March 12, 2006
The Sopranos, Television, and the Human SewerBy Thomas Lifson
It has been more than 21 months since I last saw a brand new episode of The Sopranos, an artistic achievement that has begun to make a lasting impact on the medium of television. Artistically superior to the vast majority of movies, The Sopranos has the ability to develop characters and plot lines that speak to fundamental issues of human existence, and which trace the arc of tragedy across generations. Like The Godfather trilogy before it, the peculiar circumstances of a mafia don — unconstrained by the normal moral and legal restraints of ordinary mortals — are used to probe deeply into what makes all of us tick.
As I wrote when it left the air last in 2004, one of the reasons I love The Sopranos so much is the simultaneous moral complexity and moral certainty it portrays. 'This life we have chosen' becomes a curse, eating away at those who embrace it, and often enough destroying them, along with their loved ones.
Tony himself, a powerful and physically imposing thug, is brought low by panic attacks, triggered by a traumatic exposure to violence in his youth, when he spied his gangster father doing what gangsters do. The curse, in Shakespearean and Biblical fashion, is working itself through the generations. Tony's son, Anthony Junior, appears to be on a tragic arc of recapitulating his father's career choice, much though his parents would prefer otherwise. Unto the generations.
Anyone who watches The Sopranos on the subject of loan sharking will never be tempted to go for a loan where the interest is paid weekly, and collected by the likes of Tony's nephew Christopher. In one of the more memorable subplots, we saw the father of one of Meadow's (Tony's daughter) best friends destroyed by Tony, because his compulsive gambling left him with debts he could not pay. When the logic of the crime 'business' takes over, sentiment no longer matters. The story is made all the more poignant by our seeing it partially through the eyes of a young and comparatively innocent daughter, who sees her friend's family crumble.
Family, of course, is at the heart of The Sopranos. The themes are universal, but amped—up by the particular circumstances of a life of crime. Some of us have problems with our mothers, and feel manipulated, overly—controlled, and in need of cutting the strings a bit, as we grow up. It's not all that uncommon. But as handled by David Chase, when guilt—ridden Tony finally manages to put his own mother in a nursing home, she tries to have a 'hit' carried out on him. Her life of compromising, rationalizing, and accepting her late husband's career has left her a monster. Tony is left with this realization as small comfort after her death.
Tony and his wife Carmella likewise struggle with each other, and with their children, in ways that families have done since before the dawn of time. The fact that they are fully—realized characters, however, does not insulate them from the moral rot, the fatal choice, and the looming specter of the crime which lies at the heart of their livelihood. Each one of them struggles to find a way out, and the viewer ultimately knows that none of them will succeed. Tragedy will play itself out here, and that is why the story is so compelling.
We must see how this all works out in the end, because we know, and at least in some aspects, identify with these characters. This, of course, implicates us, which is the cleverest moral dimension of all. We see through our own feelings toward Tony and Company, that we, too, have the capability to be seduced by evil. Thanks to the artistry of the writing, however, we are not allowed to get away with it, and relax into a comforting haze of moral indifference.
The violence we see in The Sopranos is almost always horrifying, and almost always intrudes just when we feeling good about the more lovable aspects of one of the villains. Now, there are some people who see violence as beautiful, funny, or otherwise satisfying in some fashion. I am not among them. But the violence in The Sopranos usually functions to bring us back to earth, and remind us exactly who and what we are dealing with. It is the face of evil we find ourselves looking into, and it rarely blinks.
But evil is not portrayed simplistically here. The really scary thing about evil is how it often wears the robes of good, and only takes them off when it is too late for us to escape. Hitler, after all, was extraordinarily kind to and sentimental about animals, and is said by many who met him in social circumstances, to have been capable of great charm. So, also, in The Sopranos, we see evil often masquerading as good. But in the end, we also see it for what it is.
The Sopranos seems to have spawned a worthy companion in the extraordinary television series The Shield, seen on the F/X cable network. Created by Shawn Ryan (and featuring his wife Cathy Cahlin Ryan in a principal role), The Shield is built around the character of Vic Mackey, Tony Soprano's moral and spiritual equivalent, but wearing a badge, with an equally fine supporting cast of vivid characters portrayed by excellent actors.
Suggested in part by the Rampart scandal which shook the LAPD, The Shield follows Vic and his crew of rogue detectives as they eradicate horrific criminals (sometimes without benefit of the judiciary) with little reference to established procedures or the Constitution. Every now and then, as when Vic's autistic kids need special help, some of the proceeds of crime stick to their fingers.
Like the characters in The Sopranos, the moral flaws are part and parcel of difficult decisions taken in the context of consciously straying from the clear path of righteousness, often as not in search of a higher good (like catching a brutal rapist). Vic Mackey succeeds where other cops fail because he does not mind bending the rules, but he also pays the price in his family and personal life, and no doubt in his soul, which, for all his bravado, is clearly tortured.
Like The Sopranos, The Shield is driven by superb writing, and is cast with fine actors, many of them previously unknown to most consumers of popular culture. Both of these series really constitute what should be called 'long form drama' because story lines play out over years, even generations, and producers take the time and care to make them hold together as a single narrative, not a discrete set of self—contained episodes.
Both works of art are actually better watched on DVD, where the action can be paused, and little snippets of dialogue that might have passed without notice analyzed.
As broadcast television fades and broadband distribution technology leads to audience fragmenting and niche markets, coherent and compelling dramas like The Shield and The Sopranos may offer one part of a vision of the future. With almost endless choices for entertainment, the fundamental of characters and plot, played out over the course of years' worth of action may be one way to capture the attention of viewers on a continuing basis.
Neither program is for the squeamish, or for young children. But if you are able to tolerate bad language, violence, and find the sewers of human behavior capable of yielding insight on the human condition, both are highly rewarding. We live in the true golden age of television right now.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.