Test Pilot #1: The Sopranos
Debut date: January 10, 1999 on HBO
Series legacy: The dawn of a new era for television, a cultural phenomenon in its early years, one of the 2-3 best drama series in the medium’s history.
Welcome to the newest regular feature here at TV Surveillance, the fantastically titled, Test Pilot. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
The first batch of Test Pilot files were chosen because of their importance to today’s television landscape. The medium has expanded in a lot of ways over the past 15-20 years, and to get this series of posts going, we are going to tackle four series that are perhaps most important to what we see on television today — and perhaps what we’ll see in the future. If successful, we’ll eventually move on to failed pilots, groups of posts based on genre, etc. It’s not as exciting to only look at the high-quality stuff, so hopefully we’ll get to some interesting failures in the future.
But today, we start fittingly with what is (excuse my pun) the Godfather on today’s television: The Sopranos. Let’s start with a perspective from John Barnett, who has seen the entire run of Sopranos episodes:
The pilot episode of HBO’s The Sopranos was a milestone in television history. Before the series premiered on January 10, 1999, television storytelling, though it had been around for half a century, had never gotten the same level of respect as the best cinema had to offer. In many ways, “The Sopranos” pilot was television’s own “Sgt. Pepper,” opening up new avenues for televised entertainment and making possible the creation of countless serial cable and network programs over the last decade.
Both of the series’ primary themes are introduced in short order in the pilot: Tony’s constant, precarious juggling of his family and work lives, and his predisposition to panic attacks and general psychological distress. Tony Soprano’s always cathartic visits to Dr. Melfi’s psychiatry office, which would persist until the series’ penultimate episode, begin here. Tony’s often contentious relationship with his wife, Carmela, is given immediate depth in the pilot, and reverberations of her telling him, as he is about to be inserted into an MRI machine, that “the difference between us” is that he’ll “go to hell” when he dies is echoed over and over again in later episodes.
The pilot is not a perfect template for the rest of the series, however. The complexity of Tony’s position as the “Don of North Jersey” is less explored in the pilot than his position as beleaguered husband and father, and the distinctively rust-hued, fishbowl cinematography prevalent in early season one would later be replaced by a more Scorsese-esque grittiness. Still, creator David Chase’s creative dominance was on display from the onset.
Before The Sopranos, the television medium was controlled almost totally by producers, money-men and people who were more concerned more about the bottom-line than any sort of creative achievement (even David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was twisted from his original vision to something slightly more conventional before the network handed it back to him just in time for a genius finale). This is still largely the case, but David Chase’s relationship with HBO, in which he was basically given carte blanche to nurture the show as he saw fit, opened doors for future television series’ masterminds like Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Ryan Murphy (Glee) and Darlton (Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse of Lost) to make the shows they wanted to make.
Perhaps more than anything else, The Sopranos ushered in an era of bona-fide cable series. Mostly free from the shackles of having to worry about Nielsen ratings from week to week (though ratings DO still matter when it comes to cable series… just not to the same degree as with network), Chase was able to tell his story at a more leisurely pace than many, hence the “serial” in serialization. I can’t imagine a major network allowing the jaw-dropping final sequence of The Sopranos to ever air in its original form, which was sure to infuriate a good portion of the audience. See the Lost finale for an updated instance of this scenario.
It’s hard to see how creator-driven series like Lost, The Wire, Mad Men and Arrested Development would have ever existed without The Sopranos breaking the mold and making it acceptable for programs that required faithful and attentive viewership and featured complex plotlines, conflicted characters, intelligent writing and mature themes to exist in the first place. Themes and motifs explored in The Sopranos pilot episode were revisited and expounded upon countless times during the show’s six-season run, and the episode itself holds up brilliantly as a prime example of what made the series itself so influential and timeless.
And now, a perspective from me, someone who had never seen more than a few minutes of The Sopranos before watching the pilot:
As John noted, before The Sopranos aired in the early part of 1999, cable television wasn’t a destination for scripted material, especially one-hour dramas. HBO had only aired one other hourlong drama series before in Oz. Current power-players like Showtime, FX and AMC were still filling their schedules with some syndicated programs and more purchased feature-length films than anything else. Cable wasn’t cable, broadcast television was still the destination and audiences weren’t like the audiences of today. All five of the dramas nominated for the Outstanding Series award at the preceding Emmys in 1998 were all procedurals (The Practice, ER, NYPD Blue, Law & Order and The X-Files, though the last one is a slight complication).
But while John discussed the implications for the series’ success on the industry and the medium, I wanted to chat about the influence The Sopranos had on its audience and television audiences in general. Before this series aired, in general, audiences weren’t expected to really invest in the story and the characters to an extent where “paying attention” was paramount. Yes, there were certain outliers like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, but the former was a quick flame-out and the latter had to be more procedural than not to succeed. This was still an era where television was a passive, cool medium if you will, one where there wasn’t a whole lot of content with “real” artistic value to it. Supposedly.
