David Chase stares down mournfully at his plate of artichoke hearts, looking as if he'd broken every one. The man responsible for "The Sopranos," our nation's most highly praised TV drama series, the man who created mobster Tony Soprano and his wife and two kids and mistress and therapist and homicidal mother and who absolutely electrified viewers and critics with them, seems nearly forlorn about the show's constant chorus of acclaim.
"I'd rather I didn't hear it," he says. "It just colors your thinking too much. There's been so much positive said, it's become this big wave of hype."
The little artichoke hearts seem on the verge of tears, as if animated by Disney. "So when the worm turns," Chase wonders aloud, "is it going to be just as bad going down?" Will people start hating the show as much as they now love it?
An advance look at the first few episodes of the show's new run strongly suggests Chase's fears are unfounded, but he knows how quickly worms can turn in this media-mediated world. And then there's this: Worrying may be Chase's favorite form of exercise. Dressed entirely in black, bearing a slight facial resemblance to movie mafioso Joe Pesci, Chase seems on the brink of misery. Perhaps it's just caution. If he acted as happy as he ought to be, he might look like a giddy goof--and risk angering the fickle gods of success who smile so warmly on him now.
You know, those worm-turners who can upset apple carts at the drop of a hat. And mix metaphors without so much as a by-your-leave.
Chase is living that "life beyond your wildest dreams" we all dream about, and it scares him. Too much, too soon? Well, not that soon; he's 50, and a veteran scribe, as the trade papers call writers. But nothing he's scribed has created a sensation to approach, much less equal, this mesmerizing tale of a suburban mob boss and his family and the lives and deaths of the New Jersey gangster community.
But, wonders Chase, will fans of "The Sopranos" return in full force when the show begins its second season of 13 episodes, tonight at 9 on HBO? And will they like what they see? HBO sources believe "The Sopranos" has brought more new subscribers to the pay-cable network than any other single show, so tonight's season premiere has to be the most avidly anticipated attraction in HBO history.
Not that Chase is contantly moaning and kvetching. After all, he has long known life in the trenches of the Hollywood writer. What he also knows is that if "Sopranos" were on a broadcast network, vice presidents by the dozen would be meddling in it, house censors would be bowdlerizing it, and nearly as much blood would flow behind the scenes as onscreen.
"It is a dream situation, and I know that," Chase says, paying due credit to such HBO executives as Chris Albrecht, in charge of original programming, and CEO Jeff Bewkes. "And I am enjoying the success. There just hasn't been much time. We finished the first 13 episodes and went right into the second 13, plotting out stories. And we're probably going to do the same thing again--although I'm pretty beat."
He also notes pointedly--and with a trace of annoyance--that HBO has not in fact picked up the show for another 13 episodes. What are they, screwy? Maybe there are monetary sticking points, though Chase doesn't indicate that. The show's expensive, with a production budget of between $30 million and $40 million for 13 hours, and this year, to maximize the smash-hittishness, HBO is shelling out another $10 million just to promote the series. In a trade ad aimed at cable system operators, HBO promises "an unprecedented media blitz . . . the most extensive national advertising, acquisition marketing and point-of-sale support in HBO's history."
That would include commercials on all the broadcast networks, Bewkes says, if not for the fact that of those networks, only CBS is willing to sell HBO the time. And CBS won't allow HBO to include the air date or time of the series in the spots it does run. It seems "The Sopranos" have muscled their way into the neighborhood and scared the networks as perhaps no cable show ever scared them before.
Chase is grateful that "Sopranos" itself does not air on one of those "other" networks, though it was pitched to executives at the four majors--and turned down. Just as well. "I think it would have been a heartache for all concerned on both sides of the equation" if "Sopranos" aired on ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox, Chase says. "The network would have hated the show. We would have hated them, they would have hated us. It would have been a world of hate. Week to week, it would have been an attempt to do something that just couldn't make it.
"Everybody says that's because of the strong language and the violence. Well, there's been a lot of violence on regular TV. Not using the language would, strangely enough, put a real crimp in it. We're not doing it gratuitously. These people really do speak this way.
"But what really wouldn't have gone down with the networks is the pace, the kind of storytelling we do, the idea that the audience is there to really listen carefully and watch in an active, committed way. We wouldn't have been able to do any of that. The fact that you're supposed to remember something from Act 1 to Act 3--that's asking a lot of the viewer, according to the networks."
