Review: THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK, Frustrating Fan Service
Considered, along with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, one of the definitive, defining series of long-form, serial storytelling and TV’s New Golden Age, The Sopranos, creator David Chase’s innovative mob family drama, ended its award-winning, zeitgeist-redefining run with a fade-to-black in 2007 that remains incredibly divisive fourteen years later.
Chase eventually moved on to write and direct a modestly received period drama, Not Fade Away (spoiler: it did, in fact, fade away from public consciousness) five years after The Sopranos aired its final episode on HBO. Chase went silent for almost a decade, eventually deciding to return to the Sopranos universe not with a sequel series or a standalone film, but with The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel tracing the central, toxic influence on Tony Soprano and his rise to waste management executive and New Jersey mob boss.
The Tony Soprano (William Ludwig) we first meet in The Many Saints of Newark hasn’t even entered puberty yet. He’s far from the charming, violence-prone sociopath we’ll meet years later. Instead, he’s just another New Jersey kid living his best life in late 60s Newark, surrounded by a tight-knit Italian community, most of whom are either mobsters or mobster-adjacent.
From the get-go, it’s obvious Tony sees his father, Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), as a disappointment, instead idolizing his uncle-by-marriage, Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the charismatic leader of a small-time crew. In Dickie, Tony sees the role model he’ll emulate all the way through season six’s final fade-out. Dickie also connects Tony to Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Dickie’s soon-to-be-infant son and occasional narrator from beyond the grave.
In a mid-film scene, the newly born Christopher responds to contact with Tony (now played by Michael Gandolfini, James’s son) with utter revulsion. He seems to be repelled by the cold-bloodedness, ruthlessness, and disregard for human life Tony will eventually reveal to the outside world as his one, true self.
Family being family, ties that bind, etc., all-but preclude Christopher from escaping the suffocating confines of mob life (and death), but it’s indicative of Chase and his approach to revisiting the Sopranos: First, second, and ultimately last, Chase embraces a peculiar form of fan service, ever eager to drop hints and clues of the Sopranos and the series that will pick up up their lives two decades later.
It’s an often frustrating approach, sacrificing a strong narrative or through-line for fan service moments that do little, if anything, to actually advance the overarching plot centered on Dickie and his messy, ultimately tragic, personal and professional lives. It also leaves Dickie more of a sketch or even caricature, a pale imitation of the mobster and family man Tony will become, than a three-dimensional character worthy of our time or attention.
That doesn’t undercut, however, Nivola’s performance as the conflicted, guilt-ridden Dickie, driven by wants and needs he can’t control, obligations to family (biological and non-biological), or the changing socio-political circumstances, including the arrival of an African-American rival, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), to the mob-controlled numbers business.
Dickie’s casual, internalized racism, something Chase makes sure to emphasize as a trait common among Newark born-and-bred Italian-Americans, proves more than just an obstacle to overcome while he holds onto a curdled version of the American Dream than a potentially fatal oversight. As McBrayer, Odom Jr., a generational actor finally receiving the roles his talents deserve, shares not only screen time with Dickie, but gets an arc of his own that both interconnects with Dickie and eventually supersedes Dickie’s as changing demographics, including the “white flight” that takes Tony and his family from Newark to the nearby suburbs, apply unrelenting pressure on Dickie and the mob. Per Chase, you either change with the times or die with them.
Throughout, Tony’s story either gets minimal treatment, including low-level scams that get him in trouble with school authorities and his not uncaring mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), frustrated at Tony’s inability to apply himself, or ends up at the periphery, occasionally stumbling into a Dickie-led, mobster-filled scene. At one point, a preteen Tony unexpectedly visits Dickie moments after Dickie’s violent temper, reductively ascribed to an abusive childhood (i.e., like father, like son), gets the better of him, forcing Dickie into desperate cover-up mode just a few feet away from his biological family. It’s also a moment of dramatic irony where the audience knows more than Tony (or at least we think we do), adding a layer of black, sardonic humor often present in the series, but missing just as often in The Many Saints of Newark.
Chase makes this early burst of violence somewhat excusable, but a later one all but dooms Dickie to the same fate faced by Tony’s associates across the series’s six-season run. In a move we repeatedly saw in the series, all of the post-violence Roman Catholic guilt ultimately can’t excuse or absolve Dickie, but given both its familiarity and foreshadowing, Dickie’s fate feels less like another riff on a mobster’s life gone predictably wrong than a pale imitation or cheap copy of a specific character and narrative arc we’ve seen countless times before in and out of the Sopranos universe.
The Many Saints of Newark is now playing in theaters. It is also available for 30 days on the HBO Max streaming service.
The Many Saints of Newark
- Alan Taylor
- David Chase
- Lawrence Konner
- Alessandro Nivola
- Leslie Odom Jr.
- Jon Bernthal