HBO’s hit The Sopranos is retrospectively viewed as a ground-breaking series that altered the course of television in the 21st-century; however, David Chase, the show’s own “Godfather,” initially struggled to get the gangster series made. The Sopranos premiered on HBO in January 1999 and concluded in 2007 after a six-season run.
The Sopranos follows Tony Soprano, the patriarch of the Italian-American Jersey-based Soprano family and a “caporegime” (underboss) for the DiMeo crime family. Throughout the course of the series, Tony climbs the ranks of the crime organization, eventually taking over its leadership. While the mafia served as a framework for the dramatic series, much of The Sopranos’ plot dealt with Tony’s personal life. The crux of the show was Tony’s struggle to maintain a happy home life while balancing his responsibilities to the mob. The series saw the slow but steady disintegration of Tony’s relationship with his wife Carmela. In many ways, the show was less about organized crime and more about marriage.
David Chase actually pitched the series as being primarily about a middle-aged man in therapy — who just happens to be in the mob. As Chase put it in his oral history for Vanity Fair, the show actually started as an idea he had for a feature film about a mobster in therapy. Originally, The Sopranos was pitched to Fox, who initially liked the idea; however, Fox passed after reading the pilot script, and Chase found himself — and his project — in “development hell.”
The project first began because David Chase had been hired by the television production company Brillstein-Grey, which was a collaboration between Bernie Brillstein and Brad Grey, to develop a gangster series. Grey worked with Chase to sell the pilot script; according to Grey, “every network passed.” Thankfully, after Fox turned down The Sopranos, Grey was able to leverage his professional connections with HBO to set up a meeting about the series. As HBO co-president Richard Plepler states in the oral history:
They came in here and said, ‘Here’s the idea: 40-year-old guy, crossroads of his life, turmoil in his marriage, turmoil in his professional career, beginning to raise teenage kids in modern society—all the pressures of every man in his generation. The only difference is he’s the Mob boss of northern New Jersey. Oh, by the way, he’s seeing a shrink.’
HBO liked the idea, and, as Chase puts it, “So I was plucked out of development hell at the last minute.” The series creator is now thankful for what happened, as he believes that “If The Sopranos had landed on network TV, it would have been different.” Certainly, the show would have turned out much differently if it had been produced for Fox — and it’s unlikely that the quality would have improved. Today, The Sopranos is remembered as one of the best television series of all times — an achievement Chase is no doubt proud of. Although the series concluded more than a decade ago, fans will soon get a chance to revisit some of its characters in the upcoming prequel film The Many Saints of Newark.