Thursday, June 04, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: The Masterful Weave of The Sopranos Pilot

One of the hardest parts of television writing is “The Weave”. You not only have to come up with several excellent storylines that each have their own beginning, middle and end, but all of those storylines need to fit into the same timeline and interweave in a seamless and satisfying way. The “Sopranos” pilot, has an especially hard job to do, because it’s a full hour and weaves together seven different storylines. It does a fantastic job. Taste the Rainbow!

The Storylines:
  1. Restaurant story
  2. HMO story
  3. Therapy
  4. Mother
  5. Ducks
  6. Christopher and the Czechs and the Triborough towers contract.
  7. Meadow and mom Aspen drama.
How They Weave:
  1. 2:00 Tony in Melfi’s waiting room, then in her office 
  2. 3:48: Tony talks to Melfi as we see a montage of his life “I came in at the end, the best is over. My father never reached the heights I did, but he had pride”
  3. 4:30: Flashbacks continue: Tony is ecstatic about he ducks, nobody shares his joy, 
  4. 5;19: Wife, daughter, son, friend. Wife: Him with those ducks!
  5. 6:00 Tony in pool sees ducks trying to fly. 6:14: Carmela thinks friend is bad influence, Meadow wants to go to Aspen. Tony kisses his son, wishes him happy birthday.
  6. 7:13: Nephew Christopher is learning the business, mentions Tri-Borough deal, doesn’t have Tony’s work ethic 8:08 They see guy who owes them a debt. Melfi gets ethical ground rules out of the way. 9:14 Rolicking doo wop song kicks in, they kick guy’s ass. Tony runs the guy over, breaking his leg, laughing and having fun. Tony lies to Melfi. While beating, Tony says “you tell people I’m nothing compared to the people who used to run things.”
  7. 11:28: Social club, meet Pussy and others. Fucking Garbage Business, it’s all changing. 12:25: Uncle is going to do a wack in Artie Bucco’s restaurant 
  8. 12:51: Tony and Christopher meet in Artie’s restaurant. Tony eyes his Uncle
  9. 13:57: Tony brings a boombox to his mother Won’t answer phone after dark. Mom guilts him about not calling. Tries to dance with her. She refuses to go to retirement community. She won’t intervene with the uncle.
  10. 17:49 Tony Jr. complains to parents and priest, grandma isn’t coming. No fucking ziti now?
  11. 18:35 Tony is grilling, ducks fly away, he has panic attack and collapses, lighter fluid explodes
  12. 19:14 Tony in MRI, wife rolls eyes at his pain. “What’s different between you and me is that you’re going to hell when you die”
  13. 21.03: Christopher waits in butcher shop. Christopher has large poster of movie stars. Chris shoots the guy, buckets of blood, (FIRST NON-TONY SCENE, UNMENTIONED IN THERAPY)
  14. 23:02 Meet with Uncle “You may run North Jersey, but you don’t run your Uncle Junior”
  15. 23:41 Carmella and priest have a date, discuss Godfather II, Goodfellas, they hear an intruder, Carmella gets assault rifle. Intruder is daughter. Wife tells her she can’t go to Aspen. (NON-TONY SCENE)
  16. 25:00 Tony confronts Melfi about Italy, hits on her. She pushes him back to anxiety attacks. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type? He wasn’t in touch with his feeling.” He finally admits that he feels depressed since the ducks left, but then storms out. (END FIRST THERAPY SESSION AND FRAMING SEQUENCE)
  17. 27:04 Chris and Pussy dispose of body. They compare their situation to the Godfather. They change their mind “cut him up.” They discuss Tony’s panic attack. (NON-TONY SCENE.)
  18. 28:34 Family and mom tour retirement community. Mom sees nursing unit, complains. Tony collapses.
  19. 29:39 Tony back in therapy. (SECOND SESSION) They talk about the Depression. Now that my father’s dead, he’s a saint. Troubles because of RICO. I have to be the sad clown, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. Nowadays, no values, guys have no room for the penal experience. She gives him prescription.
  20. 32:02 Strip club: Tony, Chris and Silvio meet with Hesh as strip club. “A man is driven in toto by his insecurities” They decide that HMO guy has to go into business with them. “Garbage is our bread and butter.” “Was.”
  21. 34:24 Carmela wants to go to the Plaza with Meadow, who insults her.
  22. 35:50 Tony brings Artie Bucco cruise tickets
  23. 36:41 Tony stands Melfi up for their THIRD SESSION.
  24. 36:59 Artie’s wife won’t let him accept gift.
  25. 37:46 Hesh and Pussy talk HMO guy into doing the thing. He’s taking Zoloft to stop compulsive gambling. They threaten him into doing it.
  26. 29:11 Tony takes prozac on golf course, meets lawyer, Artie, who returns tickets
  27. 40:09 Melfi and husband wait at a bar, Tony and his mistress come in. He pretends she’s his decorator. Husband knows who she is. He gets her a table
  28. 41:38 Tony has sex with his nude mistress on his boat, she plays with JFK’s hat. He admits to her that he sees shrink.
  29. 42:08 Tony takes Carmela to the same place, Maitre’D pretends he hasn’t been there for a long time. He admits he’s seeing a therapist and he’s on prozac. “You’d think I was Hannibal Lecture.” “Therapy doesn’t address the soul, that’s different, but it’s great.” “The wrong person finds out about this and I get a steel jacket right in the back of the head.” ESTABLISH STAKES. “You told him about your father, right? Your therapist?”
  30. 44:43 Tony and wife come home, Chris calls—Little Pussy news story on TV
  31. 45:14 Tony and Silvio watch Meadow’s game, obliquely discuss a solution to the Artie problem. Tony talks to daughter, Dad doesn’t listen, walks into church, talks about stonemasons. “Go out now and find me two guys who can put decent grout around your bathtub.”
  32. 47:37 Silvio torches Artie’s restaurant.
  33. 47:37 (FOURTH SESSION) Tony tells Melfi he’s not coming back, because the prozac is working. She tells him it’s not prozac, it’s the talking. He talks about dream: his bellybutton was a Philips head screw. He unscrews it and his penis falls off. He looks for the guy who used to know how to fix it, but a bird flies off with it. They talk about ducks. He starts to cry. She says that the ducks became a family. He admits that he’s afraid he’s going to lose his family. “Dread is always with me.”
  34. 51:22 They all talk to Artie. Tony says he’s figured out that talking helps. Quotes Melfi: hope comes in many forms. Tony talks to Chris, who’s petulant about Tony’s lack of praise. Tony: that’s how I was parented. Chris threatens to sell his life story. Tony threatens him.
  35. 54:28 Uncle Junior is angry about the restaurant blowing up. He drives Livia to the party and recruits her for plot to kill Tony
  36. 56:02 Mom arrives at party, They all eat. Pan to pool, sound of ducks.
  37. 57:00 end credits. Cover of “The Beast in Me” plays.
As you can see, there are rarely two scenes in a row from the same storyline, and several scenes contain more than one storyline. So how does Chase keep it from seemingly totally disjointed?

