Friday 17 January 2014

The Sopranos Review

The first moments of the first episode of The Sopranos is quiet and calm: Tony Soprano sits in a waiting room, he's wearing a casual top and around his wrist is a golden watch that would have been very trendy back in 1999 when the show first aired, he looks around at the statuette in the middle of the room and at the paintings on the walls. This moment is followed by a total of 86 episodes making up six seasons and broadcast over eight years. Tony sits waiting until Dr. Melphy (played by Lorraine Bracco - the first of many Goodfellas casting crossovers) opens the door and invites him into her office, the same therapist office he/we will be returning to throughout the following six seasons, the office becoming an alien environment where the happenings of the outside world are only talked about and analyzed but never actually acted out inside: the windows are blurred out, the waiting room is always empty and we never see how Tony gets to the office or get given a shot conjoining the office with the rest of the building. It's in this first therapy session that Tony reveals he's been having panic attacks. The obvious explanation is that it's very stressful being one of the top men in a crime family, yet it's doing this work Tony seems most sure about things, instead Tony tells Dr. Melphy about some ducks that have been coming into his garden and about his uncharacteristic sadness since they left. Which eventually allows them both to see what he's really worried about. He says "I'm afraid I'm going to lose my family. Like I lost the ducks". I forgot about this line not longer after I started watching the show, mainly because when I started watching, prompted at the time to watch by a feeling of almost-obligation to James Gandolfini who passed away far too young last June, I wanted nothing more than brutish gangster violence, of which it's easy to suspect The Sopranos will be. Yet it's a line that vibrates through the whole show, his home family getting a lot more screen time than his mob family: The Sopranos lives up to it's namesake. 

Talking of the mob family, The Sopranos (referred to as SP from here) is as much a comedown from the cultural highpoint that was the 60s as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In this first episode Tony, embarrassed to need medical help and focused on hiding it from everyone other than his wife, tells his therapist:
Let me tell ya something. Nowadays, everybody's gotta go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on "Sally Jessy Raphael" and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn't know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn't be able to shut him up! And then it's dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!
Tony got his idea of how to "do what he has to do" from his father, now dead, and all of the other 60s gangsters who ruled New Jersey when he was a kid, only he simply can't do it, not now they've got him on Prozac and in a therapist's office. The show visualizes this change from old fashioned self-surety to self-conscious post modernism through the six seasons. That's why series one is the most cinematic of them all, obviously slower paced and more drawn out than the movies but resembling them in the larger-than-life characters and a satisfying resolution: this season works as a self contained narrative, it's ending tying things up nicely, and as sign post of the closest the show ever comes to the cinematic weight of it's film counterparts The Godfather and Goodfellas (and countless others of-course). Season two uses the Hollywood formula of the darker-toned sequel following the same structure as the original - in this case both seasons involve a more-or-less straightforward story of Tony facing off against a villain character who threatens him and his family. Both these seasons feel resolute, yet despite showing a less flash side of the gangster life than most crime movies would they are still a more polished version of the real thing than what later seasons show. In season 3 the show starts to splinter off, there's no longer a villain tying up the main narrative, and the supporting characters and their sub-plots - although all linking back to Tony - start to take up more and more capital. Season four, my least favorite, uses the show's change of focus to the day-to-day living of these characters instead of a focused goal as an excuse to drag out stories past their natural conclusion and go off on the TV-equivalent of rambling tangents. Season five, what I found as the most enjoyable, uses it to spend a whole series in a ponderous depression yet makes it feel worthwhile and fun to watch. By the time you get to season 6 the show's splintered off into a million directions. The ending of season one is infinitely more conclusive than that of season six, but that's why it works so well, it goes the full distance: it's no longer tight entertainment but a ponderous, messy masterpiece. There's no Gary Cooper's by the end, there's not even a surety of what one would do if they were around, instead The Sopranos becomes an existential show asking us what it's all about, and unsure about any of it. In a later episode, somewhere in season five if I remember right, Tony brings up the Gary Cooper point again, this time in a car filled with members of his crew (these people also his best friends) and he once again asks "whatever happened to Gary Cooper?" one replies "I think he died, didn't he?" What was once the show's heart, was once a monologue I really connected with, becomes a punchline. SP, more than any other show, or work of art I've ever viewed, understands that in the end everything becomes a parody of itself and that life never really closes up and concludes, it just becomes wider and wider, inevitable on and on.
This slow series-by-series dissolve from modernism into post-modernism hits it's peak in the final episode which questions what the end of a TV show should even be, despite SP being the show that arrived in '99 and showed everyone else how to do it. Although it's true the TV revolution started earlier than '99, with shows that ignited just as much (but a different kind of) passion like Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although both are easy to label as "low art" so don't get thought of as having any importance to the current TV climate despite the fact they very clearly helped to clear the runway for the major landing. SP, both through creative inspiration or through simply making it financially possible managed to, in one way or another, spawn The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire (which features many SP writers) and Mad Men, along with shows not as closely resembling SP but still hung under the banner of the "TV Golden-age" we're currently in such as The Walking Dead and Under the Dome and the like made on smaller channels. Which show is better is a pointless argument, but I will argue that SP's major one-up on these shows, probably brought on by the pressure of being the flagship show of the TV revolution, was the show's lack of the singular focus these other shows have. David Chase (SP creator) said that during the development of SP the family side of Tony's life was written first, meaning his struggles with being a father, his financial situation, the ups and downs of his marriage, the everyday stuff that everyone can relate to or at least imagine themselves part of, with the crime-drama elements, the villains and violence, were written into the show after. I won't take anything away from Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire, neither of which could be accused of being simply crime-dramas/thrillers, yet both are self contained in their own universes, while SP touches on everything it can reach out to. SP was the longest running of these shows, and is still seen as the most important of them, and even watching now one can feel the weight of the world on Tony Soprano's shoulders, and David Chase's and his team's too.

