How ‘The Sopranos’ defied the odds — and the rules of TV — to become a hit

In 1999, during its first season on HBO, “The Sopranos” was the biggest TV show in the world.

It didn’t have the largest audience — its ratings were still dwarfed by network hits like “ER” and “Friends” —but it had cultural cachet.

The dark, sometimes comic tale of a mob boss from New Jersey was omnipresent, discussed and debated everywhere from The New York Times to the “Tonight Show to every water cooler in the country.

It was so critically beloved that during its first year, “Saturday Night Live” didn’t parody the show itself but the review.

“The Sopranos will one day replace oxygen as the thing we breathe in order to stay alive,” read a fake critical assessment.

But the series at the forefront of a golden age in television was chaos behind the scenes, with a depressed, vindictive creator; an alcoholic leading man with self-esteem issues; and a struggling cable company that invested its future in a show about, as star James Gandolfini once described it, “a bunch of fat guys from Jersey.”

Nobody involved in “The Sopranos,” from creator David Chase to any of the actors, thought it would survive.

“It just violated too many do’s and don’ts, even for pay cable,” writes Peter Biskind in his new book, “Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV”

“It just violated too many do’s and don’ts, even for pay cable,” writes Peter Biskind in his new book, “Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV” (William Morrow).

Chris Albrecht, the former chairman and CEO of HBO, once put it after watching the pilot, “A gangster with existential crises wading in the pool with ducks? Not the most obvious thing for HBO to make their big bet on.”

The success of “The Sopranos” really came down to one man: David Chase, who was already in his mid-50s when the series premiered. In middle age, he was determined “to write a script in which the material wasn’t pre-chewed for viewers,” writes Biskind.

HBO, whose biggest hit at the time was the late-night prison drama Oz, was willing to take a gamble on “The Sopranos.”

As Chase explained to the author, “On network, everybody says exactly what they’re thinking at all times. I wanted my characters to be telling lies.” He also didn’t want “huggable moments,” where characters learned something before the end of each episode. And above all, he didn’t want it to resemble anything else on TV. “I wanted to make a little movie every week,” he says in the book. Chase’s disdain for mainstream TV was apparent. “There are things in “The Sopranos” that are just ‘f–k you’s’ to network TV,” former staff writer Matthew Weiner tells Biskind.

A native of Clifton, NJ, Chase grew up in an abusive household — his mother once threatened to blind him with a fork because he wanted a Hammond organ — and struggled with depression. When asked if he ever contemplated suicide as a teen, Chase answered, “Well, doesn’t everybody?” 

His dark thoughts only got worse when he graduated from Stanford and moved to Hollywood in the ’70s with dreams of writing feature films like his idol Federico Fellini. Instead, he ended up in TV, a medium he despised, writing formulaic scripts for shows like “The Rockford Files.”

Tee character A.J. Soprano’s struggle with depression echoes creator David Chase’s own history of thoughts of suicide.

He developed a “reputation for being too dark,” according to Chase.

Larry Konner, a “Sopranos” writer and long-time friend of the writer-producer, says Chase became known in the TV industry as a “good writer, but what’s going on in his brain, we don’t want to be part of.”

Chase felt as out of step with the Hollywood mainstream as they did with him.

He recalls watching the Julia Roberts movie “Pretty Woman” during a cross-country flight and being confused by the delighted reactions from other passengers.

“It wasn’t funny to me; it wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t anything,” Chase tells Biskind. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I just open the door (of the plane) and jump out?’”

It was his lawyer, Lloyd Braun — who in the ‘90s became an executive at management company Brillstein-Grey—who first told Chase, “We believe you have a great television series in you.”

Chase wasn’t thrilled with the idea. “My response in my head was, I don’t give a f–k — I hate television.”

“The heart of the show is the casual violence, murder, and betrayal folded into the humdrum routines of family life,” writes Biskind.

When he developed the pilot script for “The Sopranos,” his managers at Brillstein-Grey steered him towards the networks, where the real money was.

But Chase’s no-compromises vision went against everything the networks wanted from a drama series.

But, HBO, whose biggest hit at the time was the late-night prison drama Oz, was willing to take a gamble.

They, too, were looking for that blueprint, the thing that’d set them apart from the network behemoths. 

In the beginning, nobody had much faith that the show would make it past a pilot, even Chase.

He was “so sure it would never see the light of day that he was having conversations with the “X-Files” folks (about a writing job),” writes Biskind.

Despite an uncertain future, HBO was willing to gamble on The Sopranos as it was looking for a new show to set them apart.

When writers Robin Green and Mitch Burgess left “Party of Five” to join “The Sopranos” crew, their former employer just scoffed. “To them, HBO was not network. It was failureland,” Green says in the book.

The first season of “The Sopranos” had all the elements that would’ve gotten toned down or outright banned from a network.

It’s “all about depression, cancer, and death,” writes Biskind. “The heart of the show is the casual violence, murder, and betrayal folded into the humdrum routines of family life — Tony and Carmela Soprano driving their kids to school, going shopping, attending weddings and funerals. In other words, gangsters ’r’ us. Scarface meets Ozzie and Harriet.”

In a fun twist, Tony Soprano had a therapist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
Anthony Neste/HBO

“The Sopranos” writers’ room became like group therapy, according to former staff writer Joel Soloway — who went on to create the Emmy-winning series “Transparent” for Amazon Prime.

Writers were “urged to draw on their own experiences, (and) all sorts of things would come out,” Soloway remembers. “Someone would say, ‘I went out with this guy last night.’ ‘Tell us, tell us! Feed the machine, feed the machine!’ the writers would chant, pounding the table.”

