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The Sopranos Returns

I am so excited to see The Many Saints of Newark. And I’m happy I can see it at home. With unvaccinated children at home, we’re not taking any chances. Also, I can barely wear a mask for two minutes, let alone two hours. (Nothing ideological, just comfort.)

Like most of us, I love The Sopranos and hold it atop the pantheon of TV shows. I would probably call it the best show ever made. Certainly it has been the most influential of the past 20 years. (My other tops: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire. Typical choices.)

I actually turned off the pilot The Sopranos halfway through when I first saw it in January 1999. It wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be a Goodfellas-like story of mob whackings, and instead it was this neorealistic, Jersey domestic drama about the family and the ducks and the fainting. The mob relationships and operations seemed pretty byzantine to decipher and far from immediately satisfying. (I also turned off the West Wing pilot that year, expecting it to be out in the world more, not just guys at the White House discussing the world. Wrong!)

I came back to The Sopranos with episode 5, “College.” (Tony kills a rat in witness protection while in Maine looking at colleges with his daughter.) I was like, okay, now I get it. (Clip above.)

My dad later told me he saw an episode of The Sopranos and found it off-putting and distasteful. And it was this episode! But my dad doesn’t like violence in movies. We saw Fight Club together and he was almost speechless in revulsion. “Why would anybody make that movie...?” My dad is hardly a square, or a right-winger—he is a classic liberal—it’s just not to his taste.

I won’t bother to wax nostalgic about the genius of The Sopranos. I’m sure many people can do it better than I can—and have already done so.

I love David Chase. I love his work. I love that he’s a surly old crank who won’t give an inch to anybody. He knew that people watched his show for the whackings—and consistently, actively frustrated their expectations. I love the show’s cut-to-black ending. I liked his 2012 feature, Not Fade Away, which I thought people unfairly used as a punching bag.

I only thing I found mildly annoying in The Sopranos were the occasional extended dream sequences. But even then, how can you ever forget, “You’re Annette Benning”?

At the end of its first season—summer 1999—there was a panel on The Sopranos at the Writers Guild Theater on Doheny in Beverly Hills. I went and it was pretty remarkable—because this was the moment when the cast and crew realized they were part of a pop phenomenon. (I think this is the panel discussion.)

As far as I can recall, the entire principal cast was there. James Gandolfini wore a suit and tie and if he could have chewed off his arm to escape, I believe he would have. He seemed very shy and insecure and gave terse answers to questions—it didn’t seem like he was trying to be difficult, just that he was overwhelmed by the attention and deeply uncomfortable.

I spoke briefly to Edie Falco in the reception area, who was all smiles, and remember thinking, this woman has the hugest blue eyes I have ever seen.

Nancy Marchand was there, and it was clear she was ill—it wasn’t a secret—but she was witty and hilarious. I didn’t realize she wasn’t Italian—she was previously best-known for playing stuffy wasps. That’s her as the mayor in The Naked Gun, suffering Drebin’s antics!

After the panel, I asked Lorraine Bracco—who had her hair pulled back, and seemed so much hipper and animated than her character—about her coiffed hairdo as Dr. Melfi and she gladly took credit for it, wanting the character to seem timid and straining for formality.

It was a magical evening and it was quite clear that this was the moment when all of us, who loved the show, and all of them—the folks who made the show—together realized it was something way bigger than we knew.

Bless them all for such fabulous, lasting work.

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