As a self-appointed expert (i.e. person who has never actually made a television programme but who watches a lot of Netflix and thinks things about it), it seems to me that the key to writing a good show is establishing a formula that viewers quickly understand and respond to. People need to tune into a show with expectations. Once these expectations have been set up, the show can fuck with them for effect. This is when things get good.
While no show sticks to telling its stories in the exact same way every episode – that would be dreadful television – you can generally rely on a few of the same beats in most long-running series, and that accounts for a lot of the joy of watching. They’re familiar, and when they’re not, it’s especially thrilling.
Most television writing celebrates these moments of surprise, and less so the carefully constructed hours that build up to them. Anatomy of an Episode is a new VICE column that attempts to unpick the building blocks of iconic TV series. Essentially: a whistle-stop tour of the events you can always count on a particular show to provide, in an approximation of the order they might happen in during an episode. Why? For fun, my friends. For fun.
First up is The Sopranos, mostly because everyone with a Twitter account has been watching it in lockdown, but also because it’s a masterpiece, and finally because I had some stuff to get off my chest about Tony’s shirts.
TONY HAS FAMILY DRAMA
Part of what made – and makes! –The Sopranos so exciting is its resistance to the usual formula of serialised television. Beginning in 1999 and running for six seasons until 2007, The Sopranos is viewed as the standard bearer of television's so-called second "Golden Age", or the show which launched a thousand shows.
It would have been easy for the story of Tony Soprano – New Jersey mafioso and family man – to fall into gangster-genre predictability. What creator David Chase and his team produced instead was a work of psychological nuance and tightly knitted storytelling, the likes of which had rarely been seen before it.
“One of the most important strengths of The Sopranos is its refusal to adopt a clean-and-easy pattern like, 'kill of the week' or regular bookending therapy sessions," TV critic Charles Bramesco tells me. "The series often adopted a short-story structure, nestling self-contained snatches of human life in its larger arcs of shifting gangland politics.”
The Sopranos is a show about a lot of things, then, but if we’re talking about its most straightforward plot lines, family is an obvious one. On its most superficial level, the show follows mafia capo Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini, in a starring role which is so obviously one of the greatest television portrayals of all time, it is almost hackneyed to say so), his angelic wife Carmella and his brat children. If I close my eyes and think about the quintessential Sopranos episode – not like, “Pine Barrens” or whatever; I mean the every-episode, the one-cog-of-many-type instalments that keeps the machine of the macro-plot chugging forward – the opening is always a shot of the Soprano house.
Of course, most episodes don’t actually start there. All the same, I picture the house because usually, in the first third of the episode at least, Tony encounters some sort of family problem (tfw your teenage son gets extremely into existential philosophy and tells his mom to fuck off, or your daughter asks her cousin, who also works for you, in the literal mafia, for speed – that type of thing) that sets up part of the plot for the next hour, even if it doesn’t necessarily happen in the much-frilled, peach-tinged womb of the Sopranos’ familial home.
TONY IN THE CHAIR (PT.1)
The overarching, series-defining problems of The Sopranos are thus:
1) Tony Soprano is a mobster attempting to retain his position as a capo (and defacto boss) in the DeMeo crime family, which is hard because a lot of people want to murder and/or arrest him.
2) Tony Soprano suffers from debilitating panic attacks and in general has a lot of neuroses to work through, as well as a difficult relationship with his mother.
The two things, as you can imagine, are somewhat related! So, Tony goes to therapy, on and off, with the long-suffering Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and frequently yells at her about wanting to hurt her, or stop seeing her, presumably because she is a woman who is often right about things to do with his brain.
The therapy scenes in The Sopranos are special because they introduce a new aspect to Tony's character, and to the gangster genre in general. We’re not only seeing the multi-dimensionality of his attempts to be both a good father and a powerful boss, but we find out what he thinks about it all too, and how it makes him feel. They are the ketchup to the fries of the rest of the show: it could survive without them, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as meaningful or satisfying. It helps that these scenes, which rely deeply on a very particular type of chemistry (one which, as with everything in The Sopranos, shifts and grows over time), are also supremely well acted, with Lorraine Bracco’s Melfi as the Supernanny to Tony’s King Curtis.
