The two shows that changed TV forever

Twenty years ago, The Sopranos and The West Wing slipped on to our screens. Television would never be the same again, writes Ed Power.

The two shows that changed TV forever

Twenty years ago, The Sopranos and The West Wing slipped on to our screens. Television would never be the same again, writes Ed Power.

Sometimes the world changes and nobody notices. Not at first, anyway.

Twenty years ago two of the most important television shows of their era quietly appeared on the schedules.

Like bright and dark sides of the moon they were equally mesmerising even as they seemed to embody opposing philosophies.

Yet it was possible to love both utterly — as many did. And, a generation later, their legacies are still fiercely contested.

The Sopranos and West Wing represented different ideas of what great television should be.

The Sopranos updated The Godfather for the dog days of Generation X. It told of a New Jersey gangster, cursed — unlike his predecessors in popular culture — with self-awareness.

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini playing a depressed bull in a china shop that had seen better days) wanted to be a good husband and father and a conscientious boss.

Could he reconcile such noble instincts with the fact his day job was as Mafia don?

Before long it had become received wisdom that The Sopranos was a more important, more “authentic”, show than The West Wing, the White House drama that debuted eight months later.

The Sopranos was mean and dingy — the original of the “difficult man” species (it would create the ideal conditions for Mad Men, created by a Sopranos staff writer, and Breaking Bad).

The West Wing, by contrast, was perceived as floundering in boy-scout idealism.

Aaron Sorkin, creator of West Wing. Picture:AP Photo/Matt J. Terrill.)
Aaron Sorkin, creator of West Wing. Picture:AP Photo/Matt J. Terrill.)

With the Monica Lewinsky scandal tarnishing the office of the presidency, screenwriter darling Aaron Sorkin had tried to cheer up America with a fairytale liberal commander in chief: Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett.

Perhaps it is only now — as responsible governance in the United States and the UK crumbles beneath waves of populism — that The West Wing can be seen as more than merely a television show.

Did The Sopranos have a message beyond the meta one that TV could be as gritty, epic and wrenching as the best cinema (oh and that gangsters have feelings too)?

We may, by contrast, look back at The West Wing as a passionate argument for not giving lunatics the keys to the asylum.

One of these dramas has a powerful perspective that resonates in 2019. The other is about a mobster who feels a bit sorry for himself.

What The Sopranos and The West Wing share is an unlikely path to the screen. Really, neither ought to have made it. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, was TV’s reluctant visionary — a frustrated man obsessed with breaking into movies.

By contrast The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin already had proved himself at the box office. Like Chase, he had little interest in reinventing television.

Chase was exceedingly long in the tooth by the late 1990s, have started writing for The Rockford Files two decades earlier.

He’d had a decent career but felt he had sold himself short by never succeeding in Hollywood (with a Sopranos movie currently in production the 73-year-old is finally setting that to rights).

In 1997 he found himself in a meeting pitching an idea to the Fox network. What about a TV version of The Godfather?

There would be a twist — this new Michael Corleone figure wasn’t comfortable in his skin and was working through his issues with a therapist.

David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. Picture: AP Photo/Mel Evans.
David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. Picture: AP Photo/Mel Evans.

An emotionally conflicted gangster might not sound very revolutionary in our present age of mindfulness and man-hugs. But in 1999 it was a huge contradiction. Imagine — a Mafia boss who had personal issues, exactly like the rest of us.

Fox passed — deeming the idea of a sympathetic criminal beyond the pale. So the production company to whom Chase had signed —and which had originally suggested a Godfather for TV — took it to HBO.

Not that anyone noticed at the time but HBO had already fired a starter pistol on the prestige TV era with the subversively dark prison drama Oz (running from 1997 to 2003).

So executives were open to a contemporary riff on Mario Puzo.

“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,” a HBO executive would remember to Vanity Fair.

“The only difference is he’s the Mob boss of northern New Jersey. Oh, by the way, he’s seeing a shrink.”

