Some Quick Thoughts on The Sopranos and the HBO Approach to Television

I gave a talk recently on some of the important ways in which shows on HBO differ from their counterparts on network television. With The Sopranos ending tonight, I thought it might be fun to share some of those comments with you. 

When you think about it, The Sopranos is basically a soap opera.   Of course, no one at HBO will ever say that.  After all, “soap opera” is such a conventional term, and HBO is not supposed to be like conventional television.  (Their slogan, of course, is “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”)  

But, when you think about it, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Entourage, Big Love, Sex and the City and most of the other shows that have made HBO a major player in prime time television over the past ten years all have elements that are straight out of soap opera: the use of story arcs; larger-than-life characters such as Tony Soprano and Ari Gold; suspenseful endings at the end of each episode that make us want to tune in next week; and of course, the dramatic cliffhanger at the end of each season. 

HBO may well have appropriated the soap opera from the broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox), but its success goes far beyond that. There’s an entire approach to HBO’s storytelling – particularly in dramas like The Sopranos – that the four major networks have often emulated, but never quite matched.  There are three reasons for this.  Here’s a quick look at each: 

Shows like The Sopranos are structured differently than their counterparts on network television.

Most dramas, whether written for the stage or the screen, are broken down into three acts. Act I, of course, is setup: Hero gets stuck in a tree. Act II is conflict: Someone throws rocks at the hero. Act III is resolution: Hero gets down from the tree.  Most dramas on network television, on the other hand, are broken down into four acts.  Because of commercials, the action in each segment has to build to a sort of mini-climax every 12 minutes, leading up to the commercial.  In other words, you have to keep “throwing rocks” at your hero every 12 minutes, to keep the viewers’ interest.  Otherwise, the viewer may switch channels, or switch the TV off. 

Plus, we tend to watch network dramas differently than we do dramas on HBO.  Because we know there’s a break every 12 minutes, we tend to watch a show like CSI or Lost knowing that we have three minutes to make a phone call, or empty the garbage, or go to the bathroom before the show comes back.  

Of course, I realize that in this age of TiVo and VDRs, it’s entirely possible to either zip through the commercial breaks or pause the show for however we need to make that phone call or take care of business.  The point is, there’s still a rhythm and structure to network shows that’s significantly different than the rhythm and structure of shows on HBO and Showtime.  

Indeed, when you think about it, episodes of shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under unfold at a much more leisurely pace – much like a novel.  Maybe it’s because we’re paying extra for it, but when we watch a show like The Sopranos, we tend to “settle in” for the evening. That’s the way it is at our house, and that’s the way it is with most other people I’ve talked to.  We’re not looking at our watch, waiting for that commercial break to come. Instead, we’re settling in for the hour, ready to lose ourselves with the characters on that show as we would with the characters of a favorite book. That totally goes against the grain of network television.  

If you look back at the history of network television, you’ll see that every five years or so, someone will come up with a “high concept,” “novel for television” approach, where you try to tell one single story over the course of a 22-week season. Lost on ABC is a good example. And though Lost was really riveting its first year, it has floundered in its last two years for the same reason why Crime Story, Murder One and other network series that took a novelistic approach also eventually failed. That is, it’s difficult to sustain that kind of sophisticated storytelling over a period of 22 weeks without stretching it out of proportion. (One might argue that 24 has managed to pull this off year in and year out, but that show relies on a willful suspension of disbelief like no other show on television – and I say that as a 24 fan.) 

With shows like The Sopranos, the writers and producers have a guaranteed 13-episode run. That means they have the luxury of planning how the various storylines play out over an entire season, leisurely yet concisely, without fear of cancellation. 

That’s not the case with the networks.  It used to be that a network show was guaranteed at least a 13-week run to find an audience.  Those days are long gone.  The four major networks are nowhere near as patient as they were before.  If the ratings for a show aren’t up to snuff, or if audiences don’t catch onto a show as quickly as the networks hope, they’ll yank a show after one or two weeks without giving it a second thought. 

That’s what happened with Michael Mann, with Crime Story in the ’80s in Robbery Homicide Division in 2002. That’s what happened with Steven Bochco and Murder One in the’90s. That’s also what happened with Smith, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Kidnapped, Jericho and all the other “high concept” serialized shows that crashed and burned on the networks last year. In each case, the networks found the storylines too meandering, which caused them to pull the shows from the lineup and destroy any chance at continuity.  

Finally, shows like The Sopranos can afford to be unconventional.  No many matter how many times they push the envelope, the networks still have to adhere to Standards and Practices. Particularly, they tend to adhere to a sort of “unwritten morality” about how a protagonist should behave. 

David Chase once said Tony Soprano would never work as a character on network TV because he’s too damned amoral.   

Chase is absolutely right. The beauty of Tony Soprano as a character is that every time you find yourself getting close to him, he reminds you of who and what he really is.   

I was completely riveted by last week’s penultimate episode. Tony was left holed up in a bedroom, virtually alone, trying to stave off an assassination attempt at the hands of his rival Phil Leotardo.   A part of me hopes he gets out of this alive – and yet as soon as I hear myself say that, I want to stop.  That would be way too conventional an ending for a show that defies convention.  

Now that I’ve posted this, it’s time to head downstairs to see how it turns out.

Ed Robertson



Filed under Articles, Books & Authors Carnival, Entries by Ed Robertson, Essays, Nonficition, The Writing Life, Writing

3 responses to “Some Quick Thoughts on The Sopranos and the HBO Approach to Television

  1. I agree with much of what you say about the unique structure of HBO dramas…their “literary” approach to TV drama is part of their huge appeal.

    You can check out my thoughts on the finale to The Sopranos (I think it was a huge letdown) here on my blog…

  2. David…

    Thanks for your post and for forwarding your thoughts. Now that I’ve read your take, I’m afraid you can count me among the fools who thought it was brilliant. See my brief day-after post mortem, linked below:

    Then again, what’s part of what makes shows like The Sopranos so much fun to talk about. You can go back and forth on the merits of one thing or another, and there’s no real right or wrong answer.

    All best,


  3. Ed-we can agree on that! It is definately a distinctive show to “talk about.” For that, Chase deserves a lot of credit over the years. And there’s no denying, everyone is talking about that ending.


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