When The Sopranos ruled supreme
Joss Whedon is a geek icon today, thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. But remember, Whedon also saved the sanity of many writers when he fled to television with Buffy in 1997.
Of course, Whedon had a number of movies stuck in development hell that didn't get made, and moving over to TV, which his agent advised against, got his stories back on the fast track.
Where television wasn't a place where serious modern day writers plied their trade, after Whedon went over to the medium, and once the Sopranos exploded two years later, many writers fled to TV because their ideas got out into the world much faster, and with cable they had more creative freedom to create darker stories.
Years ago, I spoke to Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green, who were two writers on The Sopranos. They told me the premiere party of the show was held in the basement of Tower Records in New York with several hundred people in attendance.
Of course, no one had any idea the show would eventually have its season premiere at Radio City Music Hall and were clueless about what the public would think of the show. All Burgess and Green knew was they thought the show turned out well, and they had a lot of fun writing it. That night, Green told David Chase, the creator of the show, "this will either change television or sink like a stone."
And as history proved, it did the former instead of the latter, but it was a hard won battle. Chase had been pitching the idea a mob comedy for years, but nobody was interested. When he wrote a Sopranos pilot for Fox, he asked Burgess and Green if they were interested in coming aboard. Fox TV passed, and so did CBS before HBO said yes.
It's hard to imagine The Sopranos on network television, but as Burgess and Green recalled, it was the exact same show, just without some of the language.
"The difference would have been that it would have been very hard to write the show as we subsequently wrote it for a regular network," Green says. "I don't know if Tony would have been allowed to kill anybody, that sort of thing. The likeability factor."
Where shows like Deadwood and The Sopranos clearly aren't worried about "the likeability factor," it was still a big step when Tony finally killed someone on the show. It was the only time Burgess and Green recalled debating anything with HBO, but they had a lot of internal debate about it as well.
"We went at it with some trepidation, but it was a creative decision that was made, and I think it was the right one," Green explains. "David's point was that it's a mob show. These people are killers, and we wouldn't want to lose our credibility by having a soft-hearted mob boss."
The characters on the Sopranos often lead two separate lives, which makes writing the characters on the show an even greater challenge.
"Some TV shows that we've written for, which shall remain nameless, you could put any line of dialogue in anybody's mouth... You could switch them around, and it doesn't matter because it's mostly a debate of ideas more than characters. But these characters are so distinctive, they all have their own voice, and that's what made it such a pleasure to write."
The Sopranos often captured a great reality of the mob, that there's usually a lot of downtime. Some of the funniest scenes on the show have the members of Tony's crew watching T.V., hanging out at the Badda Bing, and having pseudo intellectual conversations when they're bored.
"That's what David likes, the every day boringness of these people's lives," says Green. "If it weren't so boring, we'd show it more!"
Many in the Mafia loved the Godfather when it was released in 1972, GoodFellas was a big hit with wiseguys everywhere, and as it turns out, people on both sides of the law enjoy The Sopranos. Green and the creators of the show have heard indirectly that members of the mob as well as the FBI are fans.
"They think some of the characters and incidents are based on them," Green added with a laugh. "They've even read FBI transcripts where real life Mafioso were caught on tape talking about the show."