'The Sopranos:' Making A Mob Hit

The last time we saw Tony Soprano and his loving mother, Livia, she was strapped to a hospital gurney and he was chasing her down the hall with this unusual bedside sentiment: "I'm going to live a nice, long, happy life, which is more than I can say for you!" It was a nasty little moment born of Tony's belief that his mother had tried to have him killed (and that was an outgrowth of Livia's fury at being shipped to a nursing home). So what if she just had a stroke? The very last shot of Livia was a tight close-up, her mouth laboring to breathe under an oxygen mask. Or is she laboring? "Look at her face!" says Tony. "She's got a f---in' smile on her face!" She may not be able to speak, but the Italian-American Mommie Dearest will have the last word if it kills her.

Nice family, huh? If you're among those who can afford a subscription to HBO, "The Sopranos" may well be the most fascinating clan—and the best television—to come along in years. "The Sopranos" is the story of a mob boss (Tony, played by James Gandolfini) who battles two equally ruthless families—his biological one and his rivals in the New Jersey Mafia. For a show that begins only its second season this Sunday, it's already acquired a cult following, from adoring Web sites to parties where fans cook Italian food so they can mangiare with the characters. With more than 10 million people tuning in to the most popular episodes, "The Sopranos" is the most-watched original series on cable and a big enough hit to make the networks that passed on it very sorry. Which raises one question: can "The Sopranos" keep making us an offer we can't refuse?

But first, for the HBO-deprived masses, some "Sopranos" liner notes. This may not sound like the most innovative show of all time: a family drama, a mob story—what's new about that? Yet what's remarkable about "The Sopranos" is how its stories and characters feel not just real, but relevant. An overbearing mother, a boss you'd like to kill, bugs eating your garden, bugs on your telephone—life at the turn of the millennium has become one giant pain for everyone. Even a murderous thug like Tony has to go to a shrink and pop Prozac. No wonder people are obsessed with this show: "The Sopranos" is the first modern, middle-class mob drama. Unlike "The Godfather" or "GoodFellas," it's set entirely in our time with our problems—only spiced with a little extra puttanesca sauce. "People can be angry at someone who betrayed them or the next-door neighbor who cut down their tree, and they'd like to react the way Tony Soprano does," says Gerald Shargel, the New York attorney who has represented alleged Gambino bosses John Gotti and John Gotti Jr. "They're not bold enough, and they're not criminals, but they like to watch it."

Especially when the punishments—and the sly black humor—are as viciously entertaining as the stuff "The Sopranos" serves up. In the new season, the owner of a pizza parlor gets run over—twice—by an angry wiseguy. "I thought I told you to back the f--- off Beansie," Tony tells the overzealous underling. "I did," the guy replies. "Then I put it in drive." That exchange will probably tell fans all they need to know about the new "Sopranos": it's every bit as addictive as the first year (based on the three episodes given to critics). Though the first installment is a bit choppy, the second and third are filled with the kind of surprising stories, nuanced acting and hard-won redemption that make the show feel more like a mini-movie than a mere hour of TV. Without spoiling the surprises, we can say that all the major characters are alive and well. Livia (Nancy Marchand) actually looks better than ever. Tony's uptight psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), looks worse—and goes to her own shrink. Bumbling nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) gets into the stock market. Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), the putative head of the North Jersey mob, takes a tumble. And Tony has more headaches, many of them provided by two new characters: his deceptively Zen sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and menacing jailbird Richie Aprile (David Proval).

Without Tony, "The Sopranos" would be just another stop on the television turnpike. In a way, he's a descendant of Archie Bunker: a tough, beefy guy who thought he was supposed to inherit the world only to find out he can't even control his own house. His wife is ashamed of what he does for a living. His mother thinks he neglects her. His teenage children mock him. And the crap he gets at work—fuggedaboutit. He desperately wants to be a good father as well as a good fella, yet he feels like a failure. Gandolfini, best known for roles in "Get Shorty" and "A Civil Action," is a wonder in the ways he finds the soft soul inside the hulking, angry mob boss. Last season he used a staple gun to literally nail home a point on a rival's chest, then went home to play videogames with his son—and made both actions seem somehow sympathetic. So sympathetic that Gandolfini, whose receding hairline and expanding waistline are slightly reminiscent of Jackie Gleason, has become a sex symbol. "Every day on the set, Jimmy will come up to me and say, 'Look at this face. Can you believe they cast me as the lead in this show?' " says Steven Van Zandt, the real-life Bruce Springsteen bandmate who plays mob lieutenant Silvio Dante. "He's a bit embarrassed."

