'Sopranos' signoff marks end of era

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When HBO introduced Tony Soprano to audiences in 1999, he was mashing a cigar between his thin lips and gazing intently at a family of ducks that had taken up residence in his swimming pool. That pilot episode saw the patriarch -- swathed in a white robe, with swatches of hair perked up on the sides of his head like ears -- slowly wading into the water, unable to avert his gaze. In this tranquil scene, Soprano was not the mobster who would go on to shoot his friend on a boat then dump the body overboard, cut off his cousin's head or even smother his beloved nephew following a car crash. He was, in his awed and delighted way, just like us.

Both sociopathic killer and troubled human being, Tony (James Gandolfini) has confounded and defined his audience in a way no other character on television has. Both he and the show -- whose Sunday series finale is appropriately titled "Made in America" -- have spent six seasons in a kind of elevated televised consciousness, a place where a show could be written with a literary vision, from a creator who didn't much care for his antihero, then telecast on a network that didn't have to worry about advertisers, focus groups or censors of any stripe. It broke rules, changed and enforced stereotypes and told complex stories.

"('Sopranos') has a novelistic sweep," the Paley Center for Media curator Ron Simon explains. "Each character is defined multidimensionally. Instead of going back to drama's theater roots, as TV did in the 1950s, it employs many of the techniques of, say, Charles Dickens and revitalizes them. This has been an interior journey from the beginning. Viewers took that trip with a bona fide sociopath, defying television's time-honored prohibition against unlikable protagonists. In that regard, (creator/executive producer David Chase) created perhaps the darkest series of all time."

And one of the most seminal -- not just for its content, but for the way it altered the perception of cable television's potential power. In addition to several firsts in the Emmys -- the show; its actors, most notably Emmy and Golden Globe winners Gandolfini and Edie Falco; and writers have all been honored over the years -- "Sopranos" was the first series to break through as both a critical and ratings hit on the medium as executive producer (and current Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO) Brad Grey notes. "It opened a lot of doors that others have gone through," he says.

That the series happened at all was the result of the right creator and the right network connecting at the right time. Chase was a journeyman writer-producer with 20 years in the network trenches. By the time he'd signed with Brillstein-Grey Entertainment in 1995 and was asked to come up with an original series, Chase recalls, "I wanted to do something different, and I didn't care whether it sold or not."

He got what he wanted. After every major network turned down "Sopranos" (the pilot was shot two years before the series went into production), HBO finally bought the show about the put-upon mob boss who goes into therapy and has to wrestle with inner demons.

Despite the difficulties in finding a home for the show, Chase ended up with the ideal outlet for his lofty ambitions, and he was given more or less free reign to develop his vision of the show. Paired with Grey, "Sopranos" was almost an immediate hit.

"'The Sopranos' has been the joy of my career," Grey says. "I believe it's the greatest adult TV show of all time, and it's all due to David's work in creating and nurturing it all the way through. I'm fortunate even to have been able to participate in it in a small way."

The series' success is traceable to its disdain for television convention, Grey says. "There were very few rules other than to try to honor the behavior of these people," he says. "At first, I remember having all of these conversations about what would make someone likable or not likable. They were able to have characters who murder people and make them likable, which defied all kinds of television rules. 'The Sopranos' had a historic sort of creative freedom to explore real motivation."

All of that dark motivation has been good for HBO's bottom line. Although the network keeps specific revenue figures confidential, it's fair to say that "Sopranos" helped pad HBO's subscriber base while simultaneously elevating its status as a premium-quality network.

It also helped launch the network's reputation as a destination for talent looking for cutting-edge original series work. "It said, 'Hey, we're here. We're open for business," HBO entertainment president Carolyn Strauss says. "We can help you achieve what you want creatively."

Adds Chase, "I think it legitimized the business model (insofar as) somebody actually made a lot of money off of it."

Helping contribute to the profit was HBO's decision to release Season 1 on DVD in December 2000, just before Season 2 debuted on the network -- a strategy that other networks have unashamedly mimicked in order to build momentum for new season premieres. Incidentally, "The Sopranos: The Complete First Season" remains in Amazon's top 100 best-selling DVDs and currently retails for $39.99.

"That's where the show really broke out," recalls executive producer Ilene Landress. "Now, everybody's back catalog is on DVD, but when we first came out, it was pretty revolutionary."

The success on DVD also was noteworthy because HBO wasn't certain how the profane, violent show would fare in syndication. But in early 2005, A&E decided it would find out, snagging rights at a reported $2.5 million per episode. This January, the show premiered as the most-watched off-network series debut in cable history.

According to A&E Network executive vp and GM Robert DeBitetto, "Sopranos" -- combined with the net's purchase of CBS' "CSI: Miami" reruns -- has lifted A&E from the top 20 to the top five of cable nets. More importantly, he says, "'The Sopranos' sells at a significant premium compared to our primetime CPM. Maybe 60% above. It is our most-coveted inventory on the network."

What will linger long after the financials have faded, however, is the show's legacy. According to Strauss, "It's opened the doors for us to have all kinds of great storytellers and great characters," but she stops short of giving the show credit for later complex HBO dramas such as "Deadwood," "The Wire" or "Rome."

However, there's no doubt that "The Sopranos" has pushed TV drama forward. "We were in awe of it," says executive producer Matthew Weiner (who joined the series in 2004) of the shop talk among his fellow screen scribes. "Creative people would say, 'Look, here is this incredibly profound, entertaining show that's very thoughtful and is making a ton of money. Please, someone recognize that.'"

Yet few of the inevitable imitations have achieved the level of success that "Sopranos" maintained throughout its run. The early part of the millennium brought a tidal wave of pilot pitches that somehow tried to riff on the series, but few if any lived past a season (though Showtime's "Brotherhood" is now in its second). The concept of anchoring a show around an anti-hero has had better luck, particularly in the form of Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey on FX Network's "The Shield," Denis Leary's bad-boy fireman Tommy Gavin on that network's "Rescue Me" and, to a lesser extent, Hugh Laurie's eponymous crank on Fox's medical drama "House."

Notes "Sopranos" executive producer Terence Winter, "I remember watching the pilot of 'The Shield' (where) Chiklis turns around and blows a hole in the head of another cop, and I remember thinking you could absolutely trace that type of thing right back to 'The Sopranos.'"

"What 'The Sopranos' passed on to everybody is storytelling that's ambiguous, sometimes intentionally," adds Weiner, citing its "unadulterated view with little interference from noncreative people."

Winter says nonpremium networks just can't compete when faced with the red-tape bureaucracy of standards and practices and notes and advertiser concerns, most of which go a long way toward preventing broadcast TV from inheriting "Sopranos' " creative genes.

"The networks will claim that they want to do something like 'The Sopranos,'" Winter says. "(But) they think it's about violence and quirky-looking characters for quirkiness' sake." In addition to sheer wrongheadedness, he adds: "They live in fear of offending anybody. If one guy writes in and says, 'I'm never going to buy Ivory soap again because you had a joke in your show about albinos and I'm an albino,' you will get a memo the next day: 'No more albino jokes.' They don't have the courage of their convictions."

If nothing else, "Sopranos" has been a lesson in the ways television can be done right and better than before. Although the series ends "elegantly and probably exactly the way it should," Grey says, he doesn't close the door on the idea that it could re-emerge as a feature film.

That won't happen anytime soon, most likely. Tony might get out of the pool with the ducks, but the waters will take time to recede. "It's going to take a few years' separation from this series, a chance to really think about its impact," Simon explains. "That's the one thing about perfection. It sort of brings things to a close."

-- Additional reporting by Ray Richmond
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