Matt Zoller Seitz on critiquing ‘The Sopranos’

by Lani Diane Rich

February 25, 2019

Pulitzer Prize-nominated film and television critic revisits the show that launched prestige television

Matt Zoller Seitz
Matt Zoller Seitz

Film and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz was in college the first time he published a critical piece, and it came as a surprise to him.

“There had been a bunch of Vietnam films in the 80s,” he says, “and I wrote this… I guess you'd call it a think piece nowadays. I turned it into the [Southern Methodist University] paper and several weeks passed and nobody got back to me and I assumed they didn't like it. And then one day I picked up the paper and the piece was in there.”

Seitz, now an adjunct professor in the Goldring Arts Journalism program, critic for New York magazine and editor-at-large for RogerEbert.com, majored in creative writing and journalism at SMU while also taking as many classes as he could in filmmaking. Combining his passions for writing and film came naturally, and in the mid-90s he got a job writing for The Star Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. A few years later, the opportunity to write about the groundbreaking HBO series “The Sopranos,” which was filming locally, literally fell into his lap.

“I got a VHS cassette of ‘The Sopranos,’” he says. “I didn’t read the press release, and thought maybe it was a show about opera. Then a publicist from HBO called me and said, ‘I really think you should look at this show.’ So I watched it and I was blown away by it.”

From there he and fellow Star Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall shared the task of reviewing the show, covering all the seasons between the two of them, and interviewing show creator David Chase and star James Gandolfini. When the 20th anniversary of the show came around, it seemed a natural fit to work together on a book. The result is “The Sopranos Sessions,” which includes original recaps of all the episodes along with critical essays and conversations with David Chase. The book quickly became a New York Times bestseller after its release Jan. 8.

We sat down with Seitz to talk about his road to success as a critic, and the fascination “The Sopranos” continues to inspire in its audience.

Cover of The Sopranos Sessions

What is your earliest memory of being entranced with film and television?

I think I always was. But probably the first time I became interested in how movies were made was [in] 1976 when there was this remake of “King Kong” starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. I ordered, from the Scholastic Book Club, a book about the making of King Kong and [it] explained how they did all the special effects … I was completely mesmerized by it and I started becoming interested in how movies were made.

When did you and Alan decide to start working together on the book?

I run a television festival in New York that happens every June called “Split Screens.” Our very first year I had gotten David Chase to come out for a screening of “The Sopranos” episode “Pine Barrens” [S3.11] and we had given him an award for being a pioneer in TV. I enjoyed talking to David and I asked him, “If I did a book about ‘The Sopranos,’ would you be interested in participating, maybe doing some interviews?” And he said, “Sure.” I immediately went to Alan because I couldn't imagine doing a book about “The Sopranos” without Alan. I think I was the first person to write a feature about “The Sopranos” and Alan was the last person, and Alan was the only person David Chase talked to [right after the finale aired].

Going back to it now, do you see the show from a different perspective?

Somewhat. Once you know everything that happens, you start to appreciate how they set things up and also how certain motifs recur and are built on, and I think it encourages a greater appreciation of the architecture of a season of television. There's a lot going on in “The Sopranos.” Not just the gangster intrigue and the stuff of Tony's marriage but also at the level of psychology and mythology. The psychology of Tony Soprano is really what carries you through the show, and him going into therapy and investigating himself and learning more about himself, and then using that knowledge to change his life but not necessarily in a positive way. Whenever he has an opportunity to really look deeply into himself he looks away. I think it's one of the unanswered questions of the show: Why doesn't Tony change? I think it's a question that [the show] deliberately doesn't answer.

What’s your favorite episode from the run of the series?

Oh, I hate that question.

You don't have to answer. You could pull a David Chase and go all ambiguous.

It depends on my mood. I think the episode that I've seen the most is “Pine Barrens.” That’s a really dense piece of work. But you know, “Knight in White Satin Armor” [S2.12] is another one that I think is extraordinary, not just for the resolution of the Janice and Richie storyline but also all the other things that are going on in that episode including Tony breaking up with Irina and Irina causing problems. It’s a great moment [when] she calls the house. He says, “Carmela it's over, it's been over for a long time. She's just a mixed-up kid.” And she says, “I can't believe that you're making me feel sorry for your whore.” That’s kind of the essence of “The Sopranos.”

The Sopranos Sessions” is available in bookstores now.