Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph of Non-Network TV

Naked Bodies, Three Showings a Week, No Commercials:
The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph of Non-Network TV

Published in This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos,
David Lavery, ed. Columbia University Press & Wallflower Press, 2002

Paul Levinson

Cable television was conceived in reflections. Born in the
1950s as a means of delivering network TV to areas of the
country unable to receive its signals broadcast on
electro-magnetic carrier waves, cable began to take wing in the
1980s as a medium of more original content -- or programming
somewhat distinct from networks -- with CNN's all-news and HBO's
all-movies. But even though HBO featured movies much newer than
those seen on network TV -- fresh out of the box office (hence,
"Home Box Office") -- it was still, after all, a second-hand
operation. The movies had already been seen by many viewers in
their original box office showings -- in theaters.

HBO's remedy was to field "made-for-HBO" movies. These
also enabled HBO to distinguish itself from competitors now also
offering cinema on cable. The best of the "made-for-HBO" movies
showcased important subjects (Murrow, 1985; Stalin, 1992)
and major network television and Hollywood talent (Murrow
starred Hill Street Blues's Daniel J. Travanti; Stalin was
portrayed by Robert Duvall). But though these were great
television movies, they fell far short of being great movies.
They were smaller, psychologically as well as culturally, than
Gone With The Wind, The Godfather, and Star Wars. They
were less daring, less experimental, than 12 Monkeys or The
Usual Suspects
. In all respects, and even at its most original
and important, the cable-TV movie was still second best.

HBO and its competitors also introduced a variety of gritty
documentaries on prostitution, crime, sex, and drugs. These
certainly went a lot further than network documentaries, in
subject matter and explicit treatment. At their best, HBO's
Taxi-Cab Confessions achieve a kind of down-to-earth, noirish
verite unavailable in most other television and cinema. And yet
when a history of the TV documentary in the past decade is
written, it will undoubtedly put Ken Burns' PBS work -- on the
Civil War, baseball, and jazz -- in first place of importance
and influence.

It took an original TV dramatic series -- The Sopranos --
to put HBO and cable TV in a class by itself.

Old Wine in New Bottles

The TV series was a natural for network television from the
very beginning. Its roots were in the Saturday movie-serial and
the radio series -- in some cases, radio provided the entire
tree (Gunsmoke was uprooted from radio and planted in TV).
Available in the home, free of charge (the advantages of TV over
motion picture theaters) and with pictures as well as sound (the
advantage over radio), the 30-minute and then 60-minute weekly
television series became enormously popular. Its ultimate
impact on cinema was the end of the neighborhood theater and
motion picture cathedrals like the Loews Paradise in favor of
multiplexes in shopping malls. Radio was forced to scramble for
new content, and in a master stroke (courtesy of Alan Freed)
discovered rock 'n' roll.

But the television series inherited a necklace of flaws
from radio. Punctuated by commercials, viewable only once and
then you were out of luck, sharply limited in its language and
showing of flesh, the network TV series carved a niche for
itself in a mostly sanitized, superficial never-never-land. In
contrast, motion pictures offered uninterrupted narrative and
opportunities for repeat viewing (in the 1950s, I sat through
many a movie twice -- though, of course, seeing the same movie
again on a different day required purchase of a new ticket). By
the mid-1960s, the motion picture codes that in previous decades
had frowned on even the word "pregnant" were gone; nudity was
in. These advantages of the motion picture theater were no
doubt in part responsible for its survival in any form in the
age of television.

Meanwhile, network television was beginning to improve, in
technology as well as content. The VCR, beginning in the
mid-1970s, allowed people to watch their favorite shows as often
was wanted, without commercial interruption. Sitcoms such as
All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show tackled much
more serious subject matter than I Love Lucy. Two decades
later, NYPD Blue even coughed up a little more realistic
language -- such as "asshole" -- and a very occasional very
quick glimpse of a naked body or two.

And yet the fixes were far from fully satisfactory.
Fast-forwarding through commercials on a VCR is not the same as
relaxing back in your chair and watching a program with no
commercials in the first place. Much more importantly, the
network television dramatic series were created -- written from
the very first word -- with commercial interruptions in mind.
It was and is a form of brief, ten-ish minute chapters, each
needing to conclude with some kind of climax or hook to keep the
viewer from wandering too far during the commercial break. This
form of course survives the expunging of commercials in VCR

And as for the language and nudity on NYPD Blue, it's
still unrealistically tame. Is there any cop who hasn't said
the word "fuck" to a colleague officer? You never hear it on
the ABC-TV series. And the nudity is mostly backsides,
including Andy Sipowitz's to boot.