Chase is amused by some of the critical adulation. A kook in New York called "Sopranos" the most important event in American pop culture in 25 years. Chase smiles. "What do I think about that? I totally disagree. I'm in complete disagreement with that." Another critic said Chase had clearly been influenced in his work by such TV productions as England's "The Singing Detective" and Germany's "Berlin Alexanderplatz." But Chase says, "I only saw part of one episode of 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' and I never saw any of 'The Singing Detective.' "
Then there are those who analyze the character names, looking for dark hidden secrets. Why, for instance, is Tony Soprano's daughter named Meadow? Because, says Chase, he saw the name on a waitress's uniform once and liked it. Tony's lethal mama is named Livia, prompting some to compare her to a similar character in "I, Claudius." Sorry. Chase has an Aunt Livia, "and I always liked that name."
HBO's Albrecht wanted to call the series "Family Man," but Chase wanted "The Sopranos," stuck to his guns and got his way. HBO also hoped Chase would do 15 episodes this season instead of 13, but Chase said sorry, 13 is his limit. He's done a cameo for one of them--"just a Neapolitan guy in a cafe" during an episode most of which was shot in Naples. But Chase may hurl himself to the cutting-room floor: "I don't know whether I'll keep it in there or angle for a bigger role next year."
However universal the praise for "Sopranos" appears to be, there naturally has been criticism from some anti-discrimination groups for the way the show depicts Italian Americans. "I'm Italian American, 100 percent," Chase says. "Both grandparents on both sides were born in the old country." Chase and other members of the "Sopranos" company were invited to Italian American Day at Gracie Mansion in New York, and Chase says Mayor Rudy Giuliani is a big fan of the show. Likewise former New York governor Mario Cuomo, with whom Chase had lunch last year.
Chase has also taken pains to include many Italian American characters who are not mobsters: Tony's shrink, FBI agents, Tony's next-door neighbor, and so on. "Everybody's Italian in the whole show.
"You know, it's funny because there are people who complain about the Italian American thing, at least to the papers, and I'm sure there are people out there who agree with that point of view. And yet everywhere I go, and it's not only among Italian Americans, people come to me and they'll say, 'My Uncle Jimmy, he used to run numbers for Louie This, or Louie That.' Or whatever. They cannot tell you quickly enough about some tenuous connection they have to the mob. It's really something."
What does that say about us? What does it say that even though faithful viewers of "The Sopranos" have seen Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, shoot and throttle and beat people, and even make an attempt on his own mother's life (but hey, only after she had put out a contract on him), they're still likely to sympathize with him, like him, even root for him?
"If I think about that too much, it begins to influence what we do," Chase says. "But I think the main reason for that is, honestly, Gandolfini. I think maybe with another actor in that part you would not be rooting for Tony Soprano quite so much." About "25 or 30" people auditioned for the role. Obviously, Chase is glad that Gandolfini got it.
Why people like Tony Soprano is less puzzling to Chase than why the show has so many millions of fascinated fans, and why the series, though filled with graphic violence, appears to draw nearly as many women as men. Traditionally, female viewers do not watch this kind of show.
"Maybe it's because the women characters are important," Chase says. "It really is a family show even more than 'The Godfather' was. The women in that really were peripheral except for Connie, and you just saw her walking around in expensive coats. I think that may be it. It's those scenes around the breakfast table." Pause. "Maybe."
Where, meanwhile, has David Chase been all your life, at least until "The Sopranos" hit TV with such a fantastic splash? He's been steadily employed as a writer, winning the occasional Emmy for such dramas as "Off the Minnesota Strip," about teenage prostitution, and as a producer on such much-respected drama series as "I'll Fly Away" and "Northern Exposure."
He doesn't have any horror stories, as many members of the Writers Guild do, about years when he made only $473 or about long hours spent in unemployment lines.
"I never had a year where money wasn't rolling in, because contrary to what I thought when I was in film school [at Stanford], I am very risk-averse. So I was always trying to line up these TV term deals, development deals, and I would go from one to the next. And I got used to living like that. There was always a certain amount of money coming in. I'd write a pilot script, I'd write a movie feature, I'd write another pilot script. But nothing, nothing, nothing would get produced. So it was very frustrating."
The notion that writing for the movies is inherently a nobler calling than writing for television--especially when writing for television is something like a series or movie for HBO--is dead, Chase says. Still, he's happy that he has a deal to make a movie once he gets a break from "Sopranos." The title of the script is "Female Suspects." And sounding just a little like Tony Soprano, Chase leans in and says, "You know when I first wrote that movie? 1981!"
Whether "The Sopranos" is as big a hit as last year, not quite as big a hit, or a much bigger hit, some sizable degree of success appears inevitable, and that's even if a few critics start defecting or writing on-second- thought pieces. And so Chase is told, as he slips into his black cashmere overcoat, that there's probably no point in wishing him well with it.
"Oh no," he says emphatically. "Wish us well. Wish us well!" He's not taking anything for granted, and that fact alone is one of the reasons why "The Sopranos" seems certain to keep soaring. Is it as good as television gets? No. It's better.