Networks sometimes euphemistically refer to reruns as "encore performances." But some reruns do seem too grand for the word "rerun." With the return tonight of the original 13 episodes of the crash-bang-boom drama series "The Sopranos," HBO offers up the most eagerly awaited reruns in years.
"The Sopranos" is a tragicomic epic about a northern New Jersey mobster named Tony Soprano and the two worlds crumbling around him: his real family, who have the usual family woes as well as the added burden of a gangster for a patriarch, and his mob family, where youthful unrest, elderly unrest and changes in modern life are proving disruptive and maddening.
In Episode 4, to cite a representative example, young Anthony Jr. finally learns that his father is not really a waste management executive, as he's always claimed, but in fact a mob kingpin. He learns it when his older sister, Meadow, introduces him to an "M.O.B." Web site on the Internet. Now Anthony Jr. realizes why a school bully backed down from a fight with him that had been scheduled for that day after school.
HBO renewed "The Sopranos" for 13 additional episodes after only two shows had aired. Unfortunately those new episodes haven't been shot yet--production begins next month--and won't show up on HBO until January. But this is a case where care, time and patience pay off. In effect, HBO is following the British model: fewer episodes, maybe, but better quality.
When the "Sopranos" reruns begin tonight at 9 (with repeats Fridays at half past midnight), it will also be another victory for auteurist television. "Auteur" became a popular term for film directors in the '60s and '70s. Essentially it means that a film or TV show reflects the sensibility of one individual rather than that of a committee that is in turn overseen by a bunch of constipated executives.
There've been auteurs in television from the beginning--producers like Jack Webb ("Dragnet," whether you like it or not, was one man's vision), Ernie Kovacs and his quixotic surreal comedy, and Rod Serling, who didn't write every "Twilight Zone" but put his unmistakable imprint on them all. The tradition continued with Norman Lear and his socially relevant comedies and, today, with the likes of Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue"), Chris Carter ("The X-Files") and David Kelley ("Ally McBeal," "The Practice").
The bad thing about today's auteurs is they tend to get greedy, to establish one show, as Carter did with "X-Files," and then try to parlay that into a mini-empire, as Carter tried to do with such trash as "Millennium."
To the list of '90s auteurs we can now add producer-writer David Chase, previously responsible for the well-meant but rather tepid NBC series "I'll Fly Away." As gentle as that show was, Chase's "The Sopranos" is loud, boisterous, irreverent, profane and very very blood-and-gutsy. Anchoring the whole thing is Tony Soprano, the lead character, so tenderly and yet explosively played by James Gandolfini.
In the first episode, Tony reveals himself to be more complex and intriguing than such characters usually are. He is having some kind of emotional crisis, midlife or whatever, and is subject to collapsing without notice no matter where he might be. So he swallows his macho pride and goes to see a psychiatrist--a female psychiatrist at that, expertly played with sly understatement by Lorraine Bracco.
(For at least the first five episodes, Soprano's wife, played by Edie Falco, still thinks the shrink he's seeing is a man. "The Sopranos" abounds with deceptions, casual and momentous.)
Soprano also goes on Prozac to help alleviate his anxiety attacks, which the drug isn't much good for. It seems to be helping with depression, but his worries keep escalating. And the two families of which he's a prominent member have a way of overlapping; Soprano's monster-mobster-mother, played with stony ferocity by Nancy Marchand, is conspiring with a skanky hood who happens to be his rotten old godfatherly uncle to have him eliminated.
At heart, the series isn't really about the mob at all, but about families and their woes, and about the way societal and technological change can knock one's equilibrium all to hell. It's about moral choices made on a landscape of moral desolation, about the inevitability of corruption at all levels, about the will to survive and the insistence on finding hope where, according to the laws of logic, none should exist.
The idea of a mobster consulting a psychiatrist has also been used in recent months at the movies: "Analyze This" with Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, and a National Lampoon farce "The Godfather's Analyst," both flops. "The Sopranos" is a resounding hit, going great guns and gangbusters for HBO. The network's original raison d'etre was to beam movies into American homes, but as cable movie channels have proliferated, it has relied more and more on creating its own programming and attracting paying customers with that.
HBO executives believe that "The Sopranos" may have attracted as many new subscribers to the service as any other single HBO program. When the 13th episode aired in the spring, its 12.6 rating and 18 share in HBO-equipped homes were better than those earned by any other network. It was the most-watched first-run series episode on HBO in the last 10 years.
"Sopranos" is also the highest-rated prime-time cable series in the last five years, with each episode attracting an estimated 10 million viewers over its four runs per week (there'll only be two runs per week of the "encores").
One reason for the show's success is that HBO meddles less in the content of its original programming than the broadcast networks routinely do (Fox is widely considered to have the most interfering executives of all). Chase said in an interview with Salon magazine that his series was pitched to all four broadcast networks--and all four said no.
"I don't know why network TV couldn't bring you this show," Chase said. "I don't see why it should be that cable is the only place for it. Well, maybe because network TV is about people talking and communicating and coming out with a resolution at the end. With 'The Sopranos,' people talk to each other and they really aren't communicating. That's what happens in life. We're all kind of speaking the wrong language."
"The Sopranos" doesn't seem to have been concocted according to TV's usual demographic rules and regulations, but its appeal is obviously broadened by the fact that it deals with several generations of mobster families. At the youngish end of the scale are Michael Imperioli, splendidly sleazy as Soprano's restless and volatile nephew; Steve Van Zandt, a former member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, as a soldier in Soprano's army; and Jamie Lynn Sigler as the not-peaceful Meadow, looking for trouble and finding it.
Celebrity fans of the show include unimpeachably astute film critic Pauline Kael, who told Time magazine that "Sopranos" has "some of the foxy double-edged humor that made 'Prizzi's Honor' so entertaining" and praised Gandolfini for being such a "witty" actor. Gandolfini has appeared in many films--he played a small-time pornographer in the nasty "8mm" this year--but "Sopranos" has put him on the map. Everywhere he goes he is recognized as either that actor who plays the mobster on HBO or, mistakenly, as an actual Mafioso.
To deflect criticism that the series portrays Italian Americans in a bad light, a pair of FBI agents in later chapters turn out to be Italian American themselves. And many of the characters, however flawed, evoke great empathy with their fears and fallibilities. Soprano puts his mother, who grows increasingly irrational, in what he calls "the most expensive retirement home in New Jersey." Her reaction? She tells him on one of his visits, "I wish the Lord would take me now."
The specifics of "The Sopranos" are less important than the universalities in the drama and the relationships. Ironies abound, friends become enemies, loyalties crumble, mortality looms.
Some viewers say they opted out of the series because of the graphic nature of its violence. But in fact the violence is by no means glamorized or romanticized as it is in many other popular entertainments; all the whackings are shocking, though not necessarily explicit. In one episode, a young mobster is shot to death while he smokes a cigarette in the bathtub. We hear the gun go off but don't see the impact of the bullet; instead we see the cigarette fall into the tub as the water turns a deadly red. (Only in the next episode do we see that bullet entered his brain through his right eye.)
Full of surprises and brilliant touches, "The Sopranos" is addictive, engrossing and sometimes absolutely amazing. It's the best new drama series of the year. Too bad ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox couldn't come up with anything nearly as good, but then seasoned viewers probably wouldn't expect them to anyway.
CAPTION: Anxiety-prone mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) tangles with his mother (Nancy Marchand) in HBO's hit drama series.