As for the actual content of the show: many people call SP a drama-comedy although I wouldn't go that far: it's a serious drama with comedic elements, by which I mean it's comedic elements never dictate the plot, but then again SP never advertises itself a comedy, which is why strands of time, especially it's final strand of time, go by without a joke uttered, but when SP's is funny it's belly-laughing funny, which is a way of saying it never forgets to entertain, even after accepting it's own importance. Further than that I wouldn't call SP all that violent, choosing to hide most of the red stuff from the screen, although this is a blurred argument as it's true someone is killed in almost every episode. The stories themselves are brought on almost entirely through the characters, which is why - especially in the interest of dodging spoilers - I feel it's more worthwhile to take a look at the main characters than any of the many stories that appear throughout the show:

  • Tony Soprano: the main man, both in the family and the mob. He resembles Homer Simpson in many ways (and the SP is very much the yin to The Simpson's yang of artistic explorations of the nuclear family) both are slightly over-weight, self centered takes on the ideal American family man. It's not even surprising that so many SP stories are structured like The Simpsons, with Tony causing problems, sometimes even offending his family in the same unbeknown to him way Homer does, and having to sort things out in the end. Tony, already thought of as one of TV's best characters, is the example of enigmatic figure all TV should aim for, he can be low and depressed, gruff and un-bothered, angry and psychopathic. He enjoys playing the charming family man when in huge groups, like at the parties and diners frequently held in the Soprano home, but so too can he be so unknowing in his own flaws that he becomes the villain in other characters stories. Gandolfini's performance deserves great praise: it's well known that Marlon Brando based his performance as The Godfather on a bull, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gandolfini based his performance of Tony on a bear the way he lumbers around, having the ability to be gentle yet with the constant threat of powerful violence.  
  • Carmella: the big man's wife. She the Marge (The Simpson's analogy fits almost perfectly onto the four main Sopranos) a stay at home mum. Many have praised the femininity of Carmella who Edie Falco plays with a confidence and self-assertiveness missing from most mob wives. She is a more assertive than most mob wives yet Tony still cheats on her freely and controls her with the lavish lifestyle he gives, which makes me disagree with the femininity argument, in which Carmella is an interesting character but not the beacon of empowerment many think of her as.  
  • AJ: the couple's son, youngest of the family, who we meet when he is still young enough to believe it is a job in waste management that has allowed his father to buy him practically everything he's ever wanted. At one point in season four Tony looks at his therapist with tears in his eyes and says "How are we gonna save this kid?". It breaks Tony's heart that his son is an unambitious loser, and not because he wanted his son for the mob - he hates the thought of either of his kids in the mob - but because the more he seems to push AJ, the more chances he gives him, the further he seems to fall. By the end AJ is the harbinger of the narcissistic world view SP is trying to get across: he's an angsty teen disgusted with the consumerist world he's been brought up in but too lazy to get up and not support it. If that sounds one sided then understand no character in SP comes across black and white, AJ is defend-able in many ways, and he changes so much through the show that it's impossible to sum him, or any of the other characters up in a paragraph. 
  • Meadows: the daughter, the Lisa Simpson, the star pupil with the big ambitions and the heart in the right place but who too goes through phases of being in the wrong. As she grows up she starts to question her future, as even the oldest characters in SP seem to, and her list of boyfriends is less than stellar, especially in Tony's eyes. 
