Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Sopranos

This isn't a review as such because it's five years too late for that. But there are a few things worth discussing following a viewing of the Sopranos complete set, seasons 1-6, over the last few months.

TV isn't cinema. One of the many things that was said about the Sopranos was that it made TV for a cinema audience. Grown-up TV.

I've already said that I came to it late. I guess you have to remember the days of inconvenient television - when you had to sort out your social life so as not to miss the final part of a drama series - to appreciate the joy of convenient television. A series originally spread over seven years can be viewed in a few months with pauses not for adverts but at your own behest for a tea or comfort.

I am not a good judge of acting. I know wooden when I see it but am not so good at spotting talent. One of the few things I do observe is the skill of actors in a scene whilst they are not involved in the dialogue. The Sopranos directors tended to let the camera linger on the non-participants in a conversation. They often pan round a whole group during an awkward family silence. They especially loved the facial expressions of those listening respectfully to an idiot. The way Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) responds with her facial muscles is a wonder of the world.

In Steven van Zandt (Little Steven, Springsteen's E Street Band) they found someone with no previous acting experience who nailed the shrugs and comic twitches of right-hand-man Silvio and invented, and stayed in, a character for all six seasons.

So what was the Sopranos all about? An Italian criminal fraternity in New Jersey? Of course. But it was about more than the story lines. It was about loyalty, relationships, food - always food - and growing old. It covered all sorts of normal and abnormal health matters - cancer, dementia (where did I bury the money?), adolescence, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and smoking. It was about corruption. About fashion and about paying your debts. About sex. In these stories marriage is somehow sacred whilst a succession of escorts and prostitutes provide 'relief' to the men. As long as they are not caught the guys live with this deception. When found out they use gifts in place of penitence. The presents are of hugely expensive jewellery or top-of-the-range cars.

In particular the Sopranos is about the male psyche and the regression to violence, horrible and extreme violence, to solve everything. The guys banter at each other's expense but have a 'line' in their heads which, once crossed, deserves a beating. They find it hard to accept a friend who gives up alcohol and goes to AA since most of their meetings involve booze in some form.

Which is why a weekly set-piece where Tony Soprano (family head and gang leader) visits Doctor Melfi (a psychiatrist) for therapy, is key. He talks to his therapist as if his work should cause no mental problems but his wayward children might. He blames his mother for most things.

Tony speaks of his frustrations and stresses, initially as a waste-management consultant but later more blatantly about his real work. Melfi knows who he is and has a therapist herself with whom she discusses her professional hang-ups. Sometimes Tony even refers to the 'elephant in the room' but then names a different elephant. The main cause of his stress is obviously the inner conflict that he lives off immoral earnings in a world of warped loyalty where, around every corner, might lurk someone who wants to kill him. He commits, or arranges, murder himself many times - sometimes of enