Tue. Feb 27th, 2024
alert-–-the-sopranos-was-a-groundbreaking-work-of-genius…-so-why-does-its-creator-think-it-would-not-be-made-today?-according-to-david-chase-the-golden-age-of-television-is-dead,-writes-brian-vinerAlert – The Sopranos was a groundbreaking work of genius… so why does its creator think it would not be made today? According to David Chase the golden age of television is dead, writes BRIAN VINER

Tony Soprano was a monster. But then he was raised by a monster, his psychotic mother Livia, who once tried to have him killed. Tony himself was a murderer and an accessory to murder many times over.

He was a serial philanderer, to whom violence against women came as naturally as breathing. Maybe easier, given his adenoidal problems. Tony thought nothing of menacing his wife Carmela, or his therapist Dr Jennifer Melfi, or any woman who enraged him.

He was a racist, too, and a homophobe. Yet within his New Jersey crime empire, he was the sensitive one. Most of the men who worked for him were worse.

Tony was also fictional, superbly played by James Gandolfini in arguably the greatest TV drama there has ever been, The Sopranos, which ran for six seasons from 1999 to 2007.

It was the brilliant creation of David Chase, who was himself raised in New Jersey in a working-class Italian-American family originally named DeCesare. 

The Sopranos was a groundbreaking work of genius... so why does its creator think it would not be made today? According to David Chase the golden age of television is dead

The Sopranos was a groundbreaking work of genius… so why does its creator think it would not be made today? According to David Chase the golden age of television is dead

In an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of the first episode, David has declared that his groundbreaking series would not be made today

In an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of the first episode, David has declared that his groundbreaking series would not be made today 

Although we were all used to stories about the Mob from films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, The Sopranos cleverly placed Tony’s personal life at the heart of the story. 

And the show’s sometimes unsettling genius was that the more we got to know him, his ghastly family and his amoral henchmen, the more shocked we were by their behaviour, the more we rooted for them.

But that was then. Now, in an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of the first episode, Chase has declared that his groundbreaking series would not be made today. He adds that the anniversary feels less like a celebration and more like a funeral. The golden age of television drama that was ignited by The Sopranos, he says, is dead.

Without doubt, Tony Soprano paved the way for Bryan Cranston’s chemistry-teacher-turned-drugs-baron Walter White, another mighty anti-hero, in the long-running series Breaking Bad. 

And Breaking Bad in turn spawned Better Call Saul, also a TV classic, with yet another anti-hero in the form of Bob Odenkirk’s scheming, bent lawyer, real name Jimmy McGill.

Succession, the operatic tale of a squabbling media dynasty, which cleaned up in last month’s Emmy awards, also hinges on a thoroughly unpleasant but compelling lead in Logan Roy, the profane autocrat inhabited wonderfully by Brian Cox.

But as Chase sees it, those 25 years of exciting creativity that yielded dark, daring shows, are now over. Chase describes the last quarter-century as ‘a blip’, as the industry returns to where it was in the 1990s, starved of originality and boldness by over-cautious executives.

‘It’s getting worse,’ he laments. ‘We’re getting back to where we were.’

Without doubt, Tony Soprano paved the way for Bryan Cranston's chemistry-teacher-turned-drugs-baron Walter White, another mighty anti-hero, in the long-running series Breaking Bad

Without doubt, Tony Soprano paved the way for Bryan Cranston’s chemistry-teacher-turned-drugs-baron Walter White, another mighty anti-hero, in the long-running series Breaking Bad

Similarly, would Succession, which began as recently as 2018, get commissioned now? Logan Roy (pictured centre) was an unreconstructed bully

Similarly, would Succession, which began as recently as 2018, get commissioned now? Logan Roy (pictured centre) was an unreconstructed bully

He is referring to the years when The Sopranos was turned down by most US networks, before eventually being taken on by the subscription channel HBO, which later commissioned Succession.

‘Back then the networks were in an artistic pit,’ Chase says. ‘In meetings, these people would always ask to take out the one thing that made an episode worth doing. If you think your grandmother is risk-averse, you should meet network people.’

Chase is the godfather, aptly enough, of other acclaimed dramas such as the 1960s advertising-agency saga Mad Men and the period crime drama Boardwalk Empire, created by writers who perfected their craft working for him on The Sopranos. None of them would be commissioned now, he believes.

Sofia Coppola is furious that Apple TV have just pulled the plug on her five-part dramatisation of the 1913 Edith Wharton novel The Custom of the Country

Sofia Coppola is furious that Apple TV have just pulled the plug on her five-part dramatisation of the 1913 Edith Wharton novel The Custom of the Country

lForence Pugh was all set to play the lead until Apple decided that the character was too 'unlikeable'. Coppola could hardly believe it. 'But so was Tony Soprano,' she protested

lForence Pugh was all set to play the lead until Apple decided that the character was too ‘unlikeable’. Coppola could hardly believe it. ‘But so was Tony Soprano,’ she protested

He’s right. And there is yet more evidence from the director Sofia Coppola, furious that Apple TV have just pulled the plug on her five-part dramatisation of the 1913 Edith Wharton novel The Custom of the Country. 

The British star Florence Pugh was all set to play the lead, the social-climbing Undine Spragg, until Apple decided that the character was too ‘unlikeable’. Coppola could hardly believe it. ‘But so was Tony Soprano,’ she protested.

It’s not so much the physical violence in The Sopranos that would stop it getting made today, perhaps not even the violence against women. Oddly, the ‘woke’ agenda can tolerate violence. But racism and homophobia are beyond the pale, no matter how much they might enhance a drama’s authenticity.

