David Chase had been working in television for decades before “The Sopranos” immediately made a cultural impact in 1999 and continued to do so up until its deliberately abrupt conclusion in 2007. Burned by his bad experiences trying to do something original for network television in the 1980s and ‘90s, Chase claimed in interviews to be drawn to more cinematic models, and this showed on “The Sopranos,” sometimes in some unusually expressive visual compositions, which was enough to get some of the episodes run at the Museum of Modern Art in 2001.
Yet the strength of “The Sopranos” came from its TV-mandated ability to spend lavish amounts of time developing characters so three-dimensional that they felt like real, funny, sharp, stupid, horrifying, contradictory people from life. If you go back and look at “The Sopranos” — and many people have since it left the air — what stands out is not the visual dynamics so much as the way the editors could catch fleeting expressions on the character’s faces, especially during arguments, that let us see their doubts and their humanity, and this helped to offset the moments when the gangster men were at their most monstrous.
Chase resisted urges from HBO execs to somehow continue the narrative of the show, especially after the death of series lead James Gandolfini in 2013. But he has finally relented, and the result is this very awkward prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” which takes place in the late 1960s and early ’70s and casts Gandolfini’s son Michael as the young Tony Soprano.
“The Many Saints of Newark” begins in a cemetery where we can hear the voices of the dead babbling out their eternal griefs. The camera finally comes to rest on the tombstone of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), a key character on “The Sopranos” who was finally whacked by his “uncle” Tony after causing too much trouble with his temper and his addiction to drugs. Christopher narrates this prequel from beyond the grave, telling us about his father Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), his grandfather “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) and Hollywood Dick’s young Italian bride Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi).
Both Dickie and Hollywood Dick are snappy dressers, but their wise-guy talk falls woefully short of the joltingly rude humor studded throughout “The Sopranos,” which was a serious show but rarely a solemn one. The writing on “The Sopranos” could often be hilarious while never losing sight of character and circumstance, and a lot of the humor came about because the people in the series were smart-mouthed at the most inappropriate times.
The interplay between extreme violence and humor was somehow perfectly balanced on “The Sopranos,” as when Christopher begins cutting up the corpse of Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano), only to discover at that moment that Ralphie wore a toupee. That kind of gallows humor is largely missing from “The Many Saints of Newark,” and when it is attempted, it falls very flat, as in a scene where a young Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) and Silvio (John Magaro) participate in a gruesome murder and then worry about their suit and their hairpiece, respectively.
The writing here (by Chase and Lawrence Konner) is often dismayingly poor. “Baby, you are a riot tonight,” says the girlfriend of numbers runner Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), right before the Newark riots of 1967 start. Worse than this is the scene where baby Christopher cries whenever he sees Tony and an older female family member says the infant might know something they don’t.
The new characters are all one-dimensional, and we learn nothing new about the old characters from the series. Vera Farmiga works diligently at first to inhabit the skin of Tony’s mother Livia, played so memorably as a sociopathic old bird of prey by Nancy Marchand on “The Sopranos.” They have given Farmiga a prosthetic nose, and she gets the Livia manner down, albeit with quite a bit more youthful zest and mobility.
But the writing here betrays this character, setting her up as a woman who only needed to take an anti-depressant to set her on a steadier course. The way Marchand played Livia, this was a woman of such steady malevolence that explanations like that might crumble into nothing under the weight of one of her stony glares.
The problem with the modern lust for origin stories is that audiences supposedly want everything explained to them, but just look online — you will see ecstatic comment threads questioning and dissecting every complex moment and line reading in practically every scene of “The Sopranos.” The art that lasts is the art that stimulates people to ask questions. That’s why “The Sopranos” is still alive and still troubling and still a major accomplishment, and this prequel just proves it needs nothing further added to it.
“The Many Saints of Newark” opens Oct. 1 in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max.