By the time the groundbreaking HBO series The Sopranos aired its final episode on June 10, 2007, the medium had been transformed. During its six years on the air, The Sopranos changed everything about the way we watch and think about television and it marked the unofficial start of the era now known as Prestige TV, where television is thought of as highly as film, and the width and breadth of its content is as varied as the audience who watches it. And what would we have been without this whole new universe of television content last year, during a pandemic that forced us all into our homes, desperate for stories and escape. In more than a few ways, we have The Sopranos to thank for the caliber of shows that saved our lives in 2020.
The Sopranos broke the mold in so many ways, eschewing previously-standard ways of thinking and approaching television series. Because it was on cable and HBO desperately needed it, creator and showrunner David Chase could make the show he wanted to make, and that meant breaking all the rules. No more adhering to the rules of broadcast television, no more being slaves to the September to May season, the strict one-hour format, the 24-episode season. The first season of The Sopranos aired in January and the final episode in April, just thirteen episodes. The gap between seasons 4 and 5 was a year and a half, the gap between 5 and 6 nearly two years. (So we can thank David Chase for this long wait for the new season of Better Call Saul!) It was a new world, where the showrunners called the shots, had total artistic control, and ended it when they wanted to. Remember when Lost, one of the best shows on television, kept going and going and became laughable because it just didn’t know how or when to end? That’s because, on network television, on which Lost had the misfortune to be, if you have a good thing, you keep it going, as long as its successful, damn the story. When Chase announced he was ending The Sopranos because it was time, even though it was at the height of its success, it ended.
And when The Sopranos finally did end, it was huge. For a showrunner to end a show on their terms was monumental. And to end it the WAY he did was even bigger. If you weren’t around in 2007 when The Sopranos aired its last episode, you won’t remember the worldwide sensation that came from the way the show ended. The last shot, which was a regular scene, with the Soprano family sitting down at a diner to eat dinner and then the screen just goes to black, prompted an explosion of theories, analysis and water-cooler conversation (back when there were water coolers and offices) about the meaning of it all. How could such a deep and meaningful show end in such a vague way? While everyone has their own interpretation of that ending, the one thing The Sopranos wanted is what they achieved: leave them wanting more.
And now, fourteen years later, we finally have more. Just not the more we were hoping for.
The Many Saints of Newark, a new film based on the David Chase-created Sopranos characters, directed by Alan Taylor and written by Lawrence Konner, is not the much-hoped-for sequel that will finally provide an answer to that final cut to black, but it is instead a prequel. It is ostensibly the story of how mob boss Tony Soprano (played in the original series by the late James Gandolfini) came to be boss, and how his family rose to prominence in the criminal underworld of New Jersey. But there are a few things that are disappointing and misleading about The Many Saints of Newark. First of all, the film isn’t even Tony’s story. Secondly, it feels like this film was only made because Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, is an actor, and it seemed too good a chance to pass up to have him play the younger version of his father’s iconic character. I hate to by cynical like that, but there is no way around it. There is a morbid curiosity at play here and it feels a little wrong to be capitalizing on it.
But all that could be easily overlooked if there was a compelling story to tell. Sadly, though, The Many Saints of Newark is not much more than a nostalgia grab—a manipulative and sometimes just plain weird attempt to capture some of The Sopranos past glory, with very little success.
And here’s the weirdest part of all: while they seem to be using Michael Gandolfini playing the younger version of the character his father played as the number one marketing tool, the character of Tony Soprano is not even a significant one in the film. The Many Saints of Newark is the story of the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti, played by Alessandro Nivola, Tony Soprano’s uncle, and father to popular Sopranos character Christopher Moltisanti (played in the series by Michael Imperioli). If your first instinct, like mine, was to say, upon hearing the movie was all about Dickie Moltisanti, “who??” then you’re not alone. After fourteen years waiting for more Sopranos content, the fact that we are given a movie about an unknown character who happened to the be the father of a supporting character from the show, is more than a little disappointing. But, okay, I was willing to give it a chance, let’s see what it does, maybe it will paint a really good picture of the world Tony grew up in and we will be able to really understand who he is and why he turned out the way he did.
No such luck.
Don’t get me wrong, Dickie Moltisanti’s story is a good one. He’s a lower-level mob boss, trying to keep his family, both real and criminal, together. He’s surrounded by a colorful cast of characters and he’s engaged in a violent turf war with a rival gang (led by a wasted Leslie Odom, Jr.). There’s really nothing ground-breaking, but there’s enough of a Goodfellas vibe to make it interesting. But it’s not a movie. The Many Saints of Newark needed to be a series, not a film. It’s cobbled together by moments of action and fan-service appearances of all of our favorite characters when they were younger, but there is just not enough here to latch onto as a full experience. It needed to be fleshed out and expanded to be a series. As it is, it is trivial at best, severely disappointing at worst.
That’s not to say there aren’t some truly fun performances, which make the whole thing worthwhile, starting with Corey Stoll playing an inspired younger Uncle Junior. Stoll does more than just mimic the original Junior, played in the series by Dominic Chianese, he makes him whole, alternatively hilarious and horrifying. Alexandra Intrator does a good younger Janice, but Billy Magnussen and John Magaro choose the comically mimicful route in their approaches to playing younger versions of Paulie and Silvio, which takes you right out of it instantly, despite how much you want to love it. But what is truly horrifying—in a good way–is the performance turned in by Vera Farmiga, playing Livia Soprano, Tony’s abusive and mentally unstable mother, played by Nancy Marchand in the original series. Farmiga’s performance is so right on, it is scary. If there is any characterization that completely and totally makes sense in the larger world of The Sopranos, it’s Farmiga’s, whose performance pulls it all together and explains so much about how the adult Tony was formed (and needed so much therapy). Additionally, the uncanny resemblance between Farmiga, playing Tony’s mother, to the actress who played Tony’s wife Carmela in the series, Edie Falco, is bizarre and intentional? No matter what, it certainly does make for some interesting contextual interpretations.
But, in the end, The Many Saints of Newark is as standard mob fare as you can get, with the promise of bigger things it does not deliver. As a lengthened-out series, it may have worked, but as a limited-vision film, it ends up falling far short of expectations. While it may satisfy some hard-core Sopranos fans, it left this one severely longing for a fade to black.