Thursday, April 26, 2007
I just finished season one of the HBO series The Sopranos. With all the media attention surrounding the approaching (theoretical) series terminus, I thought I'd start from the beginning and follow the whole story top to bottom in concentrated fashion, letting the arc and detail of the story soak in.
I'd seen these episodes before. A few years ago we had some introductory package with our satellite TV which gave us HBO and HBO On Demand for free for a few months, and I watched the first three seasons. I got sucked into the show at that time, but when our special arrangement ended I was reluctant to pay to keep watching a single series when I knew it would be available on video shortly. And so I lost track of things over the next three seasons (which took five years to elapse).
I've always had a soft spot for crime fiction generally, and mob stories specifically--many of my favorite movies are of this genre: Godfather, Miller's Crossing, Goodfellas, Road to Perdition--but my usual skepticism about television reared its head in 1999 when the series debuted. I was intrigued, but I figured I'd let the dust of critical opinion settle before potentially wasting any time on it. The series turned out, of course, to be a big hit. And to read the hype now (I'm thinking of a recent Vanity Fair article specifically), it might even rise to the level of genius or revolution, taking television to some new and daring place.
My review of the show causes me once again to revisit my probably pathological hatred of television. After all, it's only a transmission medium, however manipulative and brain-sucking it may be in practice. I run across these things from time to time that I'm convinced are separate and apart from television in general, things distinct and superior to all the garbage that you otherwise can't escape on the damn thing. But of course I may be fooling myself utterly. Maybe the things I judge as worthy are just more of the same shit on somebody else's scale. Surely this is my wife's contention: she thinks the two things I now profess to like--Law and Order and The Sopranos--are just more commercial television shit. Maybe she's right.
In any case, I'm reminded that we are a story-telling species, we love gossip and drama and a good yarn; there's undoubtedly a survival advantage gained from this predilection. And there's no inherent reason why a movie's big budget should beget a better story in broad strokes than TV's smaller one, and so especially without the commercial meddling of the big networks there are bound to be good stories which slip thru the inanity and mediocrity filter.
More than my views on TV, though, I'm a little embarrassed to find myself asking some of Life's Big Questions after watching the tribulations of a bunch of fictional characters. Yes, I get that none of this is real, and maybe the story is even interesting in inverse proportion to its realism. But the story reveals a world that brushes up next to the one that I know, but which is so foreign to what I see in daily life, that the questions come rather unbidden.
I think there are a couple things that make mob stories so compelling to us. Chief among these is that we are watching people who have real power. The character of Tony Soprano is a powerful guy. He makes decisions which have a huge impact--often a life-or-death impact--on the lives of a lot of people, and he carries himself in life as a guy whose control over others is proper and natural. Now, this is not part of any world I see much of. Nobody ever concluded that I was a powerful guy. I'm not crying in my beer; I have no desire to be powerful (persuasive, maybe, at times, which I suppose is a kind of power). Indeed, in my job I come across a fair number of people who aspire to be in control of others, and it's hard for me not to see this basic desire as a character flaw. Whatever, it makes Tony Soprano a fascinating guy to watch. I also think that crime stories can speak to some more essential part of the human character. We get to watch a basic morality play about ambition and loyalty and deception, and I think everyone relates to this in some way. We get to lift up a corner of the veneer of civilization that obscures some of the uglier, animal aspects of our natures and peer into the depths. We may abhor and thrill at the mob's lawlessness, but I think it resonates in some little-exercised part of ourselves. I also think that up to a certain point, we like to see simple justice unencumbered by the baggage of the law. Often, the mobster lays down the rules--and they're not always rules we disagree with--and someone's failure to live up to these rules is met with swift and violent retribution. In some cases, we want to stand up and cheer. In the opening scene of The Godfather, Bonasera comes to Vito Corleone because a young man has beaten and raped his daughter and the legal system has failed the family. The Godfather puts a couple goons on the case, and the guy gets the shit beat out of him. We cheer--he absolutely had it coming.
But there's a grotesqueness that always creeps into the story, a line that always gets crossed that makes our stomachs turn to varying degrees. Susan hates to see anybody get whacked, whether they deserve it or not. And that's part of the morality play as well--power corrupts, etc. Anyway, this is hardly comprehensive, but it's useful (to me) to try and find some sources of these stories' power for us.
For The Sopranos specifically, it doesn't hurt that the writing and acting seem really first-rate. The production quality is very good, but the series doesn't really blaze new trails in television production; it's really all about the story, and about the interaction between a small knot of well-developed and really professionally-acted characters. These are people who are often extraordinarily capable and intelligent, but who often have minimal education. Tony and Carmela's expensive house and lavish lifestyle are at odds with their very blue collar origins. Tony, the man in charge in every other aspect of his life, is on his back foot when he puts himself (very reluctantly) at the mercy of a psychiatrist, someone whose education and exposure to the larger world is much more extensive than his and this interaction reveals one of his chief limitations as a person. However thin the premise, David Chase and his writers have done a great job of making the mob boss's going into therapy, and staying there, plausible; and the juxtaposition of these two people, and the civility of working out problems in this way, which stands in such stark contrast to how Tony operates in nearly every other sphere of his life, is one of the story's great pulls. And this craftmanship is on display in several other relationships in the story as well. The sublety in the performances of the key four or six people, and the sophistication in the writing of their interactions with each other, put the story into a stratosphere. With very rare exception, the plot developments and their working-out do not seem contrived or sensational, even when the most basic premise--the daily business of a mafia family--is highly sensational. It's a part of David Chase's accomplishment that he makes a world which our culture sees in a highly romantcized way seem mostly mundane and grimy.
I'm off with season two this week.