Watching ‘The Sopranos’

In some respects, writing a review of ‘The Sopranos’ in 2010 is a bit like turning out a contemporary review of the Woodstock Festival of 1969 – that train left the station quite some time ago.  God knows how many millions of words have already been blasted into the ether about the Season 6 finale alone, but the great thing about bloggers is that we stumble inexorably onwards; as Rowan Atkinson once memorably remarked, “Like the blind man searching in a darkened room on a foggy night for the black cat…..which isn’t there”…or words to that effect.

I’ve written here before about my problems with committing to long-running TV series.  I’m currently struggling to keep up with Season 4 of ‘Mad Men’ and relying heavily on the BBC’s iPlayer in order to do so.  It’s not that I’m out partying all the time, either…no, it’s more perverse and insidious.  We even (finally) have a shiny new widescreen LG monster on which to watch all these shows, but I think I have become accustomed to being able to watch what I want when I want – the epitome of viewer-centred TV.  iPlayer, Virgin Catch-Up TV, box sets and internet streaming or downloads are all grist to my mill in this respect, so I rarely regard anything other than live United games as ‘must-watch-now’ events.  Everything else comes under the heading of ‘must-watch-sometime’.

Another problem is that more choice has generally meant more crap on TV and the major networks have responded by lowering the bar with ordure like ‘The X Factor’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’…… cheap TV that has gradually been tarted up as its audience has grown.  Mutton dressed as lamb, however you choose to interpret it.  Yeah, I know, a million flies can’t be wrong…..

Currently, the ITV networks are in particularly poor shape; having already had to deal with a diminished advertising share due to the proliferation of channels, they now have a recession to cope with as well.  Blithe talk about ‘quality programming’ seems to have been superseded by survival strategies these days.  Their response has (largely) been to produce a range of  lowest common denominator ‘light entertainment’ programmes that shriek and bray and howl for us to sit down and watch them RIGHT NOW!  Advertisers are loath to settle for anything less.

Thankfully, due to the archaic safety net of the licence fee, the BBC are insulated from all this to some extent, but they get constantly outflanked by companies like Sky – ‘Mad Men’  Series 5, assuming they make it, will be screened first in this country on Sky, who pinched ‘Lost’ from Channel 4 in the same way and have, of course, previously been responsible for removing live Premiership football from the ‘free-to-air’ landscape.

However, to see non-network TV companies as leeches who simply outbid the  broadcasting establishment is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was.  ‘The Sopranos‘ is a case in point. Made by HBO, ‘The Sopranos‘ is just one of several hugely successful shows originated by HBO in recent years.  ‘Sex & the City’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ are other examples.  HBO started as a Manhattan-based cable TV company in the late 1960’s, but is now part of the Time Warner conglomerate.  Clearly, their philosophies about originating rather than simply buying in programmes  has changed as their status (and their budget) has grown.

As a subscription service, HBO was liberated from the usual problems  with advertisers and ‘Moral Majority’ crazies about sexual content, violence and profanity that afflict the mainstream networks.  This enabled the makers of ‘The Sopranos‘ to go for a far more realistic approach to their scripts; the message was classic American entrepreneurialism – ‘If you don’t like it, don’t buy it’.  Whilst this hasn’t kept them off the radar of the right-wing media, the makers of the show have to some extent headed their critics off at the pass by selling a sanitised ‘no sex/no violence/no profanity’ version of the show (in 2007) to A&E Televison ( a combine involving Disney, NBC and the Hearst Corporation) for $2.5 million per squeaky-clean episode.  Strikes me as a bit like trying to cook a spice-free curry, but to each their own.

Anyway, my pathetically belated attempt to ‘catch up’ with the whole ‘Sopranos’ saga began during the summer.  I know a guy who had systematically downloaded all six seasons of the programme from a torrent site and burned them all to DVD.  Thus I began, a season at a time and watched the last three episodes in a colossal Bada Bing-e last night. 

Condensing 8 years of Soprano family history into about 4 months is a strange sensation.  Physically, the adults don’t change much, but the Soprano kids, A.J. and Meadow start out as high school kids and are to all intents and purposes adults by the time it ends.   It will be interesting to see how their career paths fare from here on.  I suspect that it doesn’t matter what Jamie Lynn Sigler (Meadow) and Robert Iler (A.J.) do from now on, to most of us, they will always be the characters they portrayed so faithfully through all those years.  Then again, will James Gandolfini ever be able to  really escape from Tony?

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Inevitably, like many people, I came to The Sopranos via The Godfather and Goodfellas.  Whilst The Sopranos is quite clear about its New Jersey roots – as is apparent from the title sequence – it nonetheless taps into that whole East Coast wiseguy schtick.  The Sopranos, it should be noted immediately, is a lot more Goodfellas than Godfather. There is much Goodfellas-type banter in The Sopranos; the guys are forever ‘busting each other’s balls’ over one topic or another.  It’s a little piece of American/Italian machismo that sometimes has a serious intent – testing out a potential enemy’s weak spots – and occasionally has murderous consequences – the deterioration of relations between Tony and John Sacramoni could be said to stem from Ralph Cifaretto’s off-colour joke about Sacramoni’s wife – something which has fatal and near-fatal resonances throughout the rest of the saga.