  • Chris: Tony's cousin and my favorite character of the show, or if picking a favorite character from a six season show is like choosing your favorite person from your work then he was at least the one I felt most invested in throughout, which makes sense since he is the one who changes the most throughout the show. As the show starts he is still a kid in nature, doing small jobs for the mob but holding out dreams his screenwriting career will take off (he even goes to writing classes), he's got a girlfriend named Adrianna (an important character in her own right) and most of the time he acts like a hot head trying to prove himself. He gets the meatiest stories: a heroin addiction, a very rocky relationship, and the pressure coming from being Tony's hope for a successor. If Tony makes SP a grand epic and his family make it a small scale drama then Chris makes it a Greek tragedy. 
  • And the rest: the cast is too big to explore each even in small detail here. There's Tony's overbearing mother; his uncle - the last remaining link to that older world of the mob; Tony's sister Janice who annoys him to no end; and another sister he has who plays such a small part I can't even remember her name; Paulie Walnuts a once cool gangster a little past his prime - and a character who manages, very tellingly of the show, to be both the slimiest and most clearly psychopathic of the lot and also the funniest of the show; Bobby, another crew member who grows from his place as the helper man; and many more. 
After reading the character list, which leads to all the stories of the show, the biggest question one might ask would be why one would want to watch a show about gangsters doing horrible things, especially if all it's got to tell us that the world is a nihilistic swirl that always ends in the same lonely void, or more precisely why should you care what the world looks like from the perspective of Tony Soprano? The Godfather followed a respectable morale code, although Tony, despite trying, isn't too good at keeping them up, and Henry Hill had the life of excess which Scorsese presented to us at 300mph, although Tony is the modern man as gangster. He gets excesses but not to the same degree. Why you should watch can be found in one of the show's best episodes, an early episode entitled "College" where Tony takes Meadows around to different college open days. Yet while stopping to get gas Tony spots an old crew member, who as it turns out ratted some people out and found his way here through the witness protection program, and he quickly tries to follow him without letting Meadow in on what's going on. This episode is both a bonding road trip experience and one of those violent mob stories you first tuned in for. In this episode Tony does the same juggling act Spiderman and Batman have to do in their respective summer movies. Tony is a caring father, and there's a brilliant scene here when Meadows confronts her father for the first time on exactly what it is he does. He says it's illegal gambling and strip clubs (so only a white lie). Yet in another scene the man he's been chasing tells Tony's he'd spared Tony's life the night before, but this means nothing to Tony who "does what he needs to do". And that's exactly the point, what Tony does all through SP is wrong yet it isn't wrong for Tony, who is never a bloody psychopath but a killer doing his job. He's a fully formed family man with responsibilities and worries (the duck analogy) from the moment we meet him, and it's hard not to watch him because of this. Because there's a sense he's upholding something, that he understands the struggles of most people, and you want to know if he can keep upholding them, because maybe if he can there's more than a dark void to stare into at the end. 

A few weeks after finishing the show it's still rattling around in my head. It touches on so much, from a full on gay love story to a Hollywood sub-plot on the production of a horror b-movie. The chef Artie, who serves the crew and their families almost every day, has his own troubled marriage explored, even Dr. Melphy needs therapy herself as she questions helping the psyche of a gangster. The show isn't about men in suits killing each other for now-redundant reasons, it's funny and sad and thrilling and everything else it possible could be. You want me to gush and scream like an rabid fanboy, gladly, it's my vote for THE GREATEST TV SHOW OF ALL TIME and even that sounds too little a praise for something that is big and grand in every possible way.

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