TV Shows on TV, Movies

Dealing with Sopranos Disappointment

John Hodgman always says that nostalgia is a toxic impulse. That feels true but also I’m a nerd and part of that means liking the same thing for decades and then it gets tricky to delineate what’s nostalgia and what’s identity. And is that even a necessary delineation?  That’s beyond my pay grade, but my point is that I never fully understood Hodgman’s sentiment until I saw the Sopranos prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark.

Please be advised, I’m going to keep the spoilees for the movie to a minimum but I can’t make the same promise for the TV series that ended 14 years ago. So if you’re not caught up on The Sopranos, consider this a SPOILEE WARNING.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The Sopranos is one of the greatest TV shows of all time. That’s not even a question. I’m even fine with the ending. I’m a fan. I love it. If there’s one thing that hasn’t aged especially well, it’s creator David Chase’s seeming contempt for television. He would rather have been making movies and often said just that. Which is weird considering that Tony Soprano’s story is a character piece that plays out over eighty hours, and that’s just not something film is really suited for. It’s hard to think of an artform less suited to that style of storytelling. Portraiture? Compared to later contenders for the best drama ever, shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire or Mad Men that arguably couldn’t have existed if not for Sopranos, you can see that Chase was sometimes just not concerned with making each episode a satisfying unit of entertainment. You get these episodes that are doing nothing but setting up future events or fraying tensions even further without a plotline that justifies the existence of that individual episode. It’s a small point, but you can tell that, say, Vince Gilligan realizes that people waited a whole week for the new episode and so something has to happen, while Chase was fine with spending an episode reminding us that Paulie still feels left out and that Carmine is up to something.  Which is a small knock on an amazing series, but it feels relevant now.

We’ve heard talk of a Sopranos movie almost since it ended in 2007. James Gandolfini’s untimely death in 2013 made that unlikely, but Saints is a prequel spanning the end of the Sixties and beginning of the Seventies. The main focus is on Dickie Moltisanti, the father of the original series’ Christopher. And this is important because the movie is narrated by Christopher from beyond the grave. As in, the movie opens with his headstone and Christopher explains that he’s dead and identifies Tony Soprano as “the man who killed me”.  It’s very Sunset Boulevard and it doesn’t work at all.  It’s jarring and unintentionally funny and gets things off on entirely the wrong note. Beyond that, I guess it’s now canon in the world of The Sopranos that ghosts exist.

It’s also unnecessary – Ghost Christopher drops out of the movie for so long that when his narration comes back, you’re forced to confront for a second time that a dead man is telling us a story. There’s a bit in the second episode of Ultra City Smiths where Tom Waits’ narration is so sparse that he comes back at the end to apologize and explain that he had to take a second job to make ends meet and it feels like a parody of Saints even though it came out first.

That’s maybe the most baffling narrative decision of the movie (close second is the choice to have Ray Liotta play two characters), but there’s a lot that just doesn’t work. Chase has been vocally bitter about Warner Bros. releasing this on HBO Max concurrently with its theatrical run, claiming that it’s something that needs to be seen on the big screen. But it really doesn’t.  Quality aside, it’s a TV show. It plays like two episodes of a Sopranos prequel season, and it looks like TV.  Which isn’t a knock because, let’s be honest, TV is better than movies. But those two things look different and this is directed by Alan Taylor, who is primarily a television director. In fact, he directed nine episodes of The Sopranos, so this piece of Sopranos content looks like The Sopranos. I’d call that a positive. See it on a TV screen the way you saw every single episode of the series.

Worryingly, it seems like cast members have gone out of their way in interviews to emphasize that this isn’t exactly what you expect from The Sopranos. But, you know, The Sopranos is really good and you’d hope that the first piece of content in twelve years would feel like The Sopranos. I can go literally anyplace else for a movie that doesn’t feel like The Sopranos. I’ll see Free Guy if that’s what I’m looking for. Between that soft-pedal and the minimal marketing, it feels like everybody involved knew they had a bomb on their hands. 