Bada Bing! Nudity

The female nude was the most popular subject of high
Victorian photography, but no one talked about it then.
Indeed, naked bodies remained under the covers in popular
culture until Playboy in the 1950s, which in turn liberated
the motion picture in the 1960s. But network television stayed
recalcitrantly pure. Driven by the inexorable calculus of
simply attaining the largest possible audience for its
commercials, network TV's first commandment is "thou shalt not
offend". HBO's subscription revenues encouraged no such
restrictions. It was from the outset a medium midway between
magazines and network television. Further, cable delivered its
programming outside of the "public airways," which made it less
vulnerable to Federal Communications Commission intimidation.

Nudity in itself, however, is not all it's cracked up to be
-- at least, not as an element of narrative. Like all aspects
of drama, nudity in a storyline needs to be motivated to achieve
its best affect. There should be a good reason in the story --
a reason other than the viewer's enjoyment of the naked body --
that characters are unclothed. Otherwise, the nudity may
distract from rather than help tell the story.

Couples making love certainly is a logical place to
dispense with clothing. But this puts a big burden on the
storyline. We need to understand why our couples are having sex
at the time and place portrayed. And unless the story can
accommodate a good few minutes of attention to the couple in bed
-- the kind of attention you see in the soft porn on HBO,
ShowTime, and Cinemax -- the viewer may not get to see the
specific part of the body he or she is looking for.

The Sopranos's brilliant solution is to situate most of
its nudity in the Bada Bing! strip joint run by Tony Soprano's
aide-de-camp, Silvio Dante. The setting is an eminently logical
place to frequently find Tony and his crew discussing business,
and the naked women need no further motivation than that they
are dancing in the club. The viewer can sit back and enjoy the
show on at least two levels, plot unfolding at the bar or the
tables, eyeful on the stage.

Of course, the strip club has its limitations as a vehicle
of nudity. No males are seen naked; no full-scale sex occurs.
(Devotees of the former can watch HBO's also superb Six Feet
; and naked sex is all over cable, including HBO's Real
documentary series.) But Bada Bing! is nonetheless an ideal
locale -- doing for The Sopranos what the diner did for
Seinfeld and the bar owned by Munch, Meldrake, and Bayliss did
for Homicide -- but with a physically illicit explicitness
that gives sexual energy to whatever other story is unfolding.

Linguistic explicitness -- language, as crude as it gets --
is also a staple of The Sopranos, and heard throughout the
show. To this day, the TV networks rarely if ever go into
George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" territory (words, unlike
"prick," which have no saving double meaning -- their sound is
always vulgar or obscene), but the Sopranos say them all.
Speaking as a male viewer, I can't say that curse words are as
pleasurable to hear as nudity is to see in Bada Bing!, but their
presence in The Sopranos lends a reliable verisimilitude to
every episode.

Once is Never Enough

A classic critique of television, among those who worried
that it was undermining our literary values, was that its
stories were gone the minute after they had been seen. Unlike
the book, which offered endless retrieval of its pages already
read, or even the motion picture, which permitted viewing more
than once in a variety of ways, television basically gave it to
you once, and that was it. Summer reruns were minor exceptions.
Extended reruns in syndication, at first ignored, proved to be
one of the most potent forces in television and popular culture
with its vaulting of the original Star Trek series -- which
ran only three years in its first incarnation on NBC in the
1960s -- into a major phenomenon that would give rise to
numerous offspring series, motion pictures, and novels. And the
VCR, as mentioned earlier, allowed viewers who troubled to tape
the TV show the option of seeing it again.

But HBO's decision to present its original series,
including The Sopranos, more than once a week -- that is, to
replay the programs -- got much more directly at the human need
to see again. Offering each episode on Sunday evening, and then
at least two more times during the ensuing week, had two
advantages over just once-a-week network TV. First, viewers
could catch the episode if they missed the initial showing, and
in time to pick up the very next episode the following week.
Second -- but in many ways even more significantly -- viewers
could in subsequent showings pick up and appreciate complexities
and aspects of the program missed the first time around.

