Forgive us if we read some fairly grand themes into the first episode of the sixth season of The Sopranos, premiering on HBO on March 12th. Things are looking pretty good for Tony as the show begins Carmela is back, business is booming, and damn if that Meadow isn't becoming quite the hottie. Things are so fine, in fact, that Tony could be forgiven for thinking that things just might work out in Sopranoland. But in the final minutes of the premiere, Tony will be horrifically disabused of that notion. It's a shocking, apt and, on some larger level, a scarily violent moment that cuts right to the core of not only Tony's vulnerabilities but America's, too. If Tony is America — as the show seems to be saying — it is officially time for a national gut check.
On a recent morning, we visited the show's creator, the laconically intense David Chase. Chase shied away from making any of these extravagant pronouncements, but an hour of conversation with him revealed, in his mind, at least, that Tony Soprano is much more than just a fictional character.
Where did you learn about the Mafia?
I've been a fan of this stuff since I was a kid. My father and I used to watch The Untouchables all the time, so I'd like to think I have some intuition about it. Dan Castleman, our technical consultant, is an assistant DA in New York, and he did a lot to explain to us how the Five Families make their money. The business of the Soprano family is gambling and loan-sharking. That's the foundation.
So how much is Tony pulling down a year?
We've never really wanted to know that, but Dan estimated Tony's net worth at 5 or 6 million. One has to assume that Tony spends a lot of money gambling. Sometimes he's up and sometimes he's down — I think that's part of the package.
When making the show, are you thinking, ''Is this realistic? Is this how it works?''
Well, I don't think there have been as many whackings in the New York metropolitan area in fifteen years as we've had on one season. At the same time, I think for a mob show, we're actually restrained.
In The Godfather, there's this idea that it's not personal, it's business. But in The Sopranos, it's all personal. It never feels like it's just business.
Jim Gandolfini has a lot to do with how those things are perceived. Tony is probably more reflective than your average boss. He's probably more reflective than most corporate leaders, too.
So is Tony good at what he does?
I don't know if he's the best, but he's very good at what he does. And he is not so desirous of attention that he blows important opportunities. He keeps his eye on the ball.
Does he want his son to go into the business?
No. But at the same time, if the kid did, I think there would be some sense of satisfaction: ''He sees things my way. He wants to do what I do.'' That couldn't be a completely bad thing, emotionally.
But rationally he wouldn't want him to?
I don't think he thinks his son is capable. He has guilt and shame about the kind of son that he's raised — that he's soft and indulged.
Does he see that as his own failing?
He does. But Tony Soprano doesn't accept the idea of his own failings very long.
Because he's always going forward?
No, he's always blaming it on someone else. The fun part of writing this show is that no one's accountable. Everyone is blaming others for their problems. And no one is telling the truth.
Has therapy helped Tony, or is it just an other level of rationalization?
He's not having those panic attacks anymore. And I think it helped him in a few homicides, getting a few ideas of how to handle some things.
Do you personally think therapy is helpful?
I think it's probably really good in the short term, and there are times when people just need someone to talk to. But the classic talk therapy that goes on and on and reinvestigates every aspect of your infancy just plays into a victim mentality.
That's what keeps people coming back…
Therapists never want you to leave. I don't know any who say, ''Go ahead, little bird, fly out of the nest.'' Which is not to say I haven't been helped tremendously by therapy. My last therapist, Lorraine Kaufman in L.A., is the model for Dr. Melfi. She had the same way of cutting through your bullshit.
Have you discussed the show with her?
After three or four seasons, she wrote me a breakdown of the Soprano family. This is not a bible, but every once in a while we get it out. Strangely enough, these fictional characters have, in fact, behaved in the way she predicted they might, even though we might have forgotten she ever wrote it.
How do you keep it from being a soap opera?
I always rebel against the television aspects of the show. Any time it seems to go down the Melrose Place route, I get annoyed. I feel it's being imposed from elsewhere.
Is it tough when you kill a character? Do they in some way become real to you?
No. I have a lot of affection for them, but they're not real. Yet as I say that, here's what's going through my head: ''Pussy was an informer. He deserved it!''
What about Adriana?
Adriana was tough. We all felt bad that she had to go. But she was pretty stupid, and she was trusting — she loved Christopher and she shouldn't have. But she was great — everybody loved Adriana.
After all these years, what have you learned from Tony Soprano?
Maybe I've learned it's better to deal with things quickly [laughs] than to let them linger on or fester.