sopranos_podcast

The Battle of the ‘Sopranos’ Podcasts

The stars of the series are revisiting their heyday. Which of these shows is the best fix for a superfan?

It’s a glorious time to be a superfan of The Sopranos, a series I can safely (and objectively) call the best in TV history. Debuting in 1999, slightly over 20 years ago, it has entered the sweet spot of nostalgia that calls for rewatching and reappraisal. Until it was postponed by coronavirus, creator David Chase’s prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark, starring the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael as a young Tony Soprano, was slated for release this fall. Last November, a loyal following came together in New Jersey’s Meadowlands for the first-ever SopranosCon, organized by the curators of several Sopranos meme accounts. On top of all that, the stars have new podcasts.

A completist, of course, will have to listen to them all, absorbing every stray detail of the show’s mob and/or familial drama. But since not everyone has that kind of time, I settled in to try each one, and now I can give you an idea of the various experiences they offer. The good news is, whatever you love about the Sopranos, there’s a pod to match. 

Talking Sopranos, with Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa 

When you get Imperioli and Schirripa together — they played two of the most beloved Sopranos characters in Christopher Moltisanti and Bobby Baccalieri — the expectations are bound to run high. Maybe that’s why their podcast, the episode-by-episode breakdown Talking Sopranos, is a bit of a letdown. In aggregate, they don’t seem to have much to say about The Sopranos, either as a piece of art or from a behind-the-scenes vantage point.

The episode I heard, dedicated to “Pax Soprana,” the sixth installment of the series’ first season, began with some familiar small-talk around coronavirus, then segued into a discussion of what either guy was watching in quarantine — which is how I found out that Imperioli loves the animated sitcom American Dad, while Schirripa harbors some inexplicable dislike of Guy Fieri. I’m disappointed on both counts! And if you’re gonna diss Fieri, you owe us the reason.

The hook for this outing was that David Chase had written some new, exclusive lines of dialogue in which the Sopranos ensemble “reacted” to the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic. He still knows how to inhabit those voices, but the line readings from Imperioli and Schirripa are unenthusiastic — as is the podcast itself, which drily recounts the plot of “Pax Soprana” beat for beat, adding negligible context.

Imperioli makes more of an effort to read the show, mentioning “great” shots, cuts, music choices, etc., whereas Schirripa is an interrupter, idly wondering whether a coincidence was deliberate, or a line was an ad-lib, but never knowing the answer. The chemistry and rhythm between these guys isn’t there, either, as Schirripa needs his co-star to unpack pretty basic subtext: When Imperioli mentions Tony Soprano’s Prozac-related impotence in conjunction with his dream about losing his penis, Schirripa marvels that he never would have made such a link. Conversation stumbles along the surface.   

Amusingly, Talking Sopranos is best when you conflate Schirripa with his on-screen alter ego, the soft-hearted and somewhat doofy Bobby “Baccalà.” My favorite moment was when he confessed to having never seen Game of Thrones and asked, “Is that about gladiators?”

There’s also a funny dynamic in which Imperioli has more of an actorly background, whereas Schirripa came to the job from working in the Las Vegas casino industry — he talks about knowing a priest who frequented the strip club, quotes mafia wisdom from wise guys he’s met and has to be told by Imperioli that “side piece” is a problematic term compared to the relatively affectionate “goomah.”

Speaking of goomahs, there’s a digression about an “urban legend” of a guy caught cheating with his mistress in a hotel on 9/11 when his panicked wife calls him, thinking he’s trapped in his office at the World Trade Center. Such weirdness may be enough for certain fans.

Overall, however, Talking Sopranos is kind of a slog, and a bare-bones affair at that — no music, clips or breakout segments, only a couple plugs for Bose headphones.

Meh.

Made Women, with Drea de Matteo and Chris Kushner

After the sleepy stiltedness of Talking Sopranos, where commentary rarely went beyond calling something “very interesting,” the energy of Made Women was positively invigorating. To begin with, they have title music, an organized structure and a natural feel for the tempo of a podcast, never laboring over the topic of discussion nor straying too far afield. De Matteo played the one and only Adriana La Cerva, Moltisanti’s girlfriend, and she’s joined by her “close friend, entrepreneur and New Jersey native” Chris Kushner — the hosting balance between a star of the show and a viewer who happens to be her bestie is a good one for many reasons, and their rapport is effortless.    