In all fairness to network TV, its evening programs began
in the 1950s as discontinuous episodes. They had few if any
ongoing storylines. The characters by and large remained static
throughout the season and even across new ones. There was
little if any benefit in seeing the show again. Only with
Dallas in 1978 and Hill Street Blues,
St. Elsewhere, etc in the 1980s did prime time TV
begin to indulge in continuing stories.

But even at their most complex, these night-time serials
were usually paper-thin compared to The Sopranos, whose depth
in effect expanded into a niche afforded by multiple viewings.
The result is an intensity and an intricacy seldom attained even
in motion pictures. Indeed, The Sopranos has more in common
with The Godfather saga and Goodfellas than either does to
its respective genres of television and motion pictures, and
this is not just because they all are mafia stories. The unity
also comes from their complexity, and the rewards obtained from
their viewing more than once. (A very few movies are so complex
that they almost cannot be appreciated until seen at least more
than once. The Usual Suspects is an outstanding example.)

The resistance of network TV to multiple showings comes
from its commercial structure -- why would an advertiser pay top
dollar to have a commercial broadcast on a rerun? HBO suffers
no such pressure.

But the lack of commercials frees HBO serials in a more
direct and powerful way.

No Breaks

There is a tradition for just about everything -- including
commercial punctuation of narrative. Certainly the acts of a
play are a form of punctuation, as are chapters in a book. But
few plays are an hour in length. And the reader of a book is
always able to move right into the next chapter, with no break
at all.

It is a triumph of human creativity that anything
worthwhile was able to emerge from the Procrustean bed of TV
commercial interruption. But from this commercial interruptus,
good, even wonderful television did proceed, ranging from The
Twilight Zone
to the best of Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, and NYPD Blue and ER more recently.

Yet few of these shows were as consistently gratifying,
episode for episode, as The Sopranos(and, of course, The
Twilight Zone
was an anthology, not a continuing story). This
is in part because the lack of commercial evisceration in The
makes each episode a short movie.

Probably the closest that commercial TV ever came to this
cinematic ambience was Homicide: Life on the Street. And that
show labored mightily, and not entirely successfully, to
transcend its commercial tethers. Many was a Homicide
episode that started off slowly -- perfectly fine for a movie --
but potentially deadly for a program that would break for a
commercial a few minutes down the line. And many was a
spectacular grilling by Pemberton in the box that lost a bit of
its momentum in a commercial break. No wonder Homicide
struggled in the ratings, and was eventually cancelled
notwithstanding its critical acclaim.

Undriven, unriven by commericals, The Sopranos is able to soar.
Threads in each episode can be as long or short as called for.
Nothing distracts from an intensity that beats like a nearing
anvil; nothing gets in the way of our quiet contemplation of an
endearing moment. There are interruptions, all right -- but
these are the interruptions of the rest of our lives during the

Sopranos as Prelude to WebCasting

It is no coincidence that cable TV found its narrative
stride in The Sopranos and like series at precisely the same
time as the Web was making its first series mark on our culture.
All the salient Soprano characteristics discussed here -- the
nudity, opportunity for repeat viewing, freedom from commercial
interruption that distinguish cable from network TV -- are also
found on the Web. Naughty words and images abound on the
Internet, they can be seen as often as desired, and such
advertisements as are found there are usually at the beginnings,
endings, and edges of documents and images -- they frame rather
than intrude. The Internet can thus be seen a potential
Sopranos writ large; or, The Sopranos can be seen as an
incipient Internet.

Of course, technology, however accommodating, is not enough
for great narrative. There must be human minds creating the
wine. The unique advantages of cable TV thus made The Sopranos
possible; in terms of science and philosophy, those
characteristics were necessary but not sufficient for The
. The rest reside with the writers, actors, directors,

But cable TV made them an offer that couldn't be refused.

reviews of the final nine episodes of The Sopranos (2007): First of Nine, Second of Nine, Third of Nine, Fourth of Nine, Fifth of Nine, Sixth of Nine, Seventh of Nine, Eighth of Nine, Ninth of Nine

further posts on the meaning of the series finale:

The Sopranos and Hamlet

The Sopranos End and the Closure-Junkies

The Sopranos, or the Tiger?

Sopranos Symposium at Fordham University, May 22-25, 2008: Final Program

*Note added 12 June 2007: The Sopranos finale drew 11.9 million viewers, and was the most-watched show on all of television, including the free networks.

The Plot to Save Socrates

"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly

"a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News

"Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book