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Mob Rules 

David Chase on The Sopranos, the small screen, and rock & roll

Wednesday, Mar 14 2001
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Two years ago this January, The Sopranos debuted, and in the space of its first 13-week season changed television, shifting the medium’s center of gravity -- of gravitas -- to premium cable, and specifically to HBO, which has come to look like the Grove Press of TV: an encouraging home to unconventional expressions of humankind, or expressions of unconventional humankind. The story (as you must know by now) of a North New Jersey mob boss trying to keep his footing at home and at work, it made most other shows, which largely recycle and recombine proven old forms without actually being about anything, look eminently disposable, and pointed up the degree to which the industry has become, well, industrial. The New York Times called it ”the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.“ If Oz, Tom Fontana‘s prison drama, which preceded it on HBO by two years, is more than its match in terms of graphic violence, language, sexual frankness and moral ambiguity -- in making one care about characters one should by all rights disdain -- The Sopranos has the popular advantage of seeming to be about us: a family drama, and frequently a comedy, in which one roots for Tony Soprano not only to survive his enemies, on either side of the law, but to improve personally, to get himself together as a husband and father and leader of men. It is, for all the murder and mayhem it purveys, essentially tenderhearted. The opening episodes of its third season, which began March 4, drew 11 million viewers, many of whom, it may safely be assumed, subscribed to the network specifically for The Sopranos; it is cable’s most-watched original series and possibly the most talked-about, and critically revered, drama on all of television.

David Chase created The Sopranos, and it remains his baby. He plots each season‘s story arc and scripts many of the series’ key episodes (including this season‘s back-to-back openers); he sometimes directs as well. Chase was born in Mount Vernon, New York, just north of the Bronx; the family name, before his paternal grandmother changed it, was DeCesare. The family moved to Clifton, New Jersey, when Chase was 5, and then to North Caldwell, where Tony Soprano lives. Chase’s father, who had left a job as an engineer, owned a hardware store; his mother, an ”outrageous and provocative“ woman who died several years ago at the age of 84 and was the model for Tony Soprano‘s own peerlessly passive-aggressive mom, proofread telephone directories.

Chase majored in English at NYU, then earned a master’s in film from Stanford. In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles, and in his early 20s began writing for television, first for The Night Stalker and The Rockford Files and later for I‘ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure, on which he was also a producer. He created the short-lived 1988 CBS series Almost Grown, which used pop music to trace a relationship across three decades. He won his first Emmy for Off the Minnesota Strip, a 1980 TV movie he wrote about a teenage prostitute going home to Minnesota, and won again in 1999 for ”College“ (written with James Manos Jr.), a Sopranos episode in which Tony takes advantage of a trip with his daughter to murder an informer. He has also earned a ”Pasta-tute“ award from the Italian-American One Voice Committee as ’‘the Italian-American who has sold out hisher Italian culture and heritage in the media or politics or any other notable field.’‘

Before landing at HBO, The Sopranos was rejected in turn by each of the four major broadcast networks. It’s probably just as well, for its delicate moral architecture would doubtless have been deformed in the fearful and obliging atmosphere of commercial network television. Whether the show accurately reflects life within organized crime is beside the point; it‘s not a documentary, after all, or an immaculate Scorcesian fact-based re-creation, but first and foremost examines the ways people hold up or fold under pressure, and the struggle to be human in a milieu that has little use for humanity. The show habitually satirizes American mores and material desires, but, says Chase, ”I try not to be too conscious of what it is I’m trying to say. I don‘t particularly have a point, or we don’t particularly have a point, that we‘re writing to. I remember reading an interview with David Lynch in which he said that if you do have a point before you start to create, it’s just politics. If when you sit down to create you have a point that you want to make about society, I think that falls under the category of propaganda.“

I reached Chase by phone in New York, where he spends most of his time now, after three decades living in Southern California. All I can tell you about him on a personal level is that he thinks before he talks, and sounded most excited when discussing Paris and the musical aspects of directing -- his first love, obvious from nearly any episode of The Sopranos, is rock & roll -- two things that made me like him immediately and immensely.

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