James Gandolfini is willing to admit he's seen some reality television.
"I have watched Real Housewives of Atlanta. That was extraordinary," the three-time Emmy-winner said Friday at the Television Critics Association's winter preview sessions. Asked about Jersey Shore, the actor said, "No, no, no."
In HBO's upcoming original movie Cinema Verite, Gandolfini will play reality TV pioneer Craig Gilbert, producer of the 1973 12-part PBS documentary, An American Family. While the popular perception is that the genre's roots are in The Real World, it was An American Family that first documented the every move of a typical family, the Louds, for weekly prime-time consumption. The series wound up capturing Mr. and Mrs. Louds' divorce and the subsequent destruction of the once-happy Santa Barbara clan.
"It was the birth of a genre that no one saw coming," co-director Robert Pulcini said.
Although Gandolfini says he's seen the weave-pulling antics of Kim Zolciak and NeNe Leakes first-hand, that doesn't necessarily mean he's a fan. The Sopranos star, in fact, says his distaste for the genre today is part of what drew him to the project.
"It was such an intellectual exercise at the beginning and its turned to such s---," he said.
Gandolfini's co-star, Diane Lane, says she hides from reality shows and calls them an "oxymoron." However, she admits the timing of the film makes sense considering how many reality shows — from competition series like Survivor to docu-soaps such as Real Housewives — are now on the air.
"I think it is a comment on the zeitgeist that we live in," Lane said. "It tackles the first domino that fell. These are the first, the virgins thrown into the volcano."
Co-star Tim Robbins, who plays the Loud family patriarch, said the film begs a closer look at why exactly the genre is currently thriving, and what that says about the current culture.
"Maybe the question is why do so many people want to see people at their weakest moments," Robbins said. "If there's divorce or an argument on a reality show or two friends are furious at each other, it tends to increase ratings. It's kind of a deeper question about our whole society — why are we drawn to the train wreck?"
Cinema Verite airs in April on HBO.