Why The Sopranos Sing

It's hard to pinpoint when a mere TV show becomes a cultural phenomenon, but there are a few mile markers on "The Sopranos" turnpike to the big time. Certainly the day when the Feds recorded two New York mobsters bragging (erroneously) about turning up in an episode would qualify. So, too, would reports about home buyers shopping specifically for "Sopranos" houses. But in the over-the-top category, it's hard to beat the new Sopranoland tours. For $30 (cannoli included), fans of the HBO mob drama board a minibus in Manhattan and spend three hours visiting Tony's favorite Jersey haunts: Pizzaland, Satriale's pork store, the cemetery where they filmed Livia's burial. "We try to go to the Sopranos' house, but the cops won't even let people walk up there anymore," says Georgette Blau, who owns the tour company. Lots of shows have spawned location pilgrimages, of course. But the "Sopranos" tour does something unprecedented. It has turned the Lincoln Tunnel into a tourist trap.

Not long ago, the biggest show on cable was like a triple-A batting champ--a winner of sorts, but hardly a major-league player. "The Sopranos" is the first cable program to make it to the World Series. This year's two-hour debut pulled in more than 11 million viewers, the biggest audience ever for an original cable series, and the show draws more than 8 million viewers every Sunday. Considering that HBO is available in only 32 million homes, that's a remarkable following. But success can't be measured just by the folks at Nielsen. Even people who don't shell out $12 a month for HBO talk about Tony the conflicted mob boss and his two-headed family--the blood relatives and the blood brothers. Despite being shut out of the top prize at the last two Emmy Awards, "The Sopranos" is far and away the best show on television. So good, in fact, that TV producers have begun to wonder: why can't the networks make stuff like this?

Especially when you consider that "The Sopranos" really just combines two of the oldest formulas in Hollywood: the family drama and the mob drama. Of course there aren't many families like the Sopranos--or are there? When the show debuted two years ago, the buzz centered on Tony, a ruthless mobster who sees ducks swimming in his pool, develops panic attacks and finds himself talking existentialism with a psychiatrist. The joke, of course, is that Mafia bosses aren't supposed to suffer from poultry- induced panic, or any other variety. But as the show has evolved, it's become wonderfully clear that Tony suffers the same slings and arrows as the rest of us, right down to his Prozac prescription. His wife thinks she's the Italian Martha Stewart. His mother, Livia, never stops kvetching (even, in Tony's dreams, after she dies). His two teenage kids are a handful. And at the office--Madonn'. Finding good help and keeping the key employees happy is a constant headache. Most of us don't spend our days making deals in the back of a strip joint or fending off hit men hired by our own mothers. But take that away and Tony and his wife, Carmela, aren't far from the modern version of Archie and Edith Bunker--just with more dead people and without the laugh track.

Which is not to imply that "The Sopranos" doesn't have a sense of humor. After all, this is a show with a strip club named Bada-Bing and mobsters who traffic in death but are obsessed with their health. In fact, "The Sopranos" may be the funniest drama ever on TV. It's not a jokey humor, though there are plenty of running jokes. This year's story about how Tony's sister Janice stole the prosthetic leg from a woman because she wouldn't give back Mama Soprano's record collection is worthy of "Seinfeld." "The Sopranos" loves puns, too. ("Did you bring your log?" Tony's shrink, Dr. Melfi, asked him a few weeks ago, eliciting a smirk from her oversexed patient.) Some jokes aren't even verbal. Last season started with a musical gag, a Sinatra recording of "It Was a Very Good Year," that both mocked the bad blood between Tony and his murderous mother, and winked at what a huge hit the entire show had become. And check out the poster of Einstein we see just before Tony's daughter, Meadow, and her boyfriend make out this week. Pure genius. (The show would never stoop to a pun as awful as that.)

A hilarious drama. A fatherly godfather. That's "The Sopranos" in a nutshell--a show so filled with shadings and contradictions it defies categorization. Perhaps that's why the Emmy voters keep dissing it. The rivalry between "The Sopranos" and NBC's "The West Wing," the reigning Best Drama, is turning into a feud. Let's stop the madness right here. The fact is, "The West Wing" is bloodless, and not just because the body count is higher on HBO. The writing is strong but pedantic. The stories are predictable--have the good guys ever not triumphed? The characters feel like clones of each other: smug do-gooders with no inner lives. Any decent show can make you cheer for the hero. How many get you to empathize with an increasingly racist guy who murders people for a living? That's the most wonderful thing of all about "The Sopranos." Everyone is flawed. Last week Carmela agreed to see Tony's shrink with him, but the visit may have done more harm than good. Melfi's disgust over treating a sociopath has spun around to the point where she's contemplating asking Tony to get revenge on a rapist. They're all working to understand themselves, to find their place in the world. In a sense, the entire show is in therapy. It's that willingness to dig deep into its characters that makes "The Sopranos" infinitely more fascinating than the folks in NBC's White House--or anywhere else on television.