Chase’s own life wasn’t spared from becoming fodder for material.

Tony’s mother, Livia, was an almost exact clone of Chase’s mother, a passive-aggressive woman who “wouldn’t answer the telephone after dark, wouldn’t drive in the rain,” writes Biskind.

Tony’s mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand, above), was an almost exact clone of Chase’s mother, a passive-aggressive woman who “wouldn’t answer the telephone after dark, wouldn’t drive in the rain,” writes Biskind.
Anthony Neste/HBO

Despite the dark subject matter, the show was as close to a primetime hit as HBO had.

The cable network was pleased enough that they gave Chase free reign, only censoring them once when the script called for Tony to murder a “rat,” long disappeared in the witness relocation program, that he stumbled across while taking his daughter on a college tour.

“I thought, ‘If this guy really is a mobster, c’mon, he’s gotta kill somebody,’” Chase recalled.

But HBO wasn’t keen on their leading man, the face of the network at that point, being depicted as a cold-blooded murderer in just the first season.

Even the mob had strong opinions about what Tony should and shouldn’t do.

After one episode aired, in which Tony is shown wearing shorts at a cookout, Gandolfini received a phone call late at night. “A don doesn’t wear shorts,” a gruff voice told him before hanging up.

One of the show’s most controversial episodes, “College,” had Tony strangling a rat while on a college tour with his daughter.

The more popular the series got — winning Emmys and Golden Globes, and becoming the first “event” TV show not aired by a network — the angrier Chase became.

“What was driving the show, and driving David, is that he doesn’t like the world as he finds it, and he certainly doesn’t like the world of television,” says Konner.

With the pressure higher than ever to top himself, Chase tormented his crew and writing staff.

“He demonized people,” says Green. “The objects of his hatred would change — the wardrobe person, the casting director, his secretary. And then he would go back on his Prozac.” 

Ironically, the success of The Sopranos aggravated the show’s creator, David Chase, who allegedly took his aggression out on the crew.
©HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Once he was anointed a genius, instead of feeling, ‘OK, I can relax,’ his anxiety ballooned,” explains “Sopranos” director Allen Coulter in the book. “How do I follow on the heels of this massive success? How do I be brilliant again?”

Chase wasn’t the only one who seemed to grow more miserable with each new accolade.

Gandolfini “had alcohol and drug problems,” writes Biskind. “He often disappeared for days at a time, holding up production.”

The more he was celebrated and awarded for his work on the show, the deeper in despair he sank.

After negotiating for a huge salary hike towards the end of season four, he sank deeper into melancholy.

“He didn’t like who he was,” David Chase (far right) said of troubled star James Gandolfini (third from left).

“If you’re filled with self-loathing, and find that you’re going to make a ton of money, you feel you don’t deserve, it just adds fuel to the self-destructive fire,” says Coulter.

Chase puts it more succinctly, “He didn’t like who he was.”

Neither did the big-three networks, who saw in “The Sopranos” a death knell for their mainstream dominance.

During the show’s third season, NBC’s president Robert Wright sent tapes to industry insiders with scenes from “The Sopranos” featuring Ralphie Cifaretto (played by Joey Pants) beating his pregnant mistress to death. Chase felt that Wright “was virtually inviting the FCC to try to censor his show,” writes Biskind. 

Drea De Matteo’s Adriana provided the show with some humor and beauty — until she became an informant and was killed in a hit.

“It was an attack,” Chase told the author. “There was a lot of envy that we had freedom, while they were crippled by Standards and Practices.”

Attack or not, it didn’t work.

The show was more than just a wildly popular series that made millions for everyone involved.

It changed the entire landscape of TV as we know it, moving the goalposts of what was possible on the small screen. 

“For HBO, “The Sopranos” had become what “Pulp Fiction” had been for Miramax, a magnet for talent,” writes Biskind.

Writers, directors, and actors who once insisted they would only work in feature films flocked to HBO.

“’The Sopranos’ was the hammer that broke the glass ceiling for us,” says the network’s former CEO Albrecht, often cited as the architect of HBO’s golden age.

Approximately 18 million of HBO’s 29 million subscribers watched the final episode of “The Sopranos during the summer of 2007, which was (at the time) an unprecedented audience for cable.

But many viewers were less than satisfied with the ending — a dramatic cut to black while Tony and Carmela were at a diner, soundtracked by Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” which for them felt anticlimatic and ambiguous.

One very disgruntled viewer told The Post at the time that Chase “should be shot — what a disgrace!”

But true fans shouldn’t have been surprised, writes Biskind.

Chase “had always refused to spoon-feed his audience. His anti-network instincts dictated restraint. He disliked the contrived drama of broadcast TV, the big climaxes, the dramatic go-to-commercial cliff-hangers, the overexplicitness lest viewers experience a moment of confusion.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t love him in some way, don’t tell me you’re not on his side in some way,” Chase says of Tony Soprano.

Chase was apparently shocked that audiences wanted Tony to end the series by getting whacked, or at least punished in some way.

“They wanted to see him go facedown in linguini, you know?” he says. “And I just thought, ‘God, you watched this guy for seven years and I know he’s a criminal. But don’t tell me you don’t love him in some way, don’t tell me you’re not on his side in some way. And now you want to see him killed?”

Chase, who in recent years has said that the cut to black meant Tony was killed, was annoyed by their bloodlust, just as he was annoyed by their adoration.

“He felt that the critics turned on him like a pack of wolves because Hollywood taught its audience to demand closure on everything, no matter how minor, leaving no place for mystery,” writes Biskind.

Ultimately, “The Sopranos” ended much like it began, by defying everything we’d come to expect from a television show.

This article was originally posted here