Monday, June 06, 2005

The Sopranos

I've been doing a rewatch of The Sopranos with my dad over the past month, so far we've seen through season three's University. The show is one of my all time favorites and was actually the first really great TV series I watched. I saw the first three seasons of The Sopranos about a year before I watched Twin Peaks, but I guess I considered The Sopranos an anomaly, and thought that most TV shows weren't like it. And now having seen a lot more great TV shows, I would still say that there's nothing like The Sopranos.

The thing I love about the show is the high level of moral ambiguity, the characters are all incredibly flawed, looking out for themselves most of the time. While something like Buffy or Angel did have ambiguous characters, they were all at heart good, fighting for something bigger than themselves, and most of the time they didn't disappoint you. I hate it when people claim that only depressing stuff is realistic, but in this case, the series is very realistic because of how flawed the characters are.

As the episode I watched yesterday, University, makes quite clear, all the characters have many sides. In the episode, Silvio, a character who is usually used as comic relief, beats up one of the women who works for him, a shock to the audience because we had gotten used to seeing him as a pretty nice guy. There's a great cut from him beating this stripper to him eating dinner with his wife, making jokes about how he zones out in front of the TV. It's that juxtaposition of the really ordinary parts of these peoples' lives with the mob stuff that makes the series so effective.

I think the series really effectively captures the reality of suburban life in America, and even if Tony was not in the mafia, I think the show could still work as a really interesting portrait of generational conflict and people searching for purpose. However, by adding in the mob element to the really ordinary stuff, it makes the show so much more interesting. It's quite similar to Buffy, in that by twisting reality just a little bit it makes ordinary life into something grand and operatic.

The show is constantly forcing the viewer to consider ethical questions, and we're frequently disappointed when one of the characters chooses to do something wrong or bad. In the best episodes, you're left in a moral vacuum, where neither choice feels right. One of the best examples of this is 'Employee of the Month,' in which Melfi is raped, only to have the rapist be set free because of a technicality. She is faced with the question of whether she should tell Tony about the rapist and have him 'punish' this guy. You really want her to get Tony to kill this guy, even though you know that society's rules tell us that we should not sanction punishment by death. In the end, she decides that just the knowledge that she could have him punished if she wanted to is enough and she decides not to ask Tony to help her.

Another example of messing around with audience feelings is seen in one of the series' greatest hours, 'D-Girl.' Other than 'Funhouse,' this is my favorite episode of the first two seasons. It's one of the funniest, particularly Christopher's interactions with Jon Favreau, and his constant insulting of Swingers, as well as d-girl Amy's hilarious Hollywood speak. But underneath that is the story of two people at a crossroads in their lives, namely Christopher and Pussy. Christopher journeys into a world he's not comfortable in as he tries to sell his film script to Favreau. He is put in a position of weakness, and over the course of the episode he gets rejected by Amy, someone he opened up to emotionally in a way he never does with Adrianna. Over the course of the episode, Christopher is able to view a world completely different from the mob, and sees a way out of the life. However, after being rejected by Amy, he loses this out, and has no choice but to return to the mob, a decision he makes in a really amazing scene of Christopher just sitting outside, realizing that if he goes back in, he'll never be able to leave mob life.

This is intercut with Pussy sobbing in the bathroom. Earlier in the episode, we saw Pussy attacking his wife and being very standoffish to her. She can't understand why he treats her so badly, and that treatment can't really be excused, but we can understand why he is doing that. The pressure of wearing a wire really gets to him, and distracts him from his home life. The final scenes with Pussy in this episode are phenomenal because they first have him talking to Anthony Jr, telling him how Tony was his best friend, stayed with his dying sister in the hospital, conveying how great a man is, but at the same time, he is wearing a wire, betraying Tony and letting the feds build a case against Tony, so he can go free. That drives him to the bathroom where he cries because he's stuck in a situation where he has no out, he can't save himself and Tony, and in putting Tony ahead of himself, he betrays the brotherhood that is supposed to tie crews together.

There are no villains here. The feds should be doing whatever they can to arrest Tony, and Pussy should take whatever out he can to avoid a thirty year prison sentence, but at the same time, to betray Tony is just awful. This all comes to a head in the second season finale, where Tony is forced to kill Pussy. It's a brutal scene, as we watch Tony, Paulie and Silvio kill Pussy, someone who was family to them, but they don't have a choice. They can't let him live without endangering themselves.

At the same time as we are made to love these mob characters, we occasionally are reminded of the deplorable means by which they make their living. The final montage of 'Funhouse' brings this to the fore, as the happy family party at the Soprano house is intercut with scenes that show us the effect of all the havok they've reeked, and the destruction they've left in their wake over the season. This is emphasized in a discussion in 'Bust Out' between Tony and David Scatino, where Tony says how consuming businesses like David is his "bread and butter," they make their living by destroying other peoples' lives. That's why Tony allowed David to borrow the money to get in the executive game, because he saw someone he could use, and his business sense superceded his responsibility as David's friend. The mob characters find people at their most desperate and take advantage of this desperation to make money for themselves. This movement between personal and professional is exemplified by the David storyline, comparing personal Tony, who jokes with David at college night to professional Tony who assaults David to ensure that he pays off his debt.

I love entertainment that challenges you and forces you to draw your own conclusions about the work's morality. Tony is a character who is at times despicable, but at other times really sweet and that's what makes the show so good. We want them to get out, to do good, but they never will. One of the most heartwrenching episodes is the end of season five, where we're led to believe that Christopher and Adrianna are going to run for it, leave Jersey and start a new life, but Christopher can't do that, and he lets Silvio kill Adrianna. You want to believe that things will go well, but in that world, we know that doing good isn't what matters, and it's a question of how these people can deal with the immorality of their actions.

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