Saturday, June 13, 2015

Woke Up This Morning

It took me far too long to finish watching The Sopranos: nearly a year. This was due in no small part to how much I hate using every Amazon Prime streaming app, but as this isn't a post about how poorly designed those apps are, we'll let it slide for now.
The Sopranos ran for 6 (or kind of 7, depending on who you ask) seasons, from 1999-2007, and it was one of premium cable network HBO's first forays into original television programming. It's ostensibly a mafia story, about Tony Soprano (the late, great James Gandolfini), the boss of the New Jersey mafia, but on closer inspection, it's really more a family drama: Tony's difficult marriage to Carmela (Edie Falco) and the challenges they face as parents to Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and A.J. (Robert Iler).

This show has been rated as one of the greatest TV shows of all time on pretty much every list there is. It was the first cable drama to win the Emmy for Best Drama in 2004, and it won 21 other Emmys for writing, directing, and acting. It also won the Peabody Award two years in a row. In short, it's pretty incredible.

The Sopranos makes an amazing first impression. First off, the theme song is simply awesome ("Woke Up This Morning" by Alabama 3). I enjoyed it for six whole seasons. But more than that, and more than the stunning cinematic quality that just didn't happen in television before Tony Soprano graced our screens, you find in the very first episode that you are getting the answer to a question you never thought you'd ask: What would happen if a mafia don went to a psychiatrist?

We see Tony's pride, his deeply-ingrained machismo, in his aversion to the very idea of psychiatry, but his obsession with those ducks in his pool suggests a softer side that remains largely untapped. Through every season, as Tony continues to visit Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), we as viewers keep hoping that Tony will change, that Dr. Melfi's therapy will get through to him.

What's really incredible about The Sopranos and its collection of characters is that it set an amazing precedent. It was the first time that a TV show focused on a true anti-hero: a protagonist who is truly terrible, maybe even a little evil, but the viewers still root for him and want him to succeed. More recently, we saw anti-heroes in Dexter Morgan and Walter White, thanks to David Chase's groundbreaking creation of Tony Soprano.

And really, on the surface, there's not much to like about Tony Soprano. Right off the bat, he literally murders people with his own hands. There are multiple occasions in the series when he actually has blood on his hands (how's that for blatant symbolism?). He orders his "soldiers" to kill, as well. Almost every penny he makes is dirty in some way--and he makes a lot of pennies. He bribes cops, inspectors, anyone who might stand in his way of making a killing, in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Obviously, he's a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad guy.

So let's put his actions aside for a moment and look at Tony as a man. Likely due to his position as the boss, he's prideful. He's selfish. He's petty. He's hugely hypocritical. He's not faithful to his wife. He has no understanding for his own son's depression, despite his own struggles. He's a sore loser. He's extremely rigid in his views of the world.
Tony faces off against Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese).
Why do we care about him so much, then, enough to watch six seasons of violence, dirty dealings, and sometimes gore? He is obviously overwhelmingly more flawed than good. It's all down to brilliant writing, interesting plots, and in-depth relationships with equally-interesting characters. And Tony loves his family. He really, really loves his family. He mistreats them, but he loves them deeply. He will do anything to protect them, to provide for them. Like Walter White, somehow that one lovely quality is enough to excuse the evil-doings for long enough to be enthralled by what's happening.

There really is a lot to say about The Sopranos. There's a lot going on, a lot of characters, a lot of sub-plots. If I'm honest, I missed some things because I wasn't paying enough attention, so there are a few deaths and a few relationships that I was never completely sure of. There's so much to keep track of--who's related, who's part of which gang, who killed who and why, etc., etc., etc.--that if you miss one moment it can get confusing.

Overall, though, it was interesting. It included political and social commentary that is often still relevant. It was an intimate picture of a man who, if he were real, we would only get a glimpse of through news broadcasts. It's an interesting statement of humanity: this man who makes his living through murder and shady deals is still a man. He has a family he loves. He has very close friends. He sees a psychiatrist. He's just a man.

And that ending. Boy, that ending. I knew it was going to be ambiguous going in, but it's much more abrupt than I expected. I thought the Internet had cut out until the credits started rolling. People have been debating what happened to Tony after the dramatic cut to black since it happened in 2007. Was he whacked? After all, he had just taken out the head of his rival gang. It could have been a gang member coming in the door instead of Meadow. Or maybe that guy in the baseball cap who went into the bathroom just a moment before would return to put an end to the Soprano rule.

Or maybe it was just the end. Nothing happened, and that was the extraordinary thing. For a man who lives his entire life suspicious of every person, unsure of whether someone is going to kill him or turn him into the cops, time with his family is rare and precious. With Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" playing on the jukebox, it just feels so simple, so idyllic, so American.

David Chase refuses to answer. In fact, he doesn't care whether or not Tony was killed in that moment. He says it's more about the small happy moment Tony spends with his family--such a rare moment for them--than about whether or not he dies. Here is a really interesting shot-for-shot description of the ending with David Chase.
The family, minus Meadow, enjoy onion rings just before
the infamous black-screen ending.
Chase explains, "The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it's all going to come to an end, that are worth so much and we're so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it's really worth it. So don't stop believing."

Despite all the incredible things about it, The Sopranos does fall just short of passing my five-season-limit theory. The last season was okay, but I found myself struggling to find the motivation to get into it. After the end of the fifth season, I felt more or less satisfied with where things had ended up, and it took me a while to even start watching season six. I think at the very least, the last season could have been shorter; it was almost twice the length of the previous five seasons, and it often felt that way.

On that note, I felt that some of the sub-plots took too long to come to a close. There were a few things I had completely forgotten by the time they were resolved, and in some cases I had kind of just given up hope of having closure when they were suddenly brought back again. The plots were always interesting, but I felt that there were some I had to wait a little too long for.

Final thoughts: Amazing series. The cinematography looked like a movie in every episode. The characters were fascinating, as were their relationships with each other. The writing and the directing were top-notch. It just felt a little long in places, particularly during the sixth season. Definitely watch it if you like family dramas, the Godfather movies, or are just really into good TV. It's a classic, it's groundbreaking, and we have it to thank for some more recent successes, and for showing the world that even TV can be an art form.

What do you think?

My favorite episode:
"The Test Dream," (S5, Ep. 11). Tony has a series of vivid nightmares while he's trying to relax. He's visited by dead friends and dreams of family issues. What I love about this episode is how accurately it captures the experience of dreaming. You're never sure from shot to shot if it's a dream or not, and people and things are constantly changing every time Tony looks at them. Things appear normal at first glance, and then as Tony looks closer they suddenly become strange. It's fantastic, and by far the best depiction of dreaming I've ever seen, in film or television.

Some Trivia:

  • Real-life mafia members often contacted James Gandolfini to compliment him on the authenticity of the series, and to give him advice.
  • David Chase didn't allow any camera movements in Dr. Melfi's office.
  • Tony Sirico, who played Paulie (one of my favorite characters, incidentally), was actually a mobster when he was young, before becoming an actor. His nickname was "Junior," which is the nickname of Tony Soprano's uncle, Corrado, in the series.
Next up in the series: 
The Dick Van Dyke Show

Series Introduction