Two decades after it first aired, everyone—from critics to the cast to fans—is still talking about The Sopranos. From the cut-to-black ending to its instantly quotable lines, the show that followed the life of a mafia boss from New Jersey has spawned countless imitators over the years and has influenced almost every award-winning television drama since.
Television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz had front-row seats to the action at The Star-Ledger (aka the actual paper Tony Soprano picked up at the end of his driveway each morning), both writing about the series for the paper while it was still on. By the time the series wrapped up, the paper and show were so intertwined that Sepinwall was the only reporter who got an interview with creator David Chase after the series finale aired.
The two critics—Sepinwall now writes for Rolling Stone and Seitz is the TV critic at New York Magazine and an editor at RogerEbert.com—have published a book, The Sopranos Sessions, in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary. It includes essays on all 86 episodes, past writings from columns and interviews the critics did at The Star-Ledger, musings on the ending, and transcripts from eight (yes, eight!) conversations they had with David Chase.
We caught up with Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz to talk about the impact The Sopranos made on television, David Chase’s original ideas for the ending, and why the show still makes people argue after all these years.
Men’s Journal: Did anything surprise you when you watched the show again 20 years later?
Alan Sepinwall: For me, I think it was James Gandolfini. It’s an odd thing to say because he was the star of the show and was incredible in it, but I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it was to watch some of the really emotional scenes knowing he’s not here any more. You have this TV Mount Rushmore with Gandolfini, Bryan Cranston, and Jon Hamm, and you kind of think they’re all equal, but no—Gandolfini’s the best dramatic actor TV’s ever seen. It’s just stunning to watch him work. It’s just stunning to watch him work, especially knowing everything that’s coming and you can just focus on his performance and not guess what’s coming next week.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Something that jumped out to me was how consistent the show was from start to finish as a social satire and a commentary on American life. Literally from the very beginning in the “Pilot” episode when Tony says “I’ve been getting the feeling that I came in at the end, that the best is over,” they followed that idea through all the way to the final episodes. Tony describes himself as a “waste-management consultant.” He’s a guy who can’t stop eating, because he’s gluttonous; he’s a man of absolutely no restraints. David Chase was onto something about America overall with the sense we’re almost unable to stop ourselves from destroying what we’ve got. You get to the end of the series, and it’s cathartic in a way. There are so many ways to interpret that ending. It’s like the show itself had a heart attack and keeled over right then.
In the book, David Chase discusses other ideas he had for the end of the series, even mentioning the words “death scene” at one point. Did you gain any clarity on the actual ending in your conversations?
Seitz: The “death scene” he was talking about was not the scene at the diner in the finale. People on the internet have run wild with that quote, but when Chase referred to that scene, he was referring to this big idea of a different ending he came up with before they started shooting Season 5. The idea was that Tony goes into the Lincoln Tunnel in his SUV for a meeting with Johnny Sack—a sort of mirror to the opening credits—and there’s a white light at the end of the tunnel. The implication was that Tony didn’t come back from that meeting. He told us himself he moved away from that before the end of the series, and there are certain people who don’t want to believe him. Just to be sure, we asked him point blank: “Are you saying that Tony died at the end of the diner scene?” But he refused to answer that question and we noted it in brackets in the book.
Sepinwall: What I love about the moment Chase says the words “death scene” is we weren’t expecting to discuss the ending in that interview. We weren’t trying to “gotcha” him at all. We talked for another 45 minutes, but I actually felt like we came out of that with even less clarity about what actually happens in the final scene. We understood what he intended, but I still think there’s no definitive answer as to what happened regarding Tony dying or not. People are still going to debate.
How did you narrow down episodes for your Top 10 list?
Seitz: I wanted my Top 10 list to represent the breadth of the types of episodes the show did. Sometimes you get an all-things-to-all-people episode, like “Pine Barrens” or “White Knight in Satin Armor”, but other times you get these odd little episodes like “Soprano Home Movies,” which is kind of like a two-character play, or one like “Whitecaps,” which Alan wrote about so beautifully. Only a handful of shows have ever equaled The Sopranos in this regard: That sense of excitement when you hear those opening credits and you don’t know what you’re in for.
MJ: I enjoyed your list for that exact reason. Most people don’t have “The Test Dream” as a favorite episode, because at the time it probably frustrated them so much.
Seitz: It’s a great episode. It’s a toss-up between that and “Fun House” as the best dream episode. I like that one because I feel like it’s the final culmination of ‘Tony the Dreamer’. I put “Marco Polo” on the list because one of the things the writers were great at were these Robert Altman-style episodes where the entire community of the series comes together around an event—a wedding, a funeral, a backyard barbecue. It’s hard to choose the best episode especially on a show like that where they really did go the extra mile to try to do different kinds of episodes. We have 20 years distance from the premiere now. People tend to forget that even people who watched the show every week often were not happy with the show. They were not happy that they were spending so much time on Tony’s relationship with Carmela, Meadow, and AJ, and on Tony and psychotherapy with Melfi, and in the world of Tony’s subconscious, as well as other characters’ dream sequences. Just the sort of ordinary boring, kind of tedious dithering over money and who gets paid this and that—a lot of people were like “just whack somebody.”