In some cases, he finds clever ways to jump from storyline to storyline: In the first Christopher scene he’s still reading his duck book. Later, the HMO guy says that he’s taking Zoloft for his gambling problem, then we cut to Tony taking his Prozac as Artie drives up to return the cruise tickets. After that, Tony talks about his penis being taken away, then we start the next scene with him frying sausages on a grill.

But most scenes have no such bridge, so Chase simply relies on the underlying thematic similarities between the storylines to maintain a sense of continuity: Most (but not all) of the storylines have something to do with food, and most (but not all) have something to do with comparing Tony to his father.

Next time, we’ll look at another way the first half is tied together: the framing sequence.


j.s. said...

Along with THE FIGHTER, now you've gone and made me realize I need to rewatch this again ASAP. Darn you!

Also, apropos of nothing, I think you and others should really check out the unexpectedly great GOOD KILL, the film the drone war deserves and far and away the best thing Andrew Niccol has ever been involved with. And I've finally seen David Hare's Worricker trilogy, which was also better than I expected. And I've started watching THE SANDBAGGERS, which you were totally right about. Easily the ugliest looking TV show I've seen that's nonetheless still so engaging you can't take your eyes off it.

Matt Bird said...

I should check out GOOD KILL, and I'd never even heard of the WORRICKER trilogy, but that looks good too. While we're talking about longstanding recommendations, I finally saw MEMORIES OF MURDER, which was amazing. David Fincher owes that guy a royalty check.