Any show that simultaneously prompts raves in The New York Times ("the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century") and inspires an X-rated movie ("The Sopornos") has countless reasons for its success. A big one is money. At more than $2 million an episode, "Sopranos" is one of the most expensive programs ever on television. Some of the budget goes for the large cast (and presumably the ziti). But much of it goes into shooting on location in New Jersey and New York. Though it would be far cheaper to fake the rough urban ambience on a Hollywood sound stage, the show would undoubtedly lose the gritty reality that's essential to its success. The same goes with the cast. Almost without exception, they're theater actors who grew up within driving distance of the Lincoln Tunnel. "We look for a certain tri-state quality," says David Chase, the show's creator, who hails from Jersey. "It's an attitude, a manner of speech, a look. They have a different way of expressing bafflement, anger, and they make the show work as a piece."

Chase and his writers are obsessive about authenticity. The story lines, even an episode about the Hasidic Jew who hired the Mafia to "convince" his son-in-law to divorce his daughter, have a strong basis in real-life events. The writers get their ideas from news stories as well as "dribs and drabs from people we know who have been connected," says Chase. Wherever they get them, the "Sopranos" team is doing something right. In tapes played at a federal hearing in Manhattan last month, two reputed mobsters gushed over how they thought they saw themselves depicted in the show. "You're in there! They mentioned your name," Anthony Rotundo said to Joseph Sclafani. "Every show you watch, more and more you pick up somebody. Every show." Chase says he would never reproduce anyone living: "It's discourteous. I'd be inviting problems." The only character based on a real person is Livia. Chase modeled her after his own frank, self-centered (and deceased) mother. "There's one point at which Tony says, 'I have a friend who's dying of cancer, I have all these business problems, I'm trying to get you into this home,' and she says, 'Oh, poor you.' That's very much my mother," he says. "I don't know how it got transposed to being a mobster."

In typical Hollywood fashion, all four major TV networks blew their chance to do "The Sopranos." The show was written back in 1995, and Fox almost made a deal for a pilot and six episodes. But when they read the script, they decided it wasn't right for them. Chase took it to the other networks. Nothing. "I knew it would be hard to have a story about a mobster, let alone the language problem," says Chase, who was previously a writer-producer on "Northern Exposure" and "I'll Fly Away." "We got a lot of professed admiration for the writing."

Edgy writing, foul language, even the fact that Tony's guys conduct their business in a topless bar named Bada Bing!—those are exactly the kind of network no-nos that HBO is dying for. "It's got to have people saying, 'This is worth paying for'," says Jeffrey Bewkes, chairman and CEO of HBO. "We have to take risks if we are going to show up with anything worthwhile." The risk is paying off. Though the cable networks say they can't pinpoint which show gets a viewer to sign up, Bewkes estimates that "The Sopranos" has added "hundreds of thousands" of subscribers in the last year. At about $11 per month, that's not quite enough to offset HBO's $35 million-to-$40 million "Sopranos" investment. But it creates buzz, which in turn draws more subscribers—it currently claims 35 million—which ultimately makes for a tidy profit for the ad-free network. "Shows like 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City' just enhance HBO's profile in the minds of the viewers," says Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television. "And that can't be good for those of us in the broadcast networks."

There are a few people who don't buy "The Sopranos" hype. The National Italian American Foundation says the show recycles ugly stereotypes about Italians. "If you took away Tony Soprano's respect for his elders, his loyalty to his mother, the way he cares about children, the values he places on friendship, he would be just another murderous thug," says media director Dona DeSanctis. Though they've met with the NIAF, the show's creators say they have no plans to placate them. As if they could. After all, what can you say about the upcoming episode where Christopher, who's writing a "Godfather"-like screenplay, reportedly finds inspiration on the set of a movie featuring Janeane Garofalo and Sandra Bernhard as lesbian lovers? For subversive "Sopranos" fans, there are only two words: that's amore.