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Television The Sopranos is still the greatest television show of all time – this new 20th anniversary book won’t let you forget

Authors Matt Zoller Seitz, left, and Alan Sepinwall, right.

Courtesy of Sirk Productions

The Soprano Sessions front cover.

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For the longest time, I’ve considered myself a Sopranos superfan. Perhaps THE Sopranos superfan.

As a teenager, I followed the New Jersey mafia drama since its debut 20 years ago this week – Jan. 10, 1999 – often employing illegal online file-sharing services to download the episodes, as my parents wouldn’t fork over the money to subscribe to the Movie Network (Canada’s HBO equivalent) so a 16-year-old could learn about the subtle art of “waste management.” In the years since creator David Chase inflamed America with his infamous cut-to-black series finale, I’ve rewatched my precious Sopranos DVD box-sets over and over (last count: nine full-series revisits … maybe 10). And in 2013, a month after the death of star James Gandolfini, I organized what I thought was a supercool Sopranos trivia night at a downtown Toronto bar. Nine rounds of questions, worth 100 points, including a section on the show’s gangster-spouted malapropisms (Sample: Which character says, “Create a little dysentery among the ranks”?). I think four people attended.

But my fandom pales in comparison to the veritable Rhodes Scholars of Sopranos Studies, television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz.

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The two writers worked at New Jersey’s Star-Ledger – the same newspaper that Tony Soprano would lumber down his driveway to pick up nearly every episode – when HBO launched the series, and have each written hundreds of articles and recaps as the show journeyed from premium-cable curiosity to cultural touchstone. Now, two decades and several media-industry shifts later (today, Sepinwall is the chief TV critic for Rolling Stone while Seitz is the TV critic for New York magazine), the pair have reunited to write The Sopranos Sessions, a 20th-anniversary analysis of what they rightly call the greatest and most influential series in television history.

The massive book, which arrives this week, not only offers deep-dive essays on every single one of the series' 86 episodes (including copious David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes), but also includes an intense, insightful multichapter interview with the usually press-shy Chase. What’s more: Chase finally clarifies the ending. Sort of.

“It took us months just to get him to say yes to the interview, because he feels like he’s discussed the show enough – and the fact that there’s still so much attention focused on the ending,” says Seitz over the phone from Brooklyn, where he also acts as editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com. “He was worried that if he gave another interview it would be another media and audience dog-pile on what the ending means. And I don’t know what to tell him, because it’s happening again now. What can I say? This is what happens.”

Indeed, since excerpts from The Sopranos Sessions began making their way online in recent weeks, the fate of Tony – who in the series' final minutes stepped into Holsten’s ice cream parlour, popped an onion ring in his mouth, turned on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin' and then dropped out of our lives forever – has been dissected and debated once again, an echo of the online-detective frenzy that erupted back on the evening of June 10, 2007. But for Chase (who early in The Sopranos Sessions has a pseudo-Freudian slip concerning the ending), and his latest interrogators, to demand a definitive answer is to miss the point.

The series' real legacy is its dedication to subversion – to blend intense drama with outrageous comedy, to turn despicable characters into heroes, to transform a historically superficial medium into something cinematic. Nearly every so-called prestige drama that’s followed – including Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, to name two productions from veterans of the Sopranos' writing room – owe a blood debt to Chase.

“It was because of The Sopranos that you got The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and on and on and on,” says Seitz. “The thing with an HBO show model – and I mean stuff that’s also on AMC or Showtime, because to me they’re all trying to be HBO shows – is that it’s reality with one moral puzzle piece removed. There’s this one piece of prevailing moral or ethical wisdom that’s removed from the puzzle, but you have to treat the puzzle as if it’s complete.”

“It’s the most influential scripted television show since I Love Lucy,” adds Sepinwall, in a separate interview. “With a lot of the shows that imitated The Sopranos, if you watch them a second time it’s less rewarding, because most shows are all about plot. Here, it’s much more about character and theme. No television drama was better moment to moment than this was.”

It was during their own rewatches that Sepinwall and Seitz also came to some surprising conclusions about the series, which only reinforced their sense that Chase was interested in making much more than a titillating crime thriller.

“The thing that jumped out this time was the thematic consistency on the idea of consumption and waste,” says Seitz. “This is a show about waste: waste of resources, waste of capital, waste of human potential. And it tells you that from the beginning, when Tony tells [his psychiatrist] Melfi that, ‘I came in at the end, the best is over.’ He’s talking about his fear of his organization, and by extension America itself, which is at the beginning of an irrevocable decline. And by the end, his fears are proven true. Everything is fading. There’s that scene in the finale, where Little Italy has literally been subsumed by Chinatown. This is a show where the main character is a gangster who says he’s a waste-management consultant. It’s creation and destruction.”

Seitz and Sepinwall partially wrote the book out of concern that the series' influence has been diminished in recent years. “The thing I worry about is that it’s been left behind a little bit, because it’s not on Netflix, which seems disproportionately important for a lot of younger viewers,” says Sepinwall. “And it’s been copied so many times that’s it become fashionable to say, yeah this is the show that started it, but other things have improved upon it. … But god knows what HBO would look like now if it didn’t have The Sopranos to begin with.”

And starting in 2020 (or thereabouts), The Sopranos will aim to re-establish that legacy all over again, as Chase readies his spinoff film The Many Saints of Newark, which will take place about 40 years before Tony and his crew dominated North Jersey. Chase, whose only post-Sopranos project was the barely remembered 2012 film Not Fade Away, will write the new movie alongside one-time Sopranos writer Lawrence Konner, while its director will be series mainstay Alan Taylor.

“David is so protective of the legacy of the show, so he wouldn’t be making [The Many Saints] if he didn’t believe it wouldn’t be great,” says Sepinwall, who notes in the book that Chase originally hoped HBO would pass on The Sopranos' pilot so he could turn it into a film.

"I do think there's some part of him that's never going to be able to let go of the fact that he wanted to make a movie out of this and didn't get to," adds Sepinwall. "But also, if you watch the show, you might be able to gather that David Chase is a pessimist by nature."

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The Sopranos Sessions by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall is published by Abrams Press ($38)

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