Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Sopranos and X-Men-ification


Ross Douthat quotes Alan Speinwall on The Sopranos...

Since this final season began, I've been warning everyone that Chase and company may not be going for an earth-shattering conclusion, but more of a life-goes-on finish. But the writers have spent so much time over the last five episodes hinting that some apocalypse is coming - whether it's Phil making war with New Jersey, Tony taking out Chris or vice versa, the FBI completing their RICO case, Muhammed and Ahmed up to no good - that if none of that comes to pass, every bit of anger from the fans is going to be justified.

There comes a point when the storytelling stops being daring and unconventional and starts being sloppy and cruel.

...and then adds his own comments:

Obviously, part of the genius of The Sopranos lies in how it confounds expectations (though if I read one more piece that references the missing Russian from the "Pine Barrens" episode as an example of this tendency, I swear ...). Over the years, Chase and company have taken Chekhov's dictum about the gun on the wall in the first act that needs to be fired by the third and said, well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't, and it's more dramatic if the audience doesn't know which it is. But as Sepinwall suggests, if the final season of your show has about a dozen guns on the wall, all of them obviously cocked and loaded, you more or less have to pull the trigger. If you don't, you'll have sacrificed the very sense of realism that The Sopranos has labored so hard to build... [Y]ou'll leave the audience with the suspicion that you never had any idea what you were doing to begin with.

I've already talked a little bit about why I think the messiness of The Sopranos is a good thing. While I'm not a huge fan of entertainers intentionally pissing off their audience, there's definitely a place for TV shows/novels/movies/etc. that say to their audience: "Thanks for coming with us to this point. Now, we're going to go over there." In other words, it's fine for The Sopranos to ask more of its audience than it has in the past: part of the "asking more" might be that it isn't going to offer the kind of satisfying resolution we get at the end of, say, a season of 24. I'd even say that over the long term, a continuing series needs to be willing to leave part of its audience behind. For instance, my guess is that a lot of what has happened this season on The Sopranos has alienated some of the fans of the show who were drawn to the goombah hi-jinx that were featured more centrally in the earlier seasons.

Dealing with Alan's comments: it's "cruel" when you have a show that promises a certain kind of resolution (say, solving a mystery), but keeps moving the goalpost and/or pulling the rug out from under its audience (like, say, Lost or, alas, Twin Peaks). I don't think it's "cruel" when a show bucks convention by not tying up plot threads, especially when the show has never really bothered to tie up plot threads and where a lot of the best moments of the show have been of a "whimper-not-a-bang" variety (like when Tony finally makes the decision not to conspire with Johnny Sac: it's a momentous negative - the important thing is that nothing comes of it).


I'd also like to comment on the idea that keeps coming up in this discussion that writers need to have an ending in mind when they start a series. That is, serial TV is best when the writers are always writing towards a goal. I'm not saying this is a bad way to work, but I think that it is certainly not the only good way and, in fact, it doesn't necessarily play to one of the major strengths of the serial format - i.e. that writers/producers/etc. can react and respond to ideas/themes/characters/etc. that grow organically out of the creative process.

The problem is that this kind of serial improvisation doesn't fit well with the mentality that all plot threads need to be tied-up neatly. As with most everything having to do with contemporary pop culture, we can get a good picture of this dilemma by looking at X-Men comics.

During the first half of his original run on X-Men, Chris Claremont introduced and developed almost all of the major X-characters and created most of the classic story-lines, including the "Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past". These stories were sprawling, messy, super-hero-as-space-opera pop epics.

Now, these stories - partly because they were churned out on a monthly basis under less than ideal creative conditions - tended to have their fair share of loose ends. Eventually, instead of creating more stories with more loose ends, Claremont and the X-Men writers who followed him decided that they could spend their time just tying-up loose ends.*

The problem with that has been that it trained a generation of super-hero comic book fans to pay way too much attention to loose ends and to place way too much value on whether or not they eventually were tied-up. (Compare this to the wild and woolly days of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko comics). These pop geeks can an inordinate amount of satisfaction over the little details at the expense of being able to get a sense of and enjoy the big picture. This POV has really done a number on super-hero comics, but, even worse, thanks to the triumph of the geeks, it's become a big part of American pop culture in general.

(The X-Men-ification of pop culture might best be experienced by looking through the Wikipedia pages on Lost: the entry for the character John Locke is longer than the entry for the real John Locke.)

So here's the thing: when you're dealing with serial narratives that aren't fully mapped out from beginning-to-end, like The Sopranos, try not to approach them like die hard comic wonks approach contempo X-Men comics.

*Comics wonkery aside: I've singled out Claremont because talking about X-Men suits my purposes, but Roy Thomas probably deserves a mention as the guy who really started this trend.

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