Carmela, I'm home!
An open letter to NBC President Bob Wright about The Sopranos
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/6/2001 8:00:00 PM
Hey, I got your letter dated April 23 about how The Sopranos is kicking the broadcast networks' sideways on Sunday night. You say you want to figure out what to do about it—what with all the sex and violence and profanity that HBO can do but you can't air without people having major conniptions.
You sent the letter to producers and other NBC executives inviting them to comment on "the nature of the content" of the drama and how it affects "mainstream entertainment and NBC in particular."
I got the letter because your PR department sent it out, and, given that publicity effort, I took it to mean that you are trying to find a way to stretch the limits of what is allowable on broadcast television and needed to write a letter in which you established the fact that not only had you done some soul-searching, you had even asked important folks in Hollywood to search theirs.
I searched mine just for the hell of it.
So I've been thinking about this, and naturally, the first thing I think about is that, on The Sopranos, quite a few people get whacked, quite a few women are seen naked at the Bada Bing and elsewhere, and there's a lot of swearing. None of that is going to get on NBC very easily.
But when I thought about The Sopranos a little more, it occurred to me that, while it's the nudity, language and violence that seem to differentiate the series from network television, that's really not the appeal of the series. Nor is it why it has won a Peabody Award and been compared to the greatest movies ever by The New York Times.
Let's forget the R-rated stuff and pretend that That's Tony's Life was proposed to NBC. Here's the pitch: That's Tony's Life is a dramatic series about a guy's family business, his eccentric partners, his unrelenting mother, his wise children and his long-suffering wife in suburbia.
That's The Sopranos—except on NBC and other networks, Tony would be handsome and in his late 30s. His wife would be gorgeous and working (architect? pediatrician?), the kids would be wise-crackers (and the daughter would be a sexpot), and Tony's mom would be annoying mainly by doting on him, not by psychologically torturing him.
If you tell me I'm wrong, Bob, you're fooling yourself.
Tony's co-workers would be hunks, too, and they'd be loyal to each other and always truthful to themselves. They'd always make noble decisions and always have profound revelations. Beautiful women at work would flirt, and sometimes they'd fall in love with these beautiful guys. No one would have ailments, certainly none that are messy.
Tony's family business would be a law firm or a fashion magazine.
Homes would be stylish. Clothes would be current. Weight would be perfect. And what you'd have, more or less, is a typical television show.
Before NBC can understand how The Sopranos is a hit, it must deliberately eliminate most of the demographically tested and blessed conventions of prime time and decide that some of its characters can, well, have real characters. In other words, Bob, watch Just Shoot Me and do exactly the opposite.
An important lesson from The Sopranos is also this: Viewers do not need to have characters to idolize, only stories with which they can relate to some degree. I admire the kinds of doctors I see on ER. I don't admire Tony Soprano, not most of the time. Tony Soprano loves and hates his wife and disappoints and shames his kids at the same time that they look up to him. Tony is loyal to co-workers one minute and will destroy them the next. Tony has a moral sense of right and wrong and no morality at all.
Maybe, ultimately, network television creates bland characters because shows have to stick around long enough to reach syndication. There have been fewer than 40 episodes of The Sopranos. I don't know if we'd be so excited about Tony's latest panic attack if there were another one in episode No. 127. But if that's the problem, it means networks and producers must devise an economic model in which each can profit even if programs come and go more quickly.
The fact is, Bob, television could have more characters like those on The Sopranos, fewer laugh tracks that tell us what's funny, and far fewer shouting promo voiceovers making exclamation points that double as lies. It's a matter of doing things differently, Bob, and that's always scary. Maybe you should try it.
Bednarski can be reached at email@example.com or 212-337-6965.
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