Sepinwall: That was the amazing thing about the show: It was beloved because it could be so many things, but it was also divisive for the same reason. Certain people were watching two different versions of the same show, and many only wanted that “mob-heavy, action” one. In my Top 10 list, I tried, like Matt, to cover the breadth of the series. There was also a sense that there were certain episodes I couldn’t possibly leave off. I remember when the show ended, I did the Top 10 episodes list for The Star-Ledger and I was young and cocky enough to think, “I’m not going to put ‘Pine Barrens’ on the list.” What kind of an idiot was I back then? That episode is just too good, so obviously “Pine Barrens” is low on my list—and rightly so.
Seitz: Now and then I get people complaining on Twitter about how all these lists have “Pine Barrens” and “College” on the list. And it’s like, yeah, but leaving it off would be like doing a list of the best Beatles albums and leaving off “Rubber Soul” and “Abbey Road”. What can you do but list it. I also remember when we got to the final stretch of episodes of The Sopranos, part of the suspense and frustration for viewers: “I can’t believe we only have four or five episodes left and they’re telling this story?” People got angry about why people weren’t being whacked left and right. Why are we spending time on A.J. and his depression? They didn’t understand it—but I love that because the show is just basically not taking any orders from the audience and is doing whatever the hell it wants. The Leftovers did that too. There are a number of beautifully shaped stories that were just concentrated on a single character and they weren’t necessarily explaining the nature of the of the Rapture or anything.
Looking back 20 years later, how did The Sopranos impact television?
Seitz: It broke down a lot of barriers, including the one separating television from things like movies and French cinema. It encouraged critics like Alan and myself to talk about television in a more sophisticated way—to talk about the aesthetics, ideas, and themes—and not just what happened each week and who it happened to. And even though the show is dated—the clothes, cars, and phones—you’re not thinking about how much has changed. Mostly you’re just thinking about what’s happening to the characters, and that’s how you know it was built to last.
Sepinwall: The perception of television has changed in a major way over this era, and The Sopranos is a huge part of that. It opened the door to shows like The Wire, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, and many more.
What performances stood out to you in a different way this time around?
Sepinwall: I really liked Lorraine Bracco more this time around. A lot of the time you watch her, and she can seem kind of stiff. I used to read that as ‘Oh, Lorraine isn’t good at this particular dialogue,’ but no, it’s that Melfi’s uncomfortable dealing with Tony. She interacts with him in different modes—sometimes she’s completely at ease and confident, and other times she’s just barely struggling to hold it in. That was much more apparent this time around. I thought she was wonderful.
Seitz: I was going to mention her as well. For a minor character, Joe Gannascoli as Vito. I liked him way better this time. That whole batch of episodes is about the inability to escape that way of life. Vito is doubly trapped because he’s in the mafia and he’s also a gay man passing for straight. When they send him out to New Hampshire, it’s like Vito’s equivalent of Tony being trapped in coma-land and he’s in this alternate version of reality. And then he has to return to the life he can’t escape from.
There are a bunch of little subplots that people used to complain about because they were taking time away from Tony and Carmela and so on, but I like those little detours and particularly when they gave it to one character, or when they’d bring in a character you never saw before and give them an episode. It bugged people sometimes too, but in retrospect stuff like Bobby Bacala’s father coming in to whack Mustang Sally and he’s coughing the entire time, what a crazy and memorable character. Another great supporting character that I think is great is Caitlin from “University”, played by Ari Graynor. She’s a terrific actress, and that character almost stands in for a section of the audience that could never stand watching The Sopranos. She’s so horrified by the things in The Sopranos that we’re all used to. She really performs it in a way that makes the audience take stock in themselves.
MJ: Were there any episodes that you appreciated more or saw in a different way many years later?
Sepinwall: For me, there were a bunch in Season 4, which was the first season I covered regularly at the newspaper before Matt handed it over to me. At the time I thought, “Oh great, the show is now boring and I have to make something out of it,” because a lot of people don’t see this season as a favorite. It’s different watching now when you know where the plot was going to go and not trying to predict what the show would be. I definitely had a greater appreciation of things like the Carmela and Furio storyline, and it not going anywhere. Because now you know where things are going and you watch it and see it’s explicitly about the fact that the relationship doesn’t go anywhere. It’s priming her to feel so disappointed and so exasperated with Tony that she will then blow up at him in the way that she does in “Whitecaps” at the end of the season. A lot of material played so much better than me this time than back then.
Seitz: Overall the frame around that relationship for Carmela is her taste in movies and fiction. You look back, even in an episode like “College” even way back in Season 1, she and Father Phil are talking about The Remains of the Day, and and by the time you get to Season 5 and she’s separated from Tony, when she’s having a fling with Mr. Wegler, the David Strathairn character, they’re talking about “Madame Bovary” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” So in a way, the thing that happens with Furio is the New Jersey mob housewife version of something that would happen in one of these books and movies.
What was it like working for Tony Soprano’s hometown newspaper while the show was on?
Sepinwall: It was a strange time because of how the paper and the show got so linked. Coincidentally, our editor at the time had gone to college with James Gandolfini at Rutgers, and he was the one who actually put the dent in his forehead [laughs]. They were playing with dart guns and our editor knocked a door into Gandolfini’s head, then had to take him to the emergency room to get it stitched up. We had that connection. In a way, it felt like if you were covering the Beatles for the local Liverpool paper or something like that.
Seitz: Because we lived and worked in the area, we responded to show differently than people who weren’t familiar with it. Like if you grew up somewhere across the country, you could just take the show’s word for it that things were right and happening in the places they were happening, but they’re actually pretty accurate about the details of New Jersey.