Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
I don't know what people expected from "The Sopranos" prequel movie, "The Many Saints of Newark," but many of the reactions have been along the lines of, "It's good; but not as good as the TV show." (That happens to be mine, as well.)
Meanwhile, some of the professional critiques (mostly, it should be noted, by movie critics) have been downright harsh.
Among the toughest was Manohla Dargis in The New York Times who called the film "a busy, unnecessary, disappointingly ordinary origin story."
There are a couple of reasons these critiques aren't surprising. For one thing, the expectations were off-the-charts huge for a new "Sopranos" story, so it would be difficult not to disappoint. For another, smaller-budget films are very difficult to pull off. Increasingly, they are not much in demand — even ones with lots of bang like a mafia story — because most of the cash, and commitment to theatrical runs, goes to those movies with car crashes, explosions and guys in capes and tights. That's not new because of Covid. The trend has been gaining momentum for a long time, and it's one reason why some great talents in filmic storytelling don't work as much in the cinema any more and have found a happy home instead in good old, no-italics-needed, TV.
David Chase, the brilliant creator of "The Sopranos," is perhaps the greatest example of this. It is difficult to imagine a film version of "The Sopranos" having anything close to the sweeping and enduring influence the TV show has had. Starting in 1999, the series created a new vocabulary for dramatic television in a new century.
In fact, it is now impossible to rank the greatest shows ever on television without placing "The Sopranos" at or near the top. And not only because it was executed with such consistent brilliance, week to week (back before shows delivered their whole seasons at once). The other reason is that "The Sopranos" was the lightning strike in the creation of what became the second golden age — and by far the superlative golden age — in the history of television. It opened viewers up to rich, deep (and dark) storytelling, where the medium's previous reflexive reaction to any sort of challenging material — the question, "But are the characters likable?"—was rendered utterly meaningless.
Numerous shows in the 21st century owe outsized credit to "The Sopranos" for its bold, unconventional storytelling, and especially that embrace of an amoral protagonist who dominated the series. Those qualities characterize many of the shows that came after "The Sopranos" and now compete with the show on lists of top TV dramas of all time: "Mad Men," "The Wire," "The Americans," "Deadwood" and especially, "Breaking Bad."
I have interviewed Chase on several occasions, and I have great admiration for the spectacular artistry he brought to his TV show. But he was always a bit discomfited by the notion that his great achievement had come on television, which, in my conversations with him, he clearly regarded as a lesser artistic enterprise than the cinema.
He still seems to. Chase, who attended film school at Stanford, grew up when movie theaters were enjoying their last gasp of being gathering spaces of grandeur, with giant red curtains and balconies and even opera boxes — palaces of blissful escape where people spent whole Saturday afternoons and nights gathered together to get lost in the magic of Hollywood.
It's easy to identify with that sort of nostalgia for the old-time movie-going experience; but it's lost. People are flocking to fewer and fewer movies in theaters these days.
That surely had something to do with WarnerMedia's decision to release the movie both in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day. (WarnerMedia is the parent company of HBO and CNN.) Chase, of course, chafed, publicly and bitterly, saying in one interview he was "extremely angry" at the decision.
He made clear from the start that he wanted this work to be regarded as a true movie — seen in theaters on a big screen for a legitimate run before it segued into an offering on HBO Max. He wanted his film to be treated differently because, unlike other films relegated by the pandemic to release on a TV streaming service, his had started out as a television series and needed to overcome the image of being a mere television show.
"Other movies didn't start out as a television show. They don't have to shed that television image before you get people to the theater," he said in the interview.
That's probably Chase's biggest misread of the status of his own creation. "The Sopranos" was a mere television show like "Macbeth" is a mere play — both violent dramas with morally compromised, charismatic heroes (and equally charismatic wives) that had an enduring impact.
If no TV show since has topped it, no movie version was ever going to either.