec and we brought it what was happening in Season 2. I just was so taken by the writing and by all the characters that I wanted to be involved that way.
Burgess: Our language went to hell for quite a few years, too.
Green: It’s true. I had to tell Mitch to stop saying “f—” in public.
Winter: Among other writers, as soon as I got the job people were envious. Everybody in the writing community knew what the show was and loved it, and was really excited for me. And then as the show became more and more popular, as soon as you said, “We worked on ‘The Sopranos,’” people had questions: “What’s James Gandolfini like?” and “What’s it like working on that show?”
Landress: HBO was pretty big into boxing business. A whole bunch of us went to a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. The audience was waiting for the fight to start and they saw Jimmy [James Gandolfini] and Michael and Vinny Pastore. This crowd at Madison Square Garden started cheering for the cast and everyone was sort of taken aback. And one of the actors was like, “Oh God. This is kind of like a thing.” Whenever you have three or four of them together people would go pretty crazy.
Imperioli: Meeting people I had idolized for many years and having them know and appreciate my work, like the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed and Patti Smith, Al Pacino, great people like that, that was a real thrill, to have that kind of respect come back at you. I hung out the whole night with Keith Richards and Ron Wood in Toronto after a concert talking about everything under the sun until dawn. Just the three of us all night long, just talking and getting to know each other. That was a “pinch me” moment.
Chase: We had a birthday party for Tony Sirico at a comedy club in Brooklyn, and there were all these people lined up outside -– just a crowd of people just to see everybody come in. And this guy who was a friend of Tony’s, he was on stage and said, “This is the Guinea Beatles.” And I thought, “Well, okay.”
Landress: It was the yearly meeting of shrinks, psychoanalysts, in New York City and there were like 600 people lined up at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to enter a ballroom to watch an interview with Dr. Melfi, whose a shrink on TV. She’s not really a shrink, but there were all these analysts lined up.
Winter: Early on in shooting Season 2, we did a scene on a location in New Jersey with Michael Imperioli and Drea de Matteo, and they had walked onto the set, and there was a crowd of people on the street behind some barricades who all started to applaud when they saw them. And Michael and Drea looked at each other, like in disbelief: They couldn’t believe how much the show had taken off. All the actors told me, all during Season 1, nobody had any idea what this was, what was being shot, just that a TV show was being shot on the street, and they didn’t have anybody paying attention. And as the series went on, every time we shot on location, there were huge crowds of people.
Imperioli: It does take a certain level of adjustment, I think, both for me and my family. Overwhelmingly it was positive, but you just have to be a little bit more private and protective of your privacy. New York is a town where you spend a lot of time out on the streets, going from one place to another. You’re out there, and you just have to have a little bit kind of a protective layer over yourself, a little bit of a thicker skin to deal with lots of people coming your way. To be honest I think a lot of people had difficulty separating me from the character. I think that went for a lot of us on the show. I think in some ways people felt we were like “Jersey Shore” — like they found us at the mall or something and put it on television without fully realizing most of us had had long careers as actors.
Chase: [The actors] all acquitted themselves really well. When something was published about them it was usually funny and usually really good on their part and it was more than I could have ever imagined.
Chase: It was interesting to see where [the writers] took it when “The Sopranos” was over, but I wasn’t that interested in being a writing teacher. All I cared about was that they worked on the show and that the shows that they wrote worked really well. I hoped that they will all be successful later in their lives, but that was not really a big concern of mine. When I saw what they did, I was completely blown away. … I’m proud of the work that came after it. “Mad Men,” I think, was a great show, and “Boardwalk Empire.” I’m proud of all that stuff.
Green: It gave us real credibility. We were credible before that because we’d done “Northern Exposure” — we had certain reputation from shows like that…but this really put us on the map.
Burgess: it changed the whole how people conceived us. There were very few writers of it. … That’s the reality of it. People would listen to us. I remember the first pilot [Robin and I] did for CBS after that: we just literally went and thought of an idea, told them and went and wrote a pilot. They never even saw outlines.