If Coppola’s epic saga of one Cosa Nostra ‘family’ was Shakespearean in tone, The Sopranos was, for all its portrayal of violence and corruption, far less sombre – at least until the final season.  The original, amusing conceit of a ‘made man’ going into therapy was picked up on and turned into 2 hit movies (‘Analyse This’ / ‘Analyse That’) and characters like Silvio and Paulie were often gently lampooned for their attitudes and behaviour, as were Tony and Carmella themselves.

Dinner chez Soprano

One thing that ‘The Sopranos’ does share with ‘The Godfather’ is a preoccupation with family life and the rituals of eating, drinking and socialising.  Carmella & Tony are, one would assume, third generation Italian/Americans and they retain enough of that racial memory of their Ellis Island roots to want to live in a house that looks like an MFI version of the Doge’s Palazzo in Venice.  They  (like Vito Corleone) also want to keep their kids out of the ‘family business’.  Like Vito, then Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano has to somehow reconcile acts of monstrous violence with the humdrum realities of family life.   Tony is not apparently as unhinged by all of this as Michael; at the end of Season 6, he remains what he has been throughout – essentially, a  cunning , but good-natured slob with a  depressive streak and a violent temper that only kicks in when things don’t go his way.  There is none of the chilly, almost demonic sang-froid that characterises Michael Corleone’s behaviour in the closing half-hour of Godfather 2. 

Of course, over the course of six seasons, we get to know Tony Soprano from every conceivable angle – we see Tony the family man and father, Tony the gambler, Tony the serial philanderer, Tony the cold-blooded killer, Tony the Boss, Tony the bully, Tony the therapy junkie and numerous other facets of this complex man  The question that should, I suppose, be asked is whether his journey has made him wiser as well as older.

The answer to that question would suggest that his shooting and near death at the start of Season 6  abruptly makes him aware of his own mortality and changes his attitude to many things.  ‘Every day is a blessing’ would seem to be the mantra and Tony’s hunger for a quieter life manifests itself in the way in which he tries to reach out to the Lupertazzi family in an effort to resolve their disputes.  He even feels some kinship with Phil Leotardo when he suffers a heart attack and is obviously reflecting on the passage of the years. 

Tony may be longing for a peaceful life, but he’s too enmeshed in ‘the life’ to escape now.  Despite his attempts to defuse problems with the Lupertazzis, events are moving rapidly towards a violent and bloody confrontation.   His two male ‘heirs’ – A.J. at home and Chris Moltisanti at work – are both proving to be letdowns for one reason or another.  A car crash in which Moltisanti is seriously injured gives Tony (who isn’t) the chance to finish him off and eradicate one source of worry, but problems with A.J. remain, as he will clearly never follow in his father’s footsteps.

By the end of Season 6, Tony appears to have survived his showdown with Leotardo, though at some cost to his organisation, with Bobby Baccalieri dead and Silvio Dante comatose in hospital.  Still, a measure of sanity appears to be returning with A.J. seemingly over his abortive suicide attempt and Meadow planning a wedding.   Peace is brokered with the Lupertazzis and Leotardo ‘whacked’, so Tony feels free to resume his normal routine – aside from his visits to his therapist; she discontinues their sessions after reading research which suggests that therapy makes sociopaths more sociopathic.

Steve van Zandt as Sil; probably my favourite character

The diner scene at the end of the series left things hanging in the air – it was by no means a straightforward ending.  Does Tony get ‘whacked’ as he has dinner with his family or is it just that he will always be watching the door to see who might be coming in?  Technically, the final scenes are extremely carefully constructed and everything (including a possible hommage to The Godfather) points to the fact that Tony is indeed about to get his come-uppance.   The 10 seconds of blank screen at the end of the episode before the credits silently roll, perhaps reference an earlier conversation that Tony has with Bobby Baccalieri where they speculate that when you get ‘whacked’ it’s all over so quickly that you see, hear & feel nothing… there’s just blackness.

In any case, why should we care? This is a man who has used verbal and physical violence towards  his family,  has betrayed his wife on numerous occasions with multiple partners, has himself committed 8 murders that we know about and sanctioned numerous others, has serially endorsed widespread corruption and law-breaking, is homophobic and racist.  It might be asked why we should shed metaphorical tears for such a man.  And yet , we have all sat there through six seasons of his nefarious, callous and murderous behaviour, fascinated by a man who like most of us is a mixture of good, bad and ugly – except with Tony, it’s just more so.  Series originator David Chase was apparently horrified by the apparent clamour to see Tony with his brains spattered across the wall, thus we are left to ponder the fate of Tony Soprano and his two families, with no clear answers available to us.

