Dennis vs. ‘The Sopranos’

A while ago, the lovely Elsa S. Customer and I set out to watch all seven seasons of “The Sopranos”, beginning to end; she’d not seen it at all while I’d tailed off after season four or so, and we just decided to tackle what’s been hailed as the greatest show in TV history head on and see what happened. Well, I don’t know what the amazing Ms. S. Customer has to say (perhaps she’ll favor us with a review some day), but I’ve gotta say that the experience was both more and less than what I’d been expecting. On the plus side, “The Sopranos” is an exceptional, novelistic series: well written, impeccably cast and acted, and exciting, shocking, and often moving. Also, seeing it all the way through, what were often whined about by critics in the later seasons (repetitive storylines, a winding down feeling) are revealed as thematic necessities; these characters lives are defined by a narrow set of conflicts and options, and preordained to have a certain pattern, with only two real possible outcomes. Those people who natter on for more thrills to top those that came before are just sensation junkies; to be true to the characters and the world the show created, the whole enterprise had to become number and less shocking (look at DePalma’s garish, overblown Scarface to see how that desire for exponential thrills becomes a parody of itself). The down side for me, after watching the entire series in one lump, was the realization that these characters are just plain evil and, as a consequence, less interesting. I mean, sure, you might say that should have been obvious anyway, but, on reflection, the moral sameness of the world of the show lends itself to a certain distance after a while. It’s like looking at another species; you might get attached to one meerkat (or, in this case, rabid meerkat) over another, but in the end, you’re still just watching “Meerkat Manor”. I don’t think that’s unintentional, either; creator David Chase, and star James Gandolfini have both expressed dismay at the disproportionate number of fans who seem to be missing the point by admiring these people. Chase wanted to create a compelling, multilayered world of villains, and he did that. He wasn’t interested in creating anybody’s heroes. So, in way of proving my point, here’s my rundown of the Soprano family and their respective evilness: Oh, and in case anyone is confused: SPOILERS AHEAD:
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini).
Evidence against: Um, mob boss anyone? Sure, he went to college for a semester, and he seems to have some conflicted emotions about what he’s become (as witnessed by his panic attacks and subsequent therapy). And, yeah, he gets choked up about his kids, and ducks, and racehorses, and that dumb-as-a-racehorse stripper that Ralphie kills, but, while he has more of an inner life than anyone else on the show, his daily choices are always about self interest. Tony might get weepy to Dr. Melfi, but only after he’s made the decisions to well, let’s see: destroy two childhood friends’ businesses, indulge his insatiable gluttony (for food, sex, gambling), destroy his none-too-bright uncle for his own purposes, and, oh yeah, kill Christopher, Adrianna, his own cousin, etc. There’s tragedy in this man, but it’s MacBeth’s tragedy; he’s destroyed by circumstance, but only because he was willing to be. As Melfi finally realizes, Tony might have an inner life, but ultimately he’s just a sociopath, and his ability to feel for others has become just another way to manipulate people. Including, of course, the viewer.
Carmella Soprano (Edie Falco).
Evidence against: Oh Carm. There’s a victimhood here, but, like her husband’s, it’s mitigated by her complicity with it. Not fitting with the Lady MacBeth archetype, Carm begins in willful, if conflicted, ignorance of what she’s complicit in, tearfully confessing to her priest about her suspicions that she has benefitted from Tony’s “questionable acts”. But she’s not that dumb. Willing to put up with those, as well as Tony’s truly epic philandering, for the sake of her own comfort, Carmella gradually becomes more and more willing to admit to herself her desire to maintain that lifestyle, eventually making her price specific- she’ll stay in it if Tony buys her the real estate she needs to build a spec house. Sure, she loves her kids and her husband. But who doesn’t.
Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli).
Evidence against: The all-time champion f***-up in TV history, this jackass’ struggles (with sobriety, to be a screenwriter) are played for wry laughs, as the conflict between his high artistic and self-improvement ideas with his daily grind of murder, extortion, thievery, and girlfriend-beating never occur to him. A whiny, weak thug with aspirations to greatness makes for one of the most pathetic characters ever.
Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro).
Evidence against: Man, do I hate Janice. Not the actress, who creates one of the most indelibly loathsome characters I’ve ever seen, but the character herself, with her manipulation of her family and her series of successively-dead MacBeths who all end up bewildered, and then seriously dead, through her machinations. I mean, what does a character have to do on this show to be the most hated, when she only ever kills one guy (and he really was asking for it)? Yuck. The most narcissistic, manipulative tumor of a human being on any show ever. Well done, Aida.
I could go on (Paulie loved his momma, Bobby was really kinda sweet, Vito struggled with his secret homosexuality, Silvio was loyal and kinda funny), but each example just goes to show the series’ adeptness at pulling the rug out from under you morally. Each character (except maybe Janice, and Phil Leotardo, who’s just a creep) gets their moments to sucker you in, to make you empathize with them and then, POW (usually literally), they do something truly heinous to remind you, “Oh, right…evil…”. Great show.

Published in: on June 13, 2009 at 11:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post and I agree. I can’t sympathize with any character on this show. This leads to ,for me at least, that I view very much as a black comedy, perhaps one of the greatest of all times. I’m amazed at how much I laughed when I watched through it again.

    Phil Leotardo kinda seems to have one of those sucker you in moments though: Just after he’s whacked Vito he lies in the bed besides his wife, that’s sleeping like a baby, looking full of remorse. I can’t recall Richie Aprile having one of these, though.

  2. Thanks for the nice words Senor.
    Yeah, I forgot about that Phil moment. I still think he’s just gonna muse for a moment, then scratch his balls and roll over and snore, but still…

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