Made Women dispenses with the blow-by-blow of the given Sopranos episode (I sampled their seventh outing, which covered “Down Neck,” the episode following “Pax Soprana”) and digs deeper into the cultural resonances of the Sopranos narrative. Kushner and de Matteo relish the show’s insights into family, relating, for example, A.J. Soprano’s trouble at school to their own memories of fraught teacher-parent conferences.

This personal touch is evident throughout; de Matteo’s upbringing in an Italian family and Catholic school lends a lot of color. She observes that “Down Neck” opens on a statue of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, and ponders if we are meant to regard A.J., or instead his father, Tony, as the doomed person in question.   

In general, the women are just warmer, funnier and having a better time than Imperioli and Schirripa — they imitate their favorite characters with glee, pay special attention to subtle touches in makeup and costuming and de Matteo even points out framing mistakes or creative choices she disagrees with. They’ve got winning segments like “Who Got Whacked?” and “Mob Lingo.” And most of all, you can tell they love the people of this fictional world, and the emotional complexity of their story.

de Matteo describes feeling both intensely attracted to and disgusted by Tony in a therapy scene, then reminisces about how genuine and soulful Gandolfini was while shooting a heartwarming sequence with a young Robert Iler, who portrayed A.J. — they got carried away playing with a can of whipped cream while making ice cream sundaes, she says, and he squirted some in Iler’s hair, which put a stylist at annoying pains to fix.

Of these podcasts, Made Women was easily my favorite, combining a breezy yet cozy tone with insider knowledge, solid production and glowing affection between the hosts, as well as toward the material. Apart from the recommendation (and discount offer) for the massage device Theragun, this could be taking place in your own living room. 

Pajama Pants, with Robert Iler, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Kassem G.

Pajama Pants is the least structured and, after 30-odd episodes, the longest-running podcast series by former Sopranos stars — you can also watch it on YouTube. Moreover, as the episode I listened to made plain, it is not a Sopranos podcast by design: Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow Soprano) is currently watching the series through for the first time, and Iler, her TV sibling, has yet to see roughly “80 percent” of it. 

The show was forced to convert to a Zoom format, since the hosts can no longer convene at their L.A. studio, so it now lacks some of the natural flow that earlier recordings capture. The curious contrivance of the roster also puts some strain on things: Kassem G. is a buddy of Iler’s who has also never watched The Sopranos, and it feels as if Iler split the difference between doing a podcast with this guy or Sigler, making them implicit foils.

Maybe I’m inventing drama, but to my ear, they strike a passive-aggressive match, with Iler semi-oblivious and hoping they’ll eventually form a bond as close as he has with either. This, by the way, is all ground covered in the episode above, which takes a chunk of time to justify the pod’s existence. Kinda weird.

But such is the discursive, casual air of Pajama Pants, which is mainly devoted to shooting the shit. Their interview with Katherine Narducci (Charmaine Bucco on The Sopranos) gets off to an halting start before delving into her gigs in Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman and the Tom Hardy vehicle Capone — decent material peppered with the occasional awkward pause so long you’ll think your phone died.

The back half of the episode is overridden by the four participants processing their fears and anxieties around coronavirus and quarantine in real-time, which isn’t terribly riveting or novel, though again, that’s not necessarily what they’re going for. Still, after they’ve lightly dinged the listeners who complain that they should stick to Sopranos, this roundtable is almost pointed in its banality. You get the sense these episodes are rather hit-or-miss.

Which is fine if all you want is to hear grown-up Meadow and A.J. ask their former colleagues what they’ve been up to since The Sopranos ended, or how they wound up on the show in the first place. Aside from that, Pajama Pants hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be, and its latest incarnation as a teleconference is too much like catching up with your extended family on FaceTime. That said, it isn’t anchored to the arc of The Sopranos itself, which allows for more flexibility — for better and for worse.

No, Tony wouldn’t listen to it, but he wouldn’t know what the fuck a podcast is in the first place.