Tony lays down the law to Chris Moltisanti with Sil and Bobby looking on

It’s often said that comparisons are invidious, but before I close I feel the need to comment on the fact that  ‘The Sopranos’ was recently voted the best ever TV series by readers of The Guardian. Good as it was, I would have to demur.  For me, the subtexts of the show are too narrow and predictable – we know there will be crime, we know there will be violence,  we know there will be betrayals, we know that there will be scenes of family life as Tony struggles to reconcile the conflicting polarities of his complex existence.  In other words, if you make a series about ‘The Mob’, the landscapes – both external and internal – are almost as inevitable as they  would be in a Western.  To their credit, Chase, Weiner et al make much of flying in the face of such conventions, especially when it generates moments of genuine humour among all the drama and blood-letting.  Thus we get Tony with the ducks in his pool, Tony pouring out his thoughts to Dr Melfi, Tony dogged by his appalling Mother in the early seasons and so on. 

For me, however, ‘The West Wing’ is a more impressive and resonant piece of television.  Here, all the world is President Bartlett’s stage and whilst any White House drama will also have its own conventions, they are generally less oppressive than is  the case in The Sopranos.  The writers and directors  of  ‘The West Wing’  make better use of the ensemble cast (particularly the female characters) and the potential of the overall narrative is far wider and far less predictable.  These are two high-water marks in the chequered history of television, so it’s a bit like choosing between foie gras and caviar.  Even so, and much as I enjoyed the saga of 8 years out of Tony Soprano’s life, for me ‘The West Wing’ wins by a short head.  Then again, best not mention horses’ heads….

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5 responses to “Watching ‘The Sopranos’

  1. So, where’s the review of The Wire now that you’re a fan? maggie k x

  2. Still on Series 3. I’ll get there eventually…..

  3. I’ve recently completed The Sopranos, having purchased the DVD boxset at Christmas. I found it to be everything you’ve mentioned above. I don’t think it’s the greatest TV drama of all time, I allow that honour to bestow Mad Men [I’d like to hear your views on that], but it’s certainly very close.

    I’m looking forward to re-watching the entire show as it’s broadcast on Sky Atlantic too. It will give me the opportunity to mop up anything I missed first time round, and more time to reflect on each episode, as when I watched it for the first time it became somewhat of a binge.

    I recently re-watched the pilot and was stunned by the change in the characters. I hadn’t realised AJ resembled Porky Pig so well in the first season. They also made changes post-pilot to Satriale’s Pork Store, amongst other things that I didn’t notice first time around.

    I, like many I imagine was initially confused by the ending. But once I did some online searching and uncovered a technical analysis of it I was completely sold. I’m firmly in the ‘Tony’s dead’ camp, and as such found the ending amazing. The way Chase lured the viewer into a rhythm centering around Tony’s POV, only to cut to black was incredible. I found it quite chilling when I watched it again, knowing what had happened.

    Mac.

  4. Hi Mac, Thanks for dropping by and for the comments; like you I’m a big fan of ‘Mad Men’ – such a well written, well thought out, well-dressed (in the larger sense) and brilliantly cast show, but I would still rate ‘The West Wing’ more highly. Also, coming up fast on the rails is ‘The Wire’! I’m 3 seasons into that now and it just gets better as it goes along. I’m trying to think why I have a preference for these two over ‘Mad Men’ and am struggling to come up with any convincing answers! I don’t think there is any doubt that the conflicts within ‘Mad Men’ are more subtle and perhaps take longer to resolve – Peggy’s emergence as a ‘new woman’, Joanie’s double life, the disintegration of the Draper marriage……maybe I just like my villainy a bit more ‘traditional’. Even so, ‘Mad Men’ deserves all the plaudits for originality; ‘The Sopranos’, The West Wing’ and ‘The Wire’ all have clear antecedents in other movies and TV shows, but ‘Mad Men’ strikes me as being a completely new kind of extended drama and never seems to resort to hackneyed melodramatic flourishes that would compromise its essential qualities. Be interested to hear your thoughts if you have time…..

  5. At Christmas I was stood in between two aisles in HMV, The Sopranos complete boxset on one side and The Wire on the other. It took a few minutes but I eventually came to a decision… I do intend to buy and view The Wire in its entirety, but such a project is a huge commitment, more so than The Sopranos. As of yet I simply haven’t had time.

    I’ve seen practically nothing of The West Wing, but it’s another show that I’d like to experience, simply because I’ve heard the plaudits from critics. But that’s the only real reason I’m interested in The West Wing, as politics [though I’m sure the show is about much more than that] doesn’t speak to my interests nearly as much as crime, media and the mafia, all of which are offered by Mad Men, The Sopranos and The Wire. I’ll probably add TWW to my list of boxsets to own. Next up is The Wire, and then I’d like to get into Breaking Bad.

    Mad Men leaves me with a sense of astonishment after every single episode. Even though I’d say The Sopranos was probably as good a show, it never left me feeling quite the way Mad Men does. Several minutes ago I just finished Episode 7 of Season 4. It was incredibly moving one minute and very funny the next. It seems effortless in its sleekness, while maintaining a sense of reality. Each episode seems only to reinforce my beliefs. Hopefully Season 5 will be close to airing by the time I’ve caught up and finished Season 4. I can’t wait.

    Mac.

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