TONY HAS WORK DRAMA
Being a mafioso: it’s hard! As such, Tony’s work features as prominently in every episode as his family issues – though it’s important to add that these are sometimes, though not always, two sides of the same coin – with the Bada Bing strip club and the supporting cast of soldatos, each with their own fantastic hairstyles and inner lives, important regular features.
TONY WEARS A SHIRT SO GREAT IT’S ACTUALLY SORT OF BEYOND HUMAN COMPREHENSION
You think you have seen good shirts. You have seen Brad Pitt in the Ocean’s movies, you have seen Prince in "Purple Rain". You know an interesting collar, an unusual print when you see one. But then Tony Soprano rocks up to subtly intimidate his Uncle Junior for encroaching on a healthcare scam or whatever, and he is wearing this shirt – a bowling shirt, with the Cuban collar – and you are knocked on your arse by the pure vibe it emanates.
In some episodes, Tony will wear a polo collar, or a regular button-down. But he is most himself when he's in a shirt that has smoked more fine cigars today than you ever have in your pathetic little lifetime. This shirt is familiar with the layout of your average yacht; frequently feels the brush of a solid gold chain against its underside; understands the sensation of a piece of rare prosciutto tumbling down its front. It is a shirt that says, “Yes, I was purchased from a Big and Tall off the Jersey Turnpike, and my potency is all the more intoxicating for it.” It is unbridled decadence. Probably, it is cocaine. You could never wear a shirt like it in your life. You would simply turn to mush under the weight of all that it means.
WISEGUYS SCENE WHERE SOMEONE – AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHO – GETS CALLED A 'STUPID FUCK'
Integral to any and all instalments of The Sopranos and probably the thing anchoring most episodes. Without these, the entire thing falls apart. The most important Jenga block.
TONY IN THE CHAIR (PT.2)
For the periods of the show when Tony is under Melfi’s guidance, we usually see him return to the chair a couple of times in an episode. Indeed, the therapy scenes are one of the main ways in which the show provides a meta-commentary on the TV serial, the very medium it was attempting to reinvent.
Sean O’Sullivan, of the English department at Ohio State University, has written extensively on The Sopranos. "Therapy’s circularity (returning to childhood, or the same issues every week) and linearity (the supposed discoveries that mark realisation and hoped-for improvement) echo the circularity and linearity of serial TV storytelling," he says. "Also, the typical 50-minute length and weekly schedule of a therapy session imitates the length and appearance schedule of a typical TV episode. As I see it, the Melfi scenes speak to the interplay of the old and the new that defines serials, and that The Sopranos was interested in examining by turning those terms inside-out."
Of course, Tony's therapy sessions also often play a role in propelling the plot forward, and let us in on his thoughts – or what he says are his thoughts! – on a particular situation. They're also an ideal arena for showcasing some of the series' main themes. "The Melfi scenes allow The Sopranos to dig into one of the show’s primary interests: lying and self-deception," O'Sullivan says. "We are often aware of an explicit tension between what Tony is telling Melfi and what we know to be the case. The rhythms of these scenes certainly serve as a tonal counterpoint to what we get elsewhere – they’re a kind of marbling that contributes a distinct and recognisable flavour to each episode.”
THE FAMILY DRAMA AND THE WORK DRAMA COALESCE
Part of the mastery of The Sopranos is how the writing manages to bring seemingly disparate aspects of Tony's life together. In a show interested in commenting on its own medium, this is not only great storytelling, but also symbolic of the ways in which the many roles he must play (son, father, husband, mafia boss) are ultimately inextricable from one another – literally weaving together and keeping him in place.
The Sopranos ran for six seasons over eight years, winning the Emmy award for "Writing in a Drama Series" almost every year it was on air. In 2019, the Guardian crowned it the greatest TV show of the 21st century so far. Emma Brockes wrote that it "unspools like a Russian novel but engages like a telenovela." Whenever I watch even a single episode of The Sopranos, I feel fulfilled. Each instalment is its own little saga, rich and bold like a bloody steak. “The determination to make the instalment and the season equally prominent, often in divergent ways, is a key legacy of the show," says O’Sullivan.
Fundamentally, these layers on layers of story and meaning are what makes it the show to beat for basically all TV drama that followed it – well, that and the shirts.
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