The Fascinating Story of How David Chase Turned HBO Into a Cultural Powerhouse

Introducing the Ad Age Summer Weekend Reader

By Published on .

'The Sopranos'
'The Sopranos' Credit: HBO

Today we're kicking off the Ad Age Summer Weekend Reader -- a fresh post each Friday afternoon that serves up an in-depth read about media and/or marketing. Basically, great stuff we're eager to share with you, with an emphasis on newly published articles that use stellar writing and compelling narrative to explain how our world really works. Think of them as smart reads for the beach or the train.

Our first pick is an article from July's GQ, "The Night Tony Soprano Disappeared," that is actually a book excerpt from "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, from The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad," in stores July 3 (but already available on Amazon). The issue of GQ was, eerily, already in print and on newsstands when James Gandolfini died last week.

Author Brett Martin, who spent plenty of time on the set of "The Sopranos" while working on his book, has added a brief forward to the online version of the excerpt to acknowledge Gandolfini's death and put his legacy in context: "It is not too much of a stretch to say that if Gandolfini had not gotten the role of Tony Soprano -- as, by all rights of all television rules ever written, he shouldn't have -- and attacked it with such gusto, television would not be what it is today. Without an actor capable of finding Tony's melancholy, his soulfulness, his absurdity and his rage, the era of TV antiheroes may never have found its foothold."

The excerpt explores Gandolfini's demons -- including his tendencies toward "self-directed rage" and "passive-aggressive fits," which sometimes resulted in him refusing to come into work, or even disappearing without explanation, causing production on "The Sopranos" to grind to a halt. But Martin's narrative has more to do with how writer/showrunner David Chase's creation transformed HBO -- and in turn transformed television. He writes of how "The Sopranos" begat "The Shield" and "The Wire" and "Deadwood" and "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" and beyond:

In the most maligned of mediums, there had suddenly opened a window in which it would be possible to create great art. And a generation of ambitious, complicated, hungry writers stood ready to seize the opportunity.

In the hands of these all-powerful, all-knowing showrunners, television became nothing less than the dominant art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the equivalent of what the Big Novel had been to the 1960s and the "American New Wave" cinema had been to the 1970s. TV is now the place you go to see artists grappling with the big questions of late-stage, decadent American capitalism: family and work, sex and violence, addiction and warfare. And it was with "The Sopranos" that the era of the new auteurs of TV began.

It's a fascinating, richly detailed read with great anecdotes about how David Chase came to accrue "godlike powers" as he oversaw a lavish production -- "cast and crew lunches often included lobster tail or prime steak" -- unprecedented in the history of TV.

It runs just under 5,000 words and you can read it here.

PRO TIP: If you plan to read it on a mobile device this weekend, but might be out of cellular range, we're fond of the Pocket app, which will allow you to save the piece to read later at the beach, or wherever.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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