David Chase has the matter-of-fact directness that is the hallmark of those who are truly at home in their creative skin. And the creator of The Sopranos had some plain-spoken, instructive things to say about the show and the TV business last week when he was quizzed by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta at a breakfast in New York hosted by the Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Asked to talk about his modus operandi, Chase unpacked the oft-told story of how all the broadcast networks passed on The Sopranos. But he also deftly analyzed the current pitfalls of prime time. Chase said that one big change from his pre-Sopranos days (when he wrote for such distinctive series as The Rockford Files, I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure) is that the amount of commercial time in an hour of prime time has more than doubled. “There’s a big difference between having 51 minutes and 41 minutes to tell a story,” Chase said.
Indeed. Sustaining dramatic tension across five acts in an hour seems like a major feat in itself; doing it while being strafed by more commercials than ever verges on the impossible.
Chase also decried the propensity of shows about lawyers, doctors, and cops and robbers to promote a fundamental falsehood about life. “So much of it is a glorification of authority and an attempt to convince the American people that life isn’t tragic, that everything works out, and all those cops and all those firemen and all those judges and all those doctors—they really care,” he said. Chase’s choice for the most honestly wrought character on a major network: Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons. “He’s about the best you’ll find.”
It’s essential in any TV entertainment, Chase said, for characters to ring true. In The Sopranos’ first season, HBO executives were unenthusiastic about a script that depicted Tony Soprano escorting daughter Meadow on a tour of prospective colleges but making a side trip to murder a mob turncoat. Chase said he was warned: “You’ll lose the audience. Tony will no longer be sympathetic.” Yeah, right. Chase fought to keep the storyline, he said, knowing that Tony’s actions were in sync with the reality of the man. Viewers agreed: The episode remains one of the most memorable in the series.
Chase mentioned something else that helps explain The Sopranos’ success: He’s a musician at heart. Before ever writing a word for TV, he just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll. Given the propulsive rhythm of so much of his TV work, it’s not surprising that he favored the bass and drums.
As a teenager, Chase said, he used to smoke pot in his basement, turn off the sound on his TV and spin pop tunes to the images, mesmerized when he discovered an absurd juxtaposition that nonetheless worked. Years later, The Sopranos would specialize in making startling but somehow savvy music choices.
Speaking with Auletta, Chase gave the slightest glimmer of hope that the sixth season of The Sopranos, now in production and slated to return next year, might not be its last. The coming season is fully plotted out, he said, but it wouldn’t require a drastic overhaul if HBO persuaded him to go another round. Chase’s only reluctance to sign up for No. 7 seems to stem from a sense that his watershed creation simply may have run its course.
Whether this is the last season or not, Chase said, he’s done with series television, because he could never top his Sopranos run.
Meanwhile, Chase offered one other piece of advice for colleagues toiling at the networks: “Take 10% of all that money you spend on development and put it on the shows you think are the most unlikely to succeed.”
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