In one of The Sopranos’ more startling storylines, Tony and his goons realised that one of their own, although married with kids, was gay. His subsequent murder when eventually they caught up with him was appalling to watch. But the point was that we believed in those vile mobsters because they behaved in character, always. It was the same when Tony’s daughter Meadow brought home an African-American boyfriend. Tony found it hard to stomach. That was shocking but full of truth. It was character-driven writing that showed respect for a grown-up audience.

Keeping advertisers happy, which means increasingly anodyne programming such as Netflix's new four-part series All The Light You Cannot See, set during World War Two

Keeping advertisers happy, which means increasingly anodyne programming such as Netflix’s new four-part series All The Light You Cannot See, set during World War Two 

The same was so of Mad Men, in which the lead, Jon Hamm’s suave ad executive Don Draper, was relentlessly sexist and misogynistic. He also smoked like a chimney, as did everyone else.

Again, that was entirely true to character, and to period. But smoking makes TV executives terribly nervous now. There’s hardly any of it in the new Disney+ series The Artful Dodger – an n-set sequel to Oliver Twist – yet we are solemnly warned at the top of each episode that it contains ‘tobacco depictions’. During the opening credits of Mad Men, by the same measure of nannying, our TVs would have self-combusted.

Similarly, would Succession, which began as recently as 2018, get commissioned now? Logan Roy was an unreconstructed bully. But bullying (especially in the workplace) is these days deemed as horrific as racism and homophobia – and smoking. Today, the writers would surely be asked to tone him down.

So, what is getting commissioned? Well, Netflix, Disney+ and other streaming platforms, reluctant to keep pushing up the price of subscriptions, have started taking advertising. And that means keeping advertisers happy, which in turn means increasingly anodyne programming such as Netflix’s new four-part series All The Light You Cannot See, set during World War Two and starring Hugh Laurie and Mark Ruffalo.

Adapted from Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel by the award-winning Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight (which is a surprise, because it might equally have been written by algorithm), it is handsome enough on the eye, but clunky and cliché-strewn. It is Nazis-by-numbers. Yet that kind of drama is what advertisers love. They are scared stiff of being associated with anything too challenging in case it taints their product.

Audiences, Chase has been told, are too busy playing with their iPhones to knuckle down to anything ‘too complex’.

Despite his formidable experience even he, still writing shows at 78, is told how to go about his craft. ‘We can’t make anything that makes too much sense and requires an audience to focus,’ he says.

The enormous success of The Sopranos, he adds, made the network executives ‘regret all their decades of stupidity and greed’. But now, he thinks, that stupidity and greed, and the same degree of editorial tinkering, is happening again. And that has huge implications for British television.

‘In Britain, terrestrial channels just can’t afford to make high-end dramas,’ says one successful screenwriter who prefers not to be named. ‘They have to take international money, and that brings editorial input. So British writers, making a show set in Britain with an entirely British story, can find themselves getting notes from disembodied voices in LA. The more money that comes from overseas, the more watered-down the British writer’s voice becomes.’

Last month’s roaring success of ITV’s Mr Bates v The Post Office, however, surely suggests that terrestrial dramas can tackle sprawling, complex stories with political punch.

‘That’s true,’ he says. ‘But the thing is, ITV could afford to make that show themselves. And, ironically, it’s often true stories that afford the most creative freedom.’ He explains that executives can’t butt into a production and insist a character be more likeable, because he or she is based on a real person, warts and all.

‘With fiction,’ he says, ‘corporate people without any writing background are more emboldened. They think, ‘Hey, I can shape this character, this story’.’

Fictional drama is duly being undermined by ego-fuelled micro-management. The result, especially on terrestrial TV, once we’ve muscled past the endless reality shows, is more blandly formulaic cop dramas along the lines of ITV’s Vera, or the BBC’s Shetland.

The enormous success of The Sopranos, he adds, made the network executives 'regret all their decades of stupidity and greed'

The enormous success of The Sopranos, he adds, made the network executives ‘regret all their decades of stupidity and greed’

It's certainly significant that two of the greatest British successes over the past couple of decades are ITV's Downton Abbey and Netflix's The Crown (pictured)

It’s certainly significant that two of the greatest British successes over the past couple of decades are ITV’s Downton Abbey and Netflix’s The Crown (pictured)  

According to writer Maurice Gran who, with Laurence Marks, created hit dramas such as Shine On Harvey Moon and Love Hurts: ‘You can count on the fingers of one foot the number of new shows that aren’t about cops or docs, but mostly cops: female cops, gay cops, trans cops, black cops, white cops. We haven’t had alien cops yet but it’s probably only a matter of time’.

For Gran, the recent ‘golden age’ is mostly a US phenomenon. ‘UK writers come from soaps, so do actors, so do directors. I’m not decrying the soaps which are good finishing schools. But it means that in British TV drama, soapy writing rules the roost.’

It’s certainly significant that two of the greatest British successes over the past couple of decades are ITV’s Downton Abbey and Netflix’s The Crown. Both are basically high-class soaps, terrific in their way but without the daring, the unsettling moral contortions, we saw in shows like The Sopranos.

The regrettable but seemingly unstoppable drift towards screen ‘wokeism’ is to blame, which, far from enhancing the quality of story-telling, does the exact opposite.

We haven’t quite got to the point where a bunch of aggressive young Nazi recruits such as the ones in All The Light You Cannot See has to include an ethnic-minority actor in its ranks, but why, in a way, would that be any sillier than black actors playing 18th century dukes or duchesses? Yet that is happening more and more.

I understand and support the impulse to right historic prejudices, but audiences do know when authenticity has been traded for politically-correct sensibilities. 

And the best TV writers, such as David Chase, know that you once you start patronising an audience, eventually the game is up.

error: Content is protected !!