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The unfulfilling ‘Sopranos’ prequel and the failure of TV-to-movie spin-offs

Joey Coco Diaz (left) and Alessandro Nivola in "The Many Saints of Newark," a prequel to "The Sopranos."Associated Press

I was in a state after watching “The Many Saints of Newark,” the movie prequel to “The Sopranos,” and it wasn’t New Jersey. Was that all there was? The movie was slight, and directionless, and as flat as “The Sopranos” wasn’t. When it ended, I was still waiting for the story line to kick in. So this is the follow-up to, in my opinion, the best TV drama ever? The movie was, to borrow an image from the “Pine Barrens” episode, like sucking ketchup packets.

I really didn’t need to see two Ray Liottas, and I really didn’t need to see fine actors like Corey Stoll, Billy Magnussen, Vera Farmiga, and John Margaro straining to deliver early versions of original “Sopranos” characters. I suppose the impressions were all done respectfully, but they rang hollow, outside an initial spark of recognition, and they distracted. For me, the plot revelation about Junior — I won’t spoil it here — quickly became an exercise in comparing Stoll to original player Dominic Chianese. And Stoll lost, of course, never quite evoking the older Junior’s petty animus.


In the end, the promotion for “The Many Saints of Newark” was the best part of “The Many Saints of Newark.” It was a long, sweet approach to something that exuded great promise and possibility, given its lineage. The announcement of each new casting choice — most notably Michael Gandolfini, James’s son, as the young Tony — triggered more great expectations, ultimately leading to more acute disappointment. Also, it was satisfying listening to David Chase do the publicity rounds, particularly on podcasts, where we could hear more about the man behind TV’s medium-expanding masterpiece. Too bad the talk was in service of a much lesser thing.

So can we just say it now? Movies spun off from TV shows are no good. At this moment, I’ve given up hope that there’s a respectable movie spin-off on the horizon, given the dismal track record of these things.


And it doesn’t seem to matter who’s behind the extension of the franchise, and which show it’s all based on. Many feel that “Breaking Bad” is even better than “The Sopranos” — and there is an argument to be made for that — and there’s no question that creator Vince Gilligan is top tier. But 2019′s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” was a completely unnecessary outing. It wasn’t as bland as “Many Saints,” but it never took on the urgency of a story that needed to be told. The TV series left Jesse Pinkman in just the right place, a man in some ways breaking good. We didn’t need to know more. More, in this case, was less.

Aaron Paul revived his career-defining character Jesse Pinkman in "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie." Ben Rothstein/Netflix

What David Chase and Vince Gilligan have meant to TV drama, Ricky Gervais has meant to TV comedy, his original “The Office” ushering cringe humor into the mainstream back in 2001. The series gave us Gervais as David Brent, the middle manager who can’t stop himself from spiraling into offensiveness. After reprising the character here and there over the years, Gervais released “David Brent: Life on the Road” in 2017. The story had Brent taking a month to realize his fantasy of touring with a band — this time spouting off embarrassingly with as much pathos as humor. Again, not awful, but definitely completely unnecessary.


Also ranging from awful to dispensable: The two “Sex and the City” movies, the “Deadwood” movie, the “Entourage” movie, and the two “X-Files” movies. I’m not including movie adaptations of TV shows, such as “The Brady Bunch Movie,” in my blanket dismissal; when supplied with new casts and new context, and not merely giving us the recent TV show thrown onto the big screen, these franchises can have their moments. But extending a show by repackaging it into a movie format, that’s just not working. The mediums are quite different, despite the way so many people now liken binged TV shows to super-long movies. Serialized TV storytelling and the resulting slow revelation of character, to me, do not easily lend themselves to one-offs, which often wind up — like the first “Downton Abbey” movie (the second is due next March) — as just big, fat TV episodes thrown into theaters for … for … for …

Yup, you know what I’m talking about. When a show like “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” leaves the air at the height of its popularity, there is still money to be made. I know, I know, it’s too easy to call everything bad a cash grab, and each of these spin-off movies is the result of different circumstances. But I do wish the people behind the best TV shows would be more rigid about extending their properties largely because there’s still an audience for them. It’s time for a little more creative integrity from the folks who have defined it over the past 20 years.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.