In the beginning, nobody gave a rat’s derriere about Tony Soprano.
How about Carmela, Christopher, Paulie, Dr. Melfi?
As a matter of fact, the executives at HBO who were getting ready to put the thing on the air in 1999 were so concerned about the lack of buzz—“buzz” being that mystical, amorphous, undefinable frisson so essential for all successful entertainment projects—that they begged cast member Steven Van Zandt to invite his old pal and former bandmate Bruce Springsteen to the party for the first-season premiere. Having the Boss in the house surely would get some ink for the show, right?
“There’s not a person here at HBO, if they’re honest about it, who will say they thought it would be a breakthrough hit,” recalls Quentin Schaffer, senior vice president of corporate communications for the cable network, who has worked there 26 years. “Nobody thought that.”
Yet “The Sopranos,” which begins its final episodes Sunday, has become a certified pop-culture phenomenon, a series so broadly influential that even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen it: That is, it’s now undeniably part of the cultural air we breathe. Its characters are household names. Its catchphrases, its lumpy landscapes, its black humor, all resonate. The hulking, heavy-breathing figure of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) broods over the 21st century like a teddy bear with a shiv hidden in his flannel paw.
At first, though, nobody had any idea that audiences would cotton to a series about a New Jersey crime boss with a dysfunctional family. Hadn’t that territory been pretty thoroughly mined already by a little film called “The Godfather” and its dark-hearted spawn?
Yet the strange and wonderful and infuriating thing about the arts is that, to put screenwriter William Goldman’s aphorism into Sopranoese, “Nobody knows nuttin’.”
Every hit is the universe’s way of saying to smug know-it-alls: “Oh, yeah?”
Every “Friends,” every “Simpsons,” every “American Idol,” every “Seinfeld,” every “Da Vinci Code,” every “Memory-Keeper’s Daughter,” every “Harry Potter” is a surprise, an anomaly, a comet that makes all the astronomers recalibrate their instruments.
If it weren’t a surprise—if, that is, success or failure in the arts were like a math problem, and all you had to do was add up a column of figures to get a correct answer—then the arts would lose much of their punch and their magic. Art’s ineffable charm is its ability to astonish, to upend, to wipe away what everybody used to think was true, to make mincemeat out of yesterday’s wisdom.
The “who knew?” factor keeps critics and entertainment executives on their toes. It gives hope to the nobodies and the neophytes. It comforts those who’ve had past failures. It keeps the world young. Because no matter how mammoth the ad budget, no matter how famous the stars, no matter how many times the producer has played golf with the studio chief, there are some hits that can’t be bought, manufactured or forced down the audience’s throat. They just happen. They’re beyond rationality, politics, logic.
When someone inexplicably falls in love, we say, “The heart wants what it wants.” When, equally inexplicably, a show or a book or a movie becomes a hit, we can likewise say, “The public wants what it wants.”
And at first, nobody much wanted “The Sopranos.” Or at least nobody who counted, in the early stages. All four broadcast networks turned it down. Finally HBO said OK, but with a limited production budget and no guarantee of a second season.
“I thought it was about singers,” admits Virginia Rohan, an entertainment writer for The Record, a newspaper in Bergen County, N.J. Because of the New Jersey connection—“The Sopranos” is set in that state’s northern counties—HBO publicists contacted Rohan during the filming of the pilot episode, she recalls, offering a set visit.
Writers from other publications were invited, too, but few showed up.
Rohan had long, insightful interviews with series creator David Chase, as well as with any cast member she requested. Now that the show’s a huge hit, of course, you’d have more luck getting a sit-down with President Bush in the Oval Office.
“It’s just nuts now,” Rohan says. “But back then, they were really trying to get TV critics to write about the show.”
She attended that first-season premiere party, the one with Springsteen. It was held at a relatively small pizzeria in Manhattan. Nowadays, HBO screens each season’s premiere at Radio City Music Hall.
In 1999, Schaffer remembers, he “pitched it everywhere,” hoping for feature stories. Most editors passed. A Mafia family? Been there, seen that.
And then, something happened. “It’s that viral phenomenon,” Schaffer says. “It started to take off. Now, everybody says, `One of the greatest shows of all time. Part of pop culture.’ You can forget what it was like.”
The lesson of “The Sopranos” is not, of course, that quality always finds an audience. It doesn’t. Plenty of superb novels and excellent films and truly stellar TV series appear and then disappear without a trace. (Just as plenty of lousy ones seem to go on forever.) “The Sopranos” happens to be a great show—but being great is not enough. It never is.
The bewildering and exhilarating unpredictability of the arts—the fact that a “Sopranos” can go from obscurity to pop-culture externality with the speed of a mouse-click, or that a kid’s book about a myopic wizard with a pet owl can break sales records and send a whole generation of screen-oriented urchins back to the library—is one of the fabulous aspects of this most implausible of fields.
If you like your world to fit neatly into an actuarial table, to be as solemnly codified as the periodic table of the elements, then steer clear of the arts. They’re volatile. They’re crazy. They’ll break your heart. (I still grieve for a great NBC series called “Dream Street,” which I thought would run forever. It lasted a few episodes in 1989.) Then they’ll give you a reason to live. But you won’t know when, or how, or even if, a miracle such as “The Sopranos” is coming to town.
“We may not see this kind of thing again in our lifetimes,” concedes Schaffer. “But to be part of it, just once ...”
His voice trails off. You forgive him for not finishing the sentence.
He is, after all, a man in love. And the show that stole his heart is getting ready to say goodbye forever.