Monday, June 11, 2007


Changing television and careers

By Edward Copeland
It's a shame that Martin Scorsese already used Sid Vicious' rendition of "My Way" to close Goodfellas, because that may well have been the best possible song to bring to an end to a series that truly changed the face of television. Was The Sopranos truly the greatest dramatic series in the history of television? Who's to say? After all, television history is far from done yet.

On top of that, at times, other HBO series such as Deadwood and The Wire managed to exceed the greatness of The Sopranos. One thing is for certain though: Those later series and some of the great work offered elsewhere, such as on FX, owe a gigantic debt to David Chase's masterpiece. It broke barriers, raised the bar for excellence and in some ways made the case that we are living in an era when television produces the best creative works more often that films. It wasn't just the freedom of language, violence or sex that HBO could offer either that made The Sopranos a landmark: It was what lay beneath the surface of its story. 85 episodes into its run, it still had the ability to take viewers completely by surprise with developments, something lesser series have trouble doing in their first season, let alone more than eight years after they've begun.

I have to wonder if Chase upped this final batch of episodes from eight to nine so the finale, "Made in America," could be the series' 86th episode. (Get it — the show is getting eighty-sixed.) There has been an good amount of coverage leading to the series conclusion, but the television universe has changed in other ways. Granted, The Sopranos' audience always was limited by those willing to get HBO or see it some other way, so its ratings could never approach network numbers, but network numbers ain't what they used to be either. Look at the huge numbers that the final episode of M*A*S*H garnered back in 1982, when the cable universe was a much smaller one and the three networks (Yes, there was a time when there were only three commercial networks) still dominated. M*A*S*H had 105.9 million viewers, or 60.2% of all TV viewers, for its final episode. When the next truly big finish arrived in the way of Cheers. the total had dropped to 80.4 million. When Seinfeld called it quits, it only attracted 76.3 million viewers. The final Friends dipped even further, with a measly 52.5 million watching at home. In fact, when you look at the list of all-time highest rated prime time shows, though M*A*S*H still tops the list, Cheers' finale didn't even crack the top 20, a list dominated by Super Bowls, which hold 10 of the 20 spots. The most recent broadcast to even make the top 20 was Super Bowl XXX (Dallas vs. Pittsburgh) back in 1996, three years before The Sopranos even premiered.

One key to the addictive quality of The Sopranos, and indeed most other series that become phenomenons, is that deep down they are that most maligned of television forms: soap opera. Actually, more accurately, serialized dramas. It seems as if it took American prime time television an extremely long time to realize that they thing they could do what movies couldn't and keep audiences through the use of continuing stories. The miniseries of the 1970s probably clued them in. Rich Man, Poor Man begat Dallas begat Hill Street Blues begat thirtysomething begat Twin Peaks begat NYPD Blue begat The Sopranos begat The Shield begat Deadwood begat Lost. Some series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files actually merged the two forms, alternating standalone episodes with continuing episodes (and The X-Files seemed to be an exception to me where many of the standalones were much better than the mythology/conspiracy ones). The permutations are limited only by imagination: Look how so many sitcoms eventually began ending in cliffhangers. Any of the myriad criminal procedurals such as CSI: Law & Order or whatnot can be well made and well acted, but they will never have the magnetic hold on an audience that series that don't wrap their stories at the end of an episode do.

Once again, HBO must deserve the credit since it makes its living from subscriptions, not ratings, it has been able to allow its series to take chances the network wouldn't dare. While the networks still fall back too often on pursuing the lowest common denominator, HBO and other cable networks can actually pursue the highest. With the fractured TV audience that now exists, why should the lowest common denominator even be attractive? There are a lot more of us discerning viewers out there than ever before. Just imagine if Twin Peaks had been on HBO instead of ABC. Really, pay cable is where a great series such as Twin Peaks belonged.

The lasting influence of The Sopranos, one can hope, doesn't just apply to television but to its amazing ensemble of actors as well. The two best known actors when the series began (the late Marchand and Lorraine Bracco) were hardly household names despite their success in Lou Grant and the film Goodfellas respectively, but The Sopranos really allowed them to shine and, in the case of Marchand, gave her a great career capper of a role in Livia Soprano. She may have won four Emmys as Mrs. Pynchon on Lou Grant, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an outrage when she lost the Emmy for playing Livia, especially for her peerless work in Season 1.

The other actors weren't known nearly as well. Before James Gandolfini created a character akin in terms of impact on television history with Carroll O'Connor's extraordinary work as Archie Bunker on All in the Family, he was often the best thing in lesser mediocre or worse movies such as True Romance, Angie and The Juror. Unfortunately, that same pattern has continued since Tony Soprano as well, where Gandolfini has given interesting and great performances in movies not equal to his talent such as The Mexican, The Man Who Wasn't There and The Last Castle. Hopefully, he'll finally get more roles deserving of his gifts.

Edie Falco quietly made a mark in supporting roles on series such as Oz and guest appearances on shows such as Homicide: Life on the Street before Carmela Soprano came into her life. Since then, she's landed at least one good screen role in John Sayles' Sunshine State. Let's hope better is even yet to come her way. Michael Imperioli was best known as Spider, the waiter ultimately killed by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas until he made his indelible impression as Christopher Moltisanti. I'm curious to see where his career, which has included writing the screenplay for Spike Lee's Summer of Sam and a theater company, goes next.

Other actors who'd been kicking around long time finally got noticed with their work on The Sopranos. Few recognized Dominic Chianese from his role in The Godfather Part II until Uncle Junior came into being. Joe Pantoliano had had many memorable roles ranging from Guido the pimp in Risky Business to one of Tommy Lee Jones' associates in The Fugitive and the bail bondsman in Midnight Run before TV gave him what I think is his greatest work yet as Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos. Frank Vincent seemed to be making a career out of getting beaten up or killed by Joe Pesci until the vindictive Phil Leotardo came his way.

Others, such as Tony Sirico, Vincent Curatola, Vincent Pastore and Steven Schirippa were hardly known as all until The Sopranos came along. Drea De Matteo was an unknown as well until Adriana changed her career and landed her a role on the Friends spinoff Joey.
“They killed me on HBO, and then I went to NBC to commit complete suicide.”
Drea De Matteo

Of course, it wasn't acting that made Steven Van Zandt well known. I'm curious to see if, now that the series is over, Van Zandt will return exclusively to the concert stage and another kind of boss.

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I think the characters, especially Tony, are more likely to stand the test of than the series itself. Archie Bunker was a great creation, but he eventually got destroyed once Mike and Gloria left, Edith died and he turned into a bar sitcom.
I do have to concur with you about one thing: Television does seem to produce a lot more quality product these days than movies are capable of.
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