I don’t want to get too in the weeds in terms of the plot, but it’s focused on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessando Nivola), with side diversions into the lives of the Sopranos including Johnny (Jon Bernthal), Livia (Vera Farmiga), and Tony (played by James’ son Michael Gandolfini in the second half of the movie). We also get to see Uncle Junior, Silvio, Paulie, Pussy, and brief glimpses of young Artie Bucco, Jackie Aprile, and a single scene with Carmela. And I have to say that every actor who is playing the young version of a character from the series is tremendous. It’s not surprising the Michael Gandolfini reminds you of his father but his performance absolutely nails Tony’s energy and the smallest choices feel like the character we love. The real emotional core of the movie is Michael stepping into James’ famous role and absolutely nailing it.

More surprising to me are Farmiga and Corey Stoll (as Junior) – these are actors we know and they are so perfectly invoking Nancy Marchand and Dominic Chianese. I didn’t even recognize Farmiga at first. They absolutely feel like those characters down to the smallest inflections. Similarly, the young men playing Tony’s crew are an absolute blast. Young Silvio with his combover is hilarious and the impression is amazing. (Though I have to think Silvio didn’t sound like that in his twenties. That’s the voice of some hard living.) Paulie isn’t weird and fussy because he’s old, he was that way from the beginning. It’s fun! And seeing oft-referenced events like Johnny shooting Livia’s beehive hairdo or Dickie and those TV trays is really gratifying. But that’s kind of where it ends.

A lot of the story focuses on Harold McBrayer, to the extent that the way the movie ends feels like it’s his origin story. But as good as Leslie Odom, Jr is in the role, Harold is not a part of The Sopranos. He doesn’t appear in the series, nobody ever mentions him – it’s weird to make the movie about his rise to power when he is never referenced anywhere else. His story probably should have been its own movie, rather than slotting him into a world that doesn’t include him. 

The Sopranos wasn’t great at handling race in its original run and aside from making a point to have almost every doctor be a person of color, it didn’t try. And it doesn’t get better here, even using a race riot as an inciting incident. Aside from the most basic stuff, Saints doesn’t even try to address how life in 1969 Newark is different from Harold than it is for Dickie. Even that riot lacks consequences and seems like an inconvenience for everybody. It butts up against interesting things to do and then refuses to do them.

Along those lines, every motivation is basic and rote. The Sopranos was masterful in the way it would have big events spiral out of small changes. People died because somebody made the wrong joke at the wrong time. Pettiness, deceit, and double-dealing made a complicated web that still tracked. There’s no subtlety here. Actions and consequences are a strict A to B.

And ultimately, Dickie Moltisanti just isn’t that interesting. We’ve heard about how great he was on the show and seemingly there must be something special about him if he’s the focus of the movie. But he’s the same bland thug we’ve seen a million times. He’d be a minor supporting character on the show – maybe sub-Phil Leotardo level. He’s cruel and venal but he’s also nice to his nephew twice and maybe that’s enough to count a characterization? If this had come out ten years ago when we had only gone a couple of years without Sopranos, that’d probably be fine. But everything about this is set up to make you think that Dickie Moltisanti is a legend and he just isn’t. Chase thinks he’s interesting because he lived in what he perceives to be better times, but he’s wrong on both counts.

That brings me back to Hodgman’s toxic nostalgia. Chase comes across as somebody who genuinely thinks the setting of the movie constitutes better times but he can’t convey why we should think that. I always thought that the parts of the show where middle-aged men reminisced about how much better things used to be were meant to make those characters look silly. Aging out-of-touch men who still obsess over their glory days. But now I feel like Chase actually is one of those guys and the movie suffers for it. And for my own part, the only things I enjoyed were the moments that reminded me of the thing I like. It’s easy to get caught up in that and even mistake something that evokes nostalgia for something that’s actually good, and those are not the same things. I got suckered by callbacks and easter eggs, which is just lazy for me as a viewer and Chase as a creator.

It’s too easy as an aging nerd to fall for things that exist just to tell me that the things I like are good and important and deserve reverence (Looking at you, new Ghostbusters movie), and it’s important not to fall into that nostalgia trap. It’s creative death. Chase’s nostalgia strangled his storytelling abilities and mine nearly got me to fall for it. Bizarrely, the best statement on toxic nostalgia came from that most nostalgic of properties, Star Wars. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” There’s a good Sopranos prequel in that ethos, but we’re never going to see it.

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