Friday, April 6, 2007

TV Chat: The Sopranos

The Sopranos

I know I wasn't completely alone in thinking that the last "half-season" of The Sopranos was the show at or near its best: at least some of my friends agree with me.

For me, those episodes really saved the show for me. As much as I enjoyed the fourth and fifth seasons, I couldn't help but feel that Chase et al. were pandering to the "Bro" crowd: the people whose primary interest in the series was to watch charismatic, funny guys doing horrible shit to people, partly because, let's face it, there's something satisfying about the fantasy of being able to solve all sorts of problems by beating the shit out of the (putative?) source of the problem.

I'm not sure that I would have felt all that strongly about this, except that HBO had two other shows that (for the most part) avoided this kind of weaselly sort-of-glorification of sociopaths. Apart from The Wire's inexplicable romanticization of Omar (the gangsta Robin Hood), none of its criminals are presented as being particular pleasant or goofy or fun to hang with. There's also a dimension of real world tragedy to a character like Stringer Bell - diligently going to community college, trying his best to move into the big leagues, but utterly unprepared for it. And, in Deadwood, while Ian McShane's Al Swearengen is certainly charismatic, the show doesn't let that get him off the hook in the way that The Sopranos has, in the past, let the funny-guy antics and Tarantino-esque dialogue of Sylvio, Paulie, and Christopher cover up their sociopathic tendencies.

Al Swearengen is also great for another reason: the gangsters on The Sopranos are just hoods - violent guys who were too lazy or greedy to settle for living an ordinary, average Joe life. But tktk went into the wilderness and built something out of nothing: his accomplishment is tied up with his willingness to use violence.

But Season 6A changed that:

First, the opening Dennis Potter-ish episodes demanded more of the show's audience than anything in previous seasons. While I don't like it when a series says "screw you" to its audience, I do like it when it rewards a demand for a greater and/or different type of engagement. It's too bad that so many of the shows fans weren't interested in meeting this demand. Usually at this point I'd say something like "I don't blame them", but, in this case, I do blame them. What they wanted seemed to have been more of the same: edgy, violent, goombah hi-jinx and fetishization of mafia politics and power plays - i.e., a mix of some of the more superficial, yet distinctive, elements of Pulp Fiction and Casino. Watching mainly to see who's going to get "whacked".

Second, Chase et al. decided to tackle head-on the fact that, whatever else these guys are, they 're also (perhaps primarily) violent thugs, not heroes or funny "good-time" guys: that they're outlaws because they're greedy and not for any bigger romantic/tragic reasons (or even any bigger socio-economic reasons).

Anyway, I'm hoping that the remainder of Season 6 will continue to take a clear-eyed look at these characters and not revert to pandering to crowd who thinks that this is a good idea.


Anonymous said...

Jon, I actually think the turning point for the show from "funny bad guys" to "Jesus Christ, that's awful" was Season Four, specifically the "University" episode during which Ralphie beat his pregnant young stripper girlfriend to death. I think Chase has said that in that ep in particular, but elsewhere as well, he's gone out of his way to make the point that these are not the proverbial hookers with hearts of gold.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I meant Season Three. I get my Ralphie seasons mixed up.


Jon Hastings said...

The thing with Ralphie is that he seems to me to be the show's example of a character who is much worse than Tony's central crew. The point the show makes about Ralphie is that his beating of the woman to death is gratuitous. Though Tony (barely) puts up with him for a while, I knew (as did most people watching the show) that eventually he'd be "whacked" - i.e., he beats a woman to death, but eventually he gets his.

The show has had a bunch of these characters, who seem to be there partly to set off the main characters as "not being so bad" considering (i.e. "at least Paulie is no Ralphie").

This might be a completely personal thing, but my low point with the show was after Sylvio murdered Adriana and a friend of mine (who liked the show a lot) talked, non-ironically, about her "deserving what she got". I don't really think that the show's creators saw it that simply (rather, we were probably supposed to see that she was playing with fire all along...), but there's a way that they, to a certain extent, seemed to buy into a lot of the macho, code-of-honor bullshit.

But Season 6 seems to me (so far) to be a bit more clear-eyed: I especially like the emphasis on (and criticism of) the whole "alpha male" thing: that to stay in charge it's as important for Tony to be top thug as it is for him to be a Machiavellian plotter.

Part of my issue with the show is that it mixes the black humor of Goodfellas and Casino with the family dynasty tragedy of The Godfather, and those things don't always work well together. Goodfellas and Casino work partly because we're distanced from the criminal characters: I don't think were meant to care about them the way we're meant to care about Michael Corleone's descent into the abyss. brother killed. This is partly because Henry Hill is a pretty amoral (sociopathic?) character: he's always (and only) out for himself. Michael is (much) more complex: he's driven by a desire to protect his family and keep it strong, but tragically/ironically he ends up destroying it.

Part of the strength of The Sopranos is that it does try to mix these things together: as opposed to a show like The Wire, which stylistically/tonally is all-of-a-piece, The Sopranos is much more like a Gothic cathedral - there's an overarching pattern, but, episode-by-episode there's a lot of room for variation. However, I think this has also led to the pandering I talked about in my original post.

But I definitely have mixed feelings: I think that it is ingenuous for the show's supporters to deny that the show has pandered to its "Bro" audience. At the same time, the show, as a whole, is so good that I'd never condemn it in toto for its attempts to please all of its audience, even if those attempts make it hard for me to take sometimes.

jsalexandra said...

I totally agree with you that the second half was better than the first.In particular season1 of the show has some technical errors but you cant really spot them when you watch sopranos season 1.But after this season the show has really picked a nice pace.

Anonymous said...

thanks for share........