Wednesday, January 10, 2024

This Day in Television History (‘Sopranos’ Debut Overturns Convention—and Ideas About New Jersey)

Jan. 10, 1999—HBO hated the title, believing that potential viewers would mistakenly believe it was about opera. 

But with the airing of the pilot for The Sopranos, listeners found themselves amid something far more unusual, even stranger: the physical and emotional landscape of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano, who, after a family of ducks flies away from the swimming pool they have made their home, has an anxiety attack, sending him to a psychiatrist.

American audiences confirmed what the HBO suits couldn’t grasp: that it was possible to distinguish the TV sopranos from those found in Milan’s La Scala.

It helped that six seasons gave viewers time to absorb multiple plotlines; voters awarded it 21 Emmys; and critics hailed it as among the most significant dramas in TV history, inaugurating an era when showrunners used the greater creative freedom of cable TV to present a series of complicated anti-heroes seldom seen in such abundance on the small screen.

In addition, though, the series share some elements with opera as a venerable form of musical theater: figures whose names frequently ended with vowels; very specific locations; and characters erupting volcanically, ranging from silliness to tragedy.

Let’s discuss those locations. The HBOs suits would also have preferred that the series be shot in Los Angeles or New York (cities not only glamorous, but also convenient for them to visit and interfere with).

But series creator David Chase (who, incidentally, modeled mob boss Tony Soprano’s mother Livia on his own mom) knew what he was doing in shooting off the beaten track. 

Though interior locations were generally at Silvercup Studios in New York City, most exterior shots took place, as noted in Nathan Miranda’s post on the “Screen Rant” blog, in Northern New Jersey.

It was, admittedly, cheaper to shoot the latter, as the show’s crews would have had to pay not just the New York establishments they wanted but other businesses on the street who’d object to all the customers they’d lose during shooting, and parking would not be as ample as in the Garden State.

More important, the exteriors of shops, diners, and other establishments lent the feeling of authenticity for which Chase was striving. 

He knew these Northern New Jersey streets intimately, having grown up there. In the oral history he compiled with Michael Imperioli, Woke Up This Morning, Steve Schirrippa recalled Chase saying that New Jersey “was like another cast member.”

In the pilot episode, for instance, Centanni's Meat Market was named after an establishment in Elizabeth, but was actually shot in Kearny. 

New Jersey also provided for a variety of locations crucial for the series' ambiance.

Longtime viewers are most familiar, of course, with the Soprano family's home, featured at the end of the title sequence. 

The roughly 5,600-sq.-ft. estate in North Caldwell came to symbolize the American Dream to which Tony and his associates aspired, and whose creature comforts Tony's wife Carmela craved, despite her gnawing doubts about his "profession."

At the other extreme were locations that placed a premium on grittiness: 

*the real-life strip joint on Route 17 that served as the mobsters' "Bada Bing" hangout (itself a winking reference to a James Caan ad-libbed line from The Godfather); 

*bakeries and diners in North Arlington and Kearny, respectively, where killings took place; and, 

*abandoned buildings in Newark that remind Tony's crew of unwanted depths, even as they continue to exploit the current residents of these mean streets.

Over the years, entire tours have been created centering around these and other locations. 

I have a feeling that they will continue to be popular, because, for all the atrocities committed by its characters (including, joltingly, in the "College" episode, in which viewers saw the protagonist of a series actually murder someone), The Sopranos reminds us, again and again, that they can be found in our neighborhoods, our schools, our eateries, and our stores. 

They are, in other words, all too human and like us, despite our wish that it was otherwise.

During much of its original run, I groaned a little inside when people outside New Jersey would refer to it as "The Sopranos State." I wish they had not crowded out another, more  positive state association dating back to my high school days: to Bruce Springsteen.

But at least those outsiders did not associate New Jersey with vapidity, as so many would do with reality shows like "Jersey Shore" and "Real Housewives of New Jersey."

Instead, the show highlighted for millions the creative talent in the state, including, from my own Bergen County, actors James Gandolfini (from Park Ridge), playing Tony, and Vincent Curatola (Englewood), playing Johnny Sack.

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