The Split Mind of The Sopranos – a study of Mad Men & Boardwalk Empire
I understand that this blog has for a long time been dedicated to films and film reviews, but television has come a long way since the days of old, my friends.
Since the renaissance of HBO in the late 90’s, television has changed into a medium that has nearly eclipsed cinema in every way. This change has reached what some critics now consider the golden age of television.
While many came before it, this entire awakening of the art is pretty much in debt to one show: ‘The Sopranos.’
Over the course of six seasons and eight years Sopranos became the flagship program for cable drama and brought HBO to the forefront of pop culture.
While on the surface the show seems like a kitschy cash-in on the filmmaking mob craze, creator David Chase brought to the masses a show most of us had never seen before.
The Sopranos became less about mobs and their relationship with families and more about one man’s struggle with himself. It was extremely cerebral and often brushed through the threshold of surreal. There truly is nothing quite like an episode of ‘The Sopranos.’
Sadly, most of its core audience failed to grasp its higher concepts and stayed more on the ground floor of the show being mostly about the Italian mafia. However, David Chase is the kind of man who could care less about people’s predispositions of his show, and instead delivered a polarizing finale that only further supported the surreal elements the show portrayed in previous seasons.
Once the show had concluded, the cast and crew went their separate ways, spreading the Sopranos seed across the channels of television and film, and this is where my theories begin.
Prior to his future employment as a writer on Sopranos, Matthew Weiner had written a pilot titled ‘Mad Men.’ This pilot episode eventually dropped into the hands of Chase and eventually Weiner secured a job writing for Sopranos during their 5th and 6th seasons.
On Sopranos, most of Weiner’s episodes often ventured into the more surreal elements such as ‘The Test Dream’ and ‘Mayham’ while at the same time handling the domestic troubles of Tony such as in ‘Soprano Home Movies’ and ‘Sentimental Education.’
The acquisition of Weiner’s talents really gave the last two seasons a big boost, especially within season five which is considered by some the best season of the show’s run.
Once Sopranos wrapped, Weiner was finally able to move on as show runner/creator of his pilot ‘Mad Men.’ The show proved to be a hit at AMC (as HBO shockingly turned him down) and established the network as possible competition for the HBO juggernaut.
Watching Mad Men, one can see the similarities between it and Sopranos. Both feature lead actors filled with many complexities and anger. Both suffer from parental issues; and both shows boast a colorful cast of ensemble characters.
Much as he sprinkled it on in Sopranos, Weiner uses the backdrop of the mid to late 60’s to bring in surreal elements such as in ‘Far Away Places’ when Roger tries LCD or ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ when Don samples some hashish.
Aside from drug use and dreams, Weiner also brings in the domestic drama he was known for, mostly in season six of Sopranos. Don Draper once begins as a nuclear family man, and as the show goes on, devolves into a single parent.
Being away from the mafia plotting of Sopranos, Weiner is able to make Mad Men a much deeper drama about family, racism, the dissolving class system, and man’s bitter relationship with women.
Many argue the show surpasses Sopranos, however one cannot ignore the fact that most of Weiner’s writing and ideas were further shaped during his time on Sopranos. After all, the more you write, the better your screenplays get.
On the other side of the television pond, another Sopranos writer was getting his big break with the television program Boardwalk Empire.
Terence Winter came on to Sopranos much earlier than Weiner. He is credited with some of the shows’ best episodes such as ‘University’ and the critically-acclaimed fan-favorite ‘Pine Barrens.’
His work often ventured more into the fun rock N’ roll attitude seen in most of Martin Scorsese’s work, often addressing the elements of being a part of the mafia, as well as its affect on a person.
Like Weiner, Winter’s post-Sopranos prospects made a big push when he became the show runner/creator of Boardwalk Empire.
Keeping in touch with the themes he touched upon in Sopranos, Winter created a period-piece show about the evolution of the Atlantic City boardwalk and its godfather, Nucky Thompson.
Blending history with fiction, Winter told a story on a much grander scale than Sopranos. Spanning Atlantic City, New York City, and Chicago, the show became a crime epic all about the rise and fall of infamous members of the mafia.
Taking yet another page out of Weiner’s book, Winter often sprinkled in the dream subplot of Sopranos to establish the complicated subconscious of his main character Nucky Thompson. It often feels the show does not need it, and Winter uses it sparingly as such.
Where Winter’s show flourishes most is its ensemble characters as well as its shocking deaths. The deaths can be attributed to the even-more shocking deaths in Sopranos or the fact that untimely demises are a hallmark of HBO programming.
Unlike Mad Men, however, Winter is not able to consistently pace out his seasons and conflicts. Most story lines often border meandering, and in this bloggers opinion, the show has begun to lose steam in its later seasons.
Winter went on to eventually (and ironically) write Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf Wall Street.
Now where does this all tie up? You’re probably asking yourself, but I think through these two shows we can see what an impact The Sopranos didn’t just have on television, but the very writers who worked on it.
Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are two halves of the one Sopranos whole. David Chase became a make-shift mentor for Winter and Weiner and both men went on to create shows that would rival some episodes of Sopranos.
Weiner’s stories of domestic drama & surrealist flashbacks perfectly go hand-in-hand with Winter’s revisiting of the mafia, and the darkness of men. Both male protagonists are cut from that same rough and edgy Tony Soprano cloth.
While it is clear Mad Men has gotten more of the acclaim, it cannot be ignored that both of these shows have become iconic programs. It is doubtful we will ever get two show-runners like this instantly from the conclusion of a show, but time will only tell.
But, if you can take anything away from this lengthy blog entry it is that we all have two sides of ourselves, and Sopranos two sides are within the two worlds of Mad Men & Boardwalk Empire.