But The Sopranos started the ball rolling that eventually morphed into today’s fan culture around television. The series started out very high-concept as they say in the industry, with an idea and voice that wouldn’t have worked on broadcast. Because of that, fans has to act differently. From everything that I gauged from the pilot episode (and my general knowledge of the series as a whole), you want to pay attention to what’s going on during Sopranos episodes. It’s not a series you just take in, it deserves tip-top analysis. After this pilot episode and first season, people knew that television had changed, audiences were more open to series with sprawling casts of characters that really dealt with some issues without wrapping them up at the end of a 44-minute period. We know that the series opened up the doors for productions on the cable networks and riskier work on broadcast television, but it also opened up the eyes of the people at home. The industry, the medium and the audience at home, none of them were the same after this episode aired in January of 1999.
As for the specific episode, I was honestly surprised at how much I loved it. I came into the viewing with some secondhand skepticism due to the series’ decline in stature over the last few years (I’ll discuss this more at the end), but those feelings were quickly erased by the time Tony was in the pool playing with the ducks. Because, for all the talk about who is about to be whacked or take over the crime syndicate, The Sopranos is obviously just an intense character study of the middle-aged American male during a transitional and somewhat weird time in our country’s history. Or at least that’s what I pulled away from this pilot.
Yes, the pilot certainly introduces some threads that surely create long-term plot arcs that deal more with mob-y stuff, but they are far from the most interesting. Instead, I found myself totally enthralled by Tony Soprano and his issues. There’s this expectation of what that character will be like when you come to the series for the first time, but I certainly didn’t expect to see him feed ducks in his pool, have an episode when they finally leave and generally stress out about his family life more than his “family” life. Both sides are certainly connected and intertwined in an intelligent, purposeful way that’s supposed to draw some thematic lines between the two stories, but the best parts of the episode feature Tony just dealing with a frustratingly tough mother.
Moreover, there’s a sense of decline permeating throughout this episode and surely the entire series. The opening credit sequence explicitly points out that the late ’90s were really a time when the American ideals and industrialization were fading away or not working in the same ways (The Wire most obviously points this out in a much more detail). The optimism of the early Clinton years had given way to fears. Fears about technology, globalization, the coming new millennium. Films like The Matrix and Dark City were thoroughly analyzing the questions of reality. The internet hadn’t fully taken off, there weren’t any “major” wars happening and there was something of a disconnected, but quiet uneasiness presiding over the culture.
For the men like Tony Soprano, who were in their early 40s and had pushed through the messiness of the ’70s and ’80s to a supposedly prosperous time in the early part of the ’90s, the seams were perhaps starting to show. The economy had not yet crumbled or anything, but it was not doing as well. Technological advancements and a push for more post-secondary education were making middle-aged, blue-collar (or in this case, pretending blue-collar) workers feeling like they were about to be pushed out. The racial and gender equality steps taken in the ’60s and ’70s were really coming into play as a new generation of people were growing up in a world that wanted a leveler playing field (though not completely level, obviously). And thus, as Tony notes in his therapy session, there’s a nostalgic effect taking place. America wasn’t quite in the hellish shape it’s in now back in the late ’90s, but the feelings were there, especially for “uneducated” white males.
With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that Tony’s worried about his family(ies). The world is totally changing around him (hell, his wife can have an affair on him?! What the hell?!) and Tony is grasping for any sort of connection and more importantly, control that he can get. His wife is stepping out on him, his daughter is about to be a woman and the elders in his family are pushing for control when he’s just trying to take care of them. He cannot take it all. That’s why the ducks are so important, not just to him, but to us. The ducks noticeably represent his desire to be hands-on and take care of something (and thus control them in a way) without them fighting back or trying to usurp his role. But when they fly away, he’s totally left with nothing, so he thinks. If he cannot take care of ducks and get them to follow his lovingly directions, how can he do it with people?
That’s what I’ll take away most from The Sopranos pilot, and what makes me want to watch the full series. Amid a sea of plotlines and characters, this seems to be a story about the middle-aged male trying to keep his grasp on a world that’s defined by modernity and diversity and things the male doesn’t care about. And I’m guessing the series goes on to show how that Tony’s life surely doesn’t get any better, things don’t get easier and aren’t fixed in an instant. Life is messy, no matter how much you want to control it.
One last thing: The series’ legacy, just three years after its end. Part of the reason I haven’t gotten to the series yet is that so many people were critical of the final few seasons, with all their tangential stories, dream sequences and of course, had issues with the controversial ending. In that respect, the value of the series sort of diminished in the eyes of many, especially after HBO and other cable networks piggy-backed after this series’ original success and created series of comparable quality (or at least presumed comparable quality). By the time the series ended, with all its tangents and split up seasons, time had almost passed it by in a way. Obviously the finale was a major event in television history and I’m not saying the series no longer mattered, but there were so many other, perhaps shinier toys to play with by 2007. A lot of things changed between 1997 when the pilot was shot and in 2007 when it all ended. In that way, the series itself is like Tony, supposedly passed by other newer and better things. But I suspect that once analysis circles back around, we’ll all realize that this is one of the television series that goes on the Mt. Rushmore of TV. And the fact that this is all fairly apparent just by the pilot episode only confirms that even more.
Conclusions on legacy: Rightfully deserved.