June 11, 2007
The Sopranos: Made for
the Last Time
On Sunday, America said goodbye to "The Sopranos," the most
critically acclaimed series in the history of television, and also one
of the most popular. Those two have combined to make it one of the most
talked-about and analyzed cultural products in history. What have we
learned from all that analysis? We're still sifting through it, and
probably will be for years.
Just as Mario Puzo/Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather"
told the classical tale of American immigrant experience through the
prism of the Italian Mafia, David Chase's HBO masterpiece applied that
same prism to yuppie baby boomers, settling into middle age amid great
wealth, but ruinous family dysfunction.
Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written about the mob
extensively, wrote in Slate recently that the third generation of
Mafia families is when the rot truly sets in, which should come as no
surprise to anyone who's ever watched "Growing Up Gotti."
Reams of newspaper and magazine articles and shelves full of
books have been written about the series in the past eight years – with
the New York Times even putting out a compendium of its collected
writings about the show after the first season.
Book-length analyses have come at "Sopranos" from
philosophical, religious, culinary and business/self-help angles. (Those
latter two books – “Leadership: Sopranos Style” and "Tony Soprano on
Management” – are especially mystifying. In his chosen profession, Tony
Soprano gets to break the law and kill people. The average reader of the
books probably doesn't enjoy that privilege.)
But ironically, it was blogs such as Matt Zoller Seitz's
The House Next Door and Alan Sepinwall's What's Alan Watching?
that hosted probably the best "Sopranos" discussion of all.
Then there's the question of the show's politics. Though
certainly participating in all sorts of violent and sexual acts not
likely to be condoned by the average Republican Iowa caucus-goer, Tony
and Co. were so bound by the tradition of Mafia life that they clearly
fall more on the conservative side of things. Chase even included such
funny asides as Tony praising Rick Santorum ("that senator, Sanitorium")
for his anti-gay stances, and Carmela reading Fred Barnes' Bush
hagiography, "Rebel in Chief," in bed. However, the show also poked fun
at know-at-all youthful liberalism, especially when practiced by Tony's
In the discourse about "The Sopranos" there was the
occasional blowup over whether the show and others like it "stereotyped"
Italian-Americans as criminals, or "glorified" the Mafia lifestyle, with
Chase himself clumsily inserting reference to that battle into the
actual series on a couple of occasions.
The only thing more unsatisfying than this argument was the
show's long hiatuses between seasons, which sometimes lasted as
long as two years. "The Sopranos" is unquestionably the first dramatic
TV show in history to air six seasons in eight years.
The show brought out the worst in some people, too. Just as
they had with the "Godfather" movies and "Scarface" before it, many fans
of the show sort of forgot, willfully or not, that the protagonist was a
thief, liar and murderer, and treated him as more of a hero than an
anti-hero. This led to an ever-prevalent attitude among viewers that the
only reason to watch the show was to "see who gets whacked," and that if
no one does, the episode was a waste of time.
This attitude was of a piece with the way the New York
tabloids cover organized crime to this day: While criminals of various
racial minorities are called "animals," "vermin” and even worse on
practically a daily basis, Mafia figures are regularly treated with
reverence, with the typical mob trail treating the witnesses as the
villains and the mobsters – usually accused of multiple murders – as
"gentlemen" being screwed by the government. When John Gotti died in
2001, the New York Post and Daily News covered it as though a president or
pope had passed away.
But "The Sopranos" did great things as well. Despite a
near-constant debate in later years over whether it had "jumped the
shark," Chase's show was consistently the best show on television
throughout virtually its entire run. And unlike any series since David
Lynch's "Twin Peaks" in the early '90s, it took television to a level
beyond anything it had ever reached before, and ushered in an era of
classic TV unmatched in recent history. There would be no "Wire," no
"Shield," and no "Deadwood" had there been no "Sopranos."
"The Sopranos" was a groundbreaking achievement in television
that had so much affect on the culture that it may take years to realize
its exact impact. But most of all, it was an entertaining, exceedingly
watchable show that gained mass appeal for, essentially, that reason.
And that will be its primary legacy.
© 2007 North Star Writers
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