TV Club

Family; Redefined

Dear Jeffrey:

I think there are two questions which have to be answered in this “TV Club.” The first is, can we find something to say about The Sopranos not already said in the thousands of articles on the subject, including the two by you? And the second is, is the second season any good? Partly as a cheap way to build suspense, and partly to force readers to plow through my pet theories before giving them the goods, I’m going to take a stab at the first question and leave the second one for later.

Here’s my theory about what makes The Sopranos different from other TV shows and movies about the mafia. I think The Sopranos brings the understatement of the American short story to a subject usually treated as high drama or farce. The Godfather is an opera in three acts. Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Italian-American movies strive for, and often achieve, the altitude of classical tragedy–they tell the stories of heroes whose fates are the result of their own flawed natures. (GoodFellas was a jaunty laugh-fest for its first two-thirds, but that was just Scorsese’s setup for disaster.) The comedies, such as Prizzi’s Honor and Analyze This, are meant to cut through the globby schmaltz of mob drama by showing us wise guys as goofballs. When last season began, it looked like The Sopranos was a comedy, too–a spoof about a mobster with spoiled, nagging children and mother problems who goes to see a shrink. But where the show departs from the norm is that it eschews both caricature and melodrama (though it has elements of both) for something that has the weight of, and comes across as, realism. (How realistic it actually is, Mr. Mob Reporter, I hope you are going to tell us.) I mean, does this or does this not sound like your standard short-form suburbiana? It’s about the little moments of anomie in the daily routine, underscored by cheerful violence and Tarantino-esque riffing. It’s about teen anorexia and pre-teen rapster attitudinizing and brand-name chitchat and unbearable self-loathing and intergenerational weirdness.

Maybe I’m being pretentious here and shoehorning pop culture into a literary context to which it doesn’t belong, because television is obviously less compressed and more mundane than the movies. A series has to have the open-endedness of daily life, or else it would come abruptly to an end. But even nighttime dramas remain tightly structured around 15-minute segments, which means that points have to be hammered into your head for fear you’ll forget what happened from one commercial to the next. The Sopranos takes advantage of its commercial-free environment to be comparatively fearless in the face of flat dramatic affect. Characters register information with the tiniest of gestures–all Edie Falco has to do is not move her facial muscles when her priest and would-be lover lets something slip that suggests he may be toying with her, and we know that Carmela Soprano just grasped something important. How important we won’t know for several episodes, when she gives him the lowdown with the kind of brutal, layered insight into his character you usually don’t see outside of novels.

The producers also grant us a fairly high tolerance for boredom. This comes across most vividly in Dr. Melfi’s office. I love how Tony taps his shoes with hostile insecurity and looks around at the psychiatrist’s weird doctor’s-office art, avoiding her eyes as he refuses to talk, the way patients do. You’ve seen this scene a million times before (especially in Analyze This), but it never goes on so long, or with so many sudden changes in mood. You can tell that the writers and actors trust that the payoff will be worth it. It is, too–remember the time when Tony is getting ready to call it quits with Melfi and she asks, in her protracted, oracular intonation: “What do you want to say to me?” And he replies, as if drugged, “I had a dream,” which is that his penis fell off and he’s running around holding it up while he looks for the guy who fixes his Lincolns to screw it back on, at which point a duck swoops down and snaps it out of his hands. It’s a moment of sheer absurdity played straight and almost in slow motion, until we realize belatedly that the escalating surrealism has just earned us the only weeping session of the season. And they’re Tony’s tears, which is inevitable but still shocking.

Which brings us to what makes The Sopranos not just different but good. There’s the writing. I think what I like best about that is not the attention the writers pay to the details of Italian-American sociology, not the witty bullshitting sessions among the members of the crew, and not the way the plot lines mess with genre expectations, so that the worst thing that can happen to Anthony Soprano Jr. is not that he gets beaten up by a school bully but that he doesn’t get beaten up, because that means he learns that his classmates’ parents are afraid of his father. I like the treatment of Tony Soprano, a man who is trying in surprisingly good faith and with honest introspection to wake up to what he is–an adulterous husband, a bad example to his children, the son of a criminal father and an infanticidal mother. (Of course, he is also a killer and a thief, two facts about himself he hasn’t quite dealt with yet.) By taking him and Carmela seriously, by making them neither monsters nor the butt of jokes, the writers grant them dignity and pathos. That, in turn, demythologizes the world they inhabit. Making them human brings home almost for the first time the mob’s human costs.

I haven’t begun to talk about what may be the best part of the show–the acting. Any thoughts?