The biggest challenge was finding the perfect Tony Soprano. Dozen of actors were tested.

Martin Sheen as President Bartlett in The West Wing. Picture: AP Photo/Warner Brothers.
Martin Sheen as President Bartlett in The West Wing. Picture: AP Photo/Warner Brothers.

In the end it came down to two. James Gandolfini was a doughy newcomer who had only taken up acting seriously at age 25 and was best known for a cameo as a sadistic goon in Tony Scott’s True Romance.

The other possibility was Steve Van Zandt, a guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band, whom Chase felt possessed the right mix of charisma and menace to bring Tony to life.

HBO blanched, worried about Van Zandt’s acting experience (he had none). So it was Gandolfini – a surprise to everyone, but especially the actor himself.

Van Zandt as consolation was cast as Soprano’s consiglieri, Silvio Dante.

“I thought that they would hire some good-looking guy,” Gandolfini would reflect. “Not George Clooney but some Italian George Clooney, and that would be that. But they called me.”

Oval Office

If Tony Soprano was the unlikely centrepiece of the show that would change television, then the ascent of Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlett was even less obvious.

As with David Chase, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin looked down on TV. He’d broken through in 1992 with the Tom Cruise-Jack Nicholson two-hander A Few Good Men.

More recently he’d had success with Michael Douglas as a Bartlett-esque POTUS in the Oval Office rom-com The American President.

That movie instilled in him a fascination in the inner-tickings of the White House. However, most of what he’d written about the president’s aids and functionaries had ended on the cutting-room floor.

Then he took a call that would change his life. He told Empire Magazine:

I had never thought of doing television. But my agent wanted me to meet John Wells, who had had a lot of success producing ER and China Beach

“The next day I walked into the restaurant and immediately saw this wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. This wasn’t just a ‘hello, how are you?’ meeting, because John was sitting with a couple of agents and studio executives from Warner Brothers.

“Right after I sat down, he said, ‘So what do you want to do?’And instead of saying, ‘I think there’s been a misunderstanding, I don’t have an idea for a television series,’ which would’ve been honest, I said ‘I want to do a television series about senior staffers at the White House’. He said, ‘Okay, you got a deal.’ President Bartlett was originally envisaged as a background figure.

"When Martin Sheen was cast — after Sydney Poitier proved too expensive — he was contracted for just three to four appearances per 22-episode season.”

Then Bartlett walked on screen for the first time towards the end of the pilot and thoroughly dominated the room. Sorkin knew that he had to build the show around him.

The strength of The West Wing would ultimately come from the tension between Bartlett’s high-mindedness and the tireless scurrying of his staff — a rag-tag portrayed by Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford — to make his vision work amid the complicated murkiness of the real world. It asked whether it was possible to stick to your principles when all around you were jettisoning theirs.

“I was the last one to join the cast and when I started it was just a peripheral character — the focus was to be on the staff, not the First Family,” Sheen would recall.

“When I did the pilot, my contract was for just three years and it was confined to maybe three or four episodes every season.

“The only restraint I had was that I could not play another president while the show was on the air. So, I kind of backed into one of the great events of my life and certainly my career.

"I only had one sequence in the pilot: I came in at the end and confronted the conservative right wing religious element and brought them low.

"But the lead-up to the character was so strong, it was so clear what kind of person occupied this office. It was a set-up like no other entrance I’d ever played in my life.”

Sheen had just one stipulation before he agreed to take the job full-time. Bartlett would have to be Catholic. Faith was the prism through his Sheen interacted with the world and he was important for his performance that Bartlett follow the same moral compass.

Tony Soprano was Catholic, too, of course and his psychological torment clearly in part sprang from spiritual demons (though he believed organised belief was simply another racket).

That wasn’t all the shows had in common. They flowed from very different artistic impulses but ultimately reached the same conclusions about the world: that there are no blacks and whites, merely endless shades of grey. It’s a message that arguably resonates more strongly in 2019 than in 1999.

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