Maybe that's why viewers identify so powerfully with the show. The cast is constantly greeted by fans who want to gossip about their favorite "Sopranos" moment. An unusual number confuse the actors with their characters. "There was a drunk girl who came up to me in a bar, put her arms around me and started crying, 'You're just such the perfect mother'," says Edie Falco, who plays Carmela. "I am no one's mother, but it was kind of lovely she thought that." The actors say that even they get swept up in the show. "Paulie Walnuts in any mob movie would be another thug," says Michael Imperioli, who plays Tony's nephew Christopher. "In this show he questions the world, he wonders about the afterlife. There are so many moments where you're really just living with these characters."

The networks had their shot at airing "The Sopranos." The show's creator, David Chase, actually came close to a deal with Fox, but executives balked when they saw the script. The show didn't have the profanity, nudity and shocking violence that now seem essential to establishing its authenticity as a mob drama. But Chase, who made his name writing for "The Rockford Files" and "Northern Exposure," says that's not what scared the networks. "It's the details and the complexity and the different pacing," he says. "They are afraid to trust the audience." In fact, Chase happily shoots a sanitized version of every episode--bleeped cuss words, fully dressed pole dancers--for potential syndication. "The audience isn't watching this show to hear people say 'f--k'," he says.

If that's the case, why don't the networks make programs as edgy and complicated as "The Sopranos"? "I have a theory that network television is always a generation behind what society is ready to watch," says Darren Star, who created "Sex and the City" for HBO as well as a string of network programs, including "Melrose Place." "You watched 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' and they slept in separate beds, and everybody's thinking, 'Gee, married couples really don't do that'." Producers who work both on cable and at the networks say the contrast is enormous. "It's the difference between a week in Paris and a week in Albuquerque," says Tom Fontana, who created "Oz" for HBO and "Homicide" for NBC. "The networks go with the prevailing wind. If a show works on one network, they want one just like it. HBO has a clear sense of what they want. You don't go in saying you want to do a prison show and end up doing a cooking program."

While they admit they'd love to have "The Sopranos," the networks argue that this isn't really a fair fight. HBO, with only a handful of original programs and seasons that can run as few as eight episodes, has the time and money to nurture its shows. The channel spent $2 million per episode on "The Sopranos" and more than $10 million just to promote this season's premiere. The networks can't match that. They produce 22 hours of weekly programming and seasons with 22 episodes. "We're broadcasters. HBO is a niche," says NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker. Besides, the networks have to bow to twin masters: the ratings and the advertisers. Cable channels, which are supported by subscriptions, don't have those preoccupations. "They have no restrictions, financially or creatively," says Fox Broadcasting chairman Sandy Grushow. "A show like 'The Sopranos' could never air on broadcast television. We just have to accept that fact. We do something else, and we do it quite successfully."

Or did. It's hard to deny that the networks are in a creative slump. The sitcom is tired. "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order" and "ER" are going strong, but there hasn't been a true breakthrough drama for years. It's no wonder that reality programs are all the rage--at least they feel fresh. For all the advantages cable has over the networks, the fact is that HBO is where TV is being reinvented right now. To their credit, the networks are taking notice. Star says that Fox allowed him to push the boundaries farther than ever for "The Street," thanks in large part to the legacy of "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos." "They're definitely loosening up," he says. NBC just signed a deal with "Seinfeld" alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus that requires only 15 episodes per season, instead of 22. "We have to figure out how to do some of what they do; otherwise we are going to be left behind," says Zucker, who last week announced he was killing NBC's Sunday movies in favor of more dramas. "We have to learn from what people are excited about. 'The Sopranos' should and will push us to do new things."

At least for as long as it's on the air. Chase has talked openly about ending "The Sopranos" next year, after the fourth season. HBO's Chris Albrecht says he's "hopeful" Chase will change his mind, and Chase himself has clarified his views somewhat since this year's boffo debut. "What I love most when I'm watching a drama is a feeling of mystery, suspense, poetry--things happening that you can't predict," he says. "If that's still possible, I'd be more than willing to go on. I just don't want the show to become a zombie." A producer who's willing to order a hit on his own show--let's see the networks top that.