Green: We’re still dining out on it.
Winter: It made the rest of my career possible, I know that…it was because of my involvement in the Sopranos that allowed me to do “Boardwalk Empire” and “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Vinyl,” and everything I’ve done since. From a non-cynical, non-mercenary point of view, the greatest perk truly was those 10 years of working with all those people, and I just made dear, dear, lifelong friends. “The Sopranos” will be the thing I compare everything else I ever do to. No matter how great my career gets, or what else I do, I always think back to those years as the highlight.
Landress: When people say, “Oh, what do you do?” I say, “I produce films and television shows.” And they say, “Oh, is it anything I’ve ever heard of?” Even if they haven’t watched it, they’ve pretty much heard of it. … HBO was doing this marathon the other night and I flipped on the TV finally started watching. I thought, “God, there’s a lot of great stuff in here that really holds up.”
The Long Shadow
Winter: Very easily this could’ve ended up being a network show that pulled all kinds of punches, and I’m not even talking about the violence and the language. Some of David’s early responses from networks were, “Oh, did he really have to see a psychiatrist? It makes him look weak,” things like that. It’s like that was exactly the point. This was a human being, and David wanted to explore every aspect of that person, and had he not stuck to his guns and just gone and done it on a network, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.
Green: I had Alan Ball come up to me at a party and say that it had inspired him to do “Six Feet Under.” I don’t remember the exact metaphor that he used, but the chains had been taken off, and it freed his expression up. … I feel a tremendous sense of pride. It was very gratifying experience. I’m proud of the work we did, all of us.
Winter: I could see the landscape of TV changing, when you had shows like “The Shield” and “Breaking Bad” – not just the anti-heroes thing, but things that became more cinematic, just deeper levels of writing. I could proudly point to ‘The Sopranos” as something that David created and that I was involved with, and say, “Wow, we really had an impact on so many other things.” I feel less of it today. I feel certainly there is still a ton of network TV that maybe doesn’t aspire to be anything more than what it is, and that’s totally fine…but you’ve come to expect great TV now from various places, and certainly shows like “The Crown” and “Game of Thrones” are hugely cinematic and incredibly well-written, and just beautiful shows. I don’t know that those could exist without “The Sopranos.”
Imperlioli: “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” were really three big ones that kind of changed the landscape of storytelling, and you had three male leads who were relatively unknown to the public. They were known in the industry, and maybe to other actors, but the public certainly didn’t know, and the three of those people became huge stars. Now, if any of those things were to be pitched to Netflix or HBO or any of those things, I’m sure they’d be packaged with big stars. Ultimately what kind of originated as this movement with actors that were relatively unknown and kind of an anti-Hollywood movement has become very much like the Hollywood studio system. You can’t make a big movie unless you have movie stars, and that’s happening more and more on television.
Burgess: People are still talking about it. It’s still very viable. That was one of the things I asked myself 20 years ago, whether this thing would live. … Somebody told us at HBO once that the Sopranos was like “The Godfather” in the sense that no matter how many times people had seen scenes, when they’d flip through the channels, they stopped on “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather” to watch.
Imperioli: There’s a whole generation of viewers that are watching it for the first time, who were too young to see it when it was on the air because they were kids. Some of them are in the business, some of them are not, some of them are cinephiles and TV-philes, and they’re blown away by it. For a show that’s 20 years old I think says an awful lot, because a lot of stuff that’s that old does not make an impact anymore. That’s kind of blown my mind a little bit.
Chase: It was much more [rewarding] than I thought it ever would be…[but it was about] how me, David Chase, was able to make TV, and I wasn’t really aware that I was changing TV at the time. Since then I’ve been told that it changed TV, but when it was happening, I didn’t feel that way. I knew it was something different. I knew it was something new, and I was glad about that, but I didn’t say to myself, “Gee, you’re changing TV.”