THE SOPRANOS SESSIONS
By Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall
Abrams Press, $30, 480 pages
Being half-Italian and having grown up in South Philadelphia, the center of the Philadelphia-New Jersey Cosa Nostra crime family, I knew or knew of a good number of South Philly and Jersey wise guys. As a crime reporter and columnist for a South Philadelphia newspaper, I covered mob murders, FBI and police investigations, and internecine mob wars back in the 1990s.
More recently, I interviewed Ralph Natale, the former Philadelphia-New Jersey mob boss who became a cooperating witness, as well as Philip Leonetti, another cooperating witness who was former Philadelphia-New Jersey mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo’s nephew and underboss. (I reviewed both of their books here).
Watching HBO’s “The Sopranos” from the beginning of the series in January of 1999, I saw a cast of characters that were very familiar to me (I especially liked Tony Sirico’s “Paulie Walnuts” character). From the clever crooks and viscous murderers to the dim and clueless criminals, I found their language, violence, nonstop hustling and Machiavellian manipulation to be mostly realistic. I also liked the mobsters’ humor, as mob guys can be very funny — intentionally and unintentionally.
Although I thought “The Sopranos” should have wrapped up a season or two earlier, and I disliked the finale, I was and am a huge fan of the TV crime series. I recently rewatched season one, which is the best season of the show, in my view.
So I was pleased to read Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall’s “The Sopranos Sessions.” Mr. Seitz, the television critic for New York magazine and the author of “Mad Men Carousel,” and Mr. Sepinwall, the chief television critic for Rolling Stone magazine and the author of “Breaking Bad 101,” were both previously TV critics for the Star-Ledger, the New Jersey newspaper that the fictional character Tony Soprano just happens to read. The two writers covered “The Sopranos” extensively from the beginning of the show to the final season.
“Pre-Sopranos, TV was widely dismissed as a medium for programs that didn’t ask the viewer to think about anything except what was coming on next, and that preferred loveable characters who didn’t change and had no inner life. The ideal network series was filler between commercials. It was hard to make art in this kind of environment, though creators managed. There were lots and lots of rules. There were words you couldn’t say, things you couldn’t show, stories you couldn’t tell. The number one rule: don’t upset people,” the authors write in their introduction to the book. “The Sopranos wasn’t the first show to break most of these rules: ‘All in the Family’ gave us a bigoted (though not irredeemable) main character; ‘Hill Street Blues’ pushed drama into more serialized, morally gray territory; ‘Miami Vice’ belied the notion that TV shows couldn’t look as good as movies. Nor was ‘The Sopranos’ the first show to act like the rules didn’t exist; see, among others, ‘The Prisoner,’ ‘Twin Peaks,’ and HBO’s first original drama, ‘Oz,’ (featuring an actress named Edie Falco).”
The book is perhaps everything you’ve ever wanted to know about “The Sopranos.” The authors offer recaps of every episode, a variety of essays and the authors’ newspaper articles from 1999 to 2007. The book also offers a series of long-form Q&As with the series’ creator, David Chase. Mr. Chase, an Italian-American whose family name was originally DeCesare, worked on “The Rockford Files” and “Northern Exposure” before creating “The Sopranos.”
Mr. Chase began his series with a bold and winning move in casting New Jersey native James Gandolfini, a not particularly well-known character actor, as Tony Soprano, the mob boss and series lead. The late Mr. Gandolfini was a fine actor and by all accounts, a fine man. The show also casted many fine Italian-American actors, many of whom previously appeared in mob film classics like Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II,” and Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “Mean Streets.”
In the book, Mr. Chase responds to Italian-American critics of the show who felt the TV series, like the great mob movies, defamed Italians. He said the critics overstate the damage done by gangster movies. “It has yet to be proven to me that a single Italian American has suffered in the past fifteen years because of this.” (George Anastasia, who has also been criticized for his books on organized crime, such as “Blood and Honor: Inside the Scarfo Mob — The Mafia’s Most Violent Family,” said his work shines a light on the dark side of the Italian-American experience).
Fans of “The Sopranos,” and there are many, will enjoy reading this well-researched and well-written book on the groundbreaking TV series.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.