A fine ‘Sopranos’ bash

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

New York-The first thing you may notice about the fourth-season premiere of “The Sopranos” is what’s gone. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are gone. Just as they have vanished in what we call real life, they have vanished from their prominent place in the first frames of the “Sopranos”’ opening credits.
David Chase, the moody auteur who created the series, hated removing that very brief shot of the Trade Center, HBO VP Quentin Schaffer told me, “but he felt that if he left the shot in, it would be a distraction, and the program would be looked upon as a period piece, which it isn’t.”
A sad decision but, probably, the right one. Most people will not even notice, but in its way, this is another tiny memorial gesture.
As for Schaffer, he was shouting, not speaking, as he talked about the show-trying to make himself heard above a deafening din at a punishingly gigantic party thrown by HBO after a screening of the first two “Sopranos” episodes of the new season in Radio City Music Hall. That’s right, a television program had its season premiere in the magisterial Music Hall itself, with attendance estimated at 4,000 by new HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht during a speech prior to the screening and at 6,000 by Regis Philbin as he talked about it the next morning on “Live With Regis and Kelly.”
Don’t tell Regis, but I had a better seat than he did. I didn’t see him at the party, but more power to him. The party, held where the Rockefeller Center skating rink is during winter, was my idea of what hell must be like, except that hell is probably less crowded. For New Yorkers, though, this is de rigueur. They have a perverse affection for crowded parties, tiny restaurants and eternal, or at least perpetual, gridlock. To say the city has returned to “normal” is another way of saying, “Avoid it at all costs,” and all costs won’t even begin to cover it. Oh, but I digress.
Must Re-See TV
Obviously, something like “The Sopranos” doesn’t happen every day. Indeed, it doesn’t happen every year. So solicitous is HBO of the temperamental Mr. Chase that he was allowed to have as much time as he wanted to do his fourth batch of episodes. It’s been about 15 months, in fact, since the last new episode aired. But the reruns have been getting good numbers in the interim; HBO not only has the best shows on television, it has some of the most re-watchable shows on television. Must Re-See TV. Episodes of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which will return the same night as “Sopranos” (Sept. 15, one week before the broadcast networks begin their, yawn, new fall season), are funnier the second and third times they’re watched.
Albrecht spoke to the crowd in the Music Hall as did his predecessor in the job, Jeff Bewkes, who has since been kicked upstairs at Time Warner. Bewkes confided during aisle chat before the screening that he thinks this season’s episodes of “The Sopranos” will rank with the best, and from him it wasn’t just hype. He’s not a very hypey kind of guy. In fact, when I told him he should find a better seat for Regis, he said-well, never mind.
Many cast members were present and were introduced from the stage, among them “the don,” as someone called him, James Gandolfini, who in person looks alarmingly taller, thinner and trimmer than he does as Tony Soprano. It’s great acting that is partly a physical feat, as it was when Spencer Tracy rearranged his features to play Mr. Hyde as well as Dr. Jekyll-not to that extreme, of course, but when you encounter Gandolfini in person you get an even better appreciation of what an amazing actor he is.
The crowd was nothing if not tuned in to “Sopranos” lore. In one of the first scenes of the first new episode, Tony Soprano walks down the driveway in his bathrobe to retrieve the morning paper, the Newark Star Ledger. (Mrs. Soprano reads The New York Times.) This little moment got a roaring ovation from the crowd in the Music Hall. Why? Because it’s become an icon. They’ve seen Tony do it so many times in episodes past.
Regis theorized on his television show that this touch is probably unrealistic because Tony Soprano’s paper boy would be so intimidated that he would make certain to get the paper closer to the front door. Maybe and maybe not. By the way, the fact that I keep mentioning Regis has nothing at all to do with the fact that James Andrew Miller and I have a book coming out, “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of `Saturday Night Live,”’ and would like Regis to plug it on his show.
No, no. I would be mentioning this cherubic, brilliant and beneficent living saint of the airwaves anyway. Honest!
The audience in the Music Hall was incredibly tuned on and attuned to the “Sopranos,” laughing probably too hard at the funny parts but reacting in appropriate horror at the swift, sudden moments of violence. There are so few, and yet when they happen, they carry such weight. I found it somewhat distracting that so many people attending the event looked as though they could well be technical advisers to the production.
Security for the mob
In keeping with the relatively new tradition, the security for the screening and especially the party was extreme. To get into the party, you not only were hustled with a mob through a narrow space, thus making you feel like a squeezed cow on the way to oblivion, but you also had to wear-absolutely had to wear, warned the letter accompanying the tickets-a plastic bracelet made by the thousands for the event. Wearing the plastic bracelet made you feel, at best, like a patient in the hospital and at worst, of course, like an inmate in a prison camp.
We went through all this to get a first look at “The Sopranos.” In fact, the tapes of those two episodes were sitting in my living room. But this HBO event had a definite allure partly because it really was an event-because there just are no other television shows of our time to have achieved the singular stature and amazing mystique of “The Sopranos.”
Edie Falco, who so pungently plays Tony’s wife in the show, has one of the most telltale lines of dialogue in the premiere, a sobering note indeed. “Everything,” she matter-of-factly tells Tony, “comes to an end.” This sounded very much like Chase serving notice that the fourth season of “The Sopranos” could well be the last-or at least his last, should he be willing to entrust the project to other members of his creative team and move on to something else. Telltale signs in the first two episodes-even though as is traditional, “Sopranos” starts out its season somewhat slowly-suggest the last season may be not just one of the best, but the best period.
It’s not just a gangster soap opera. It’s about something. It’s about who really runs the world, and the first episode includes a reference to Enron and the particular breed of Tony Sopranos who ran that empire. Echoing an HBO slogan, Albrecht told the crowd, “It’s not a television show. It’s `The Sopranos.”’ One can scoff at this as corporate braggadocio, but “Sopranos” does bring to mind what Mikhail Baryshnikov once said in tribute to Fred Astaire: “The rest of us are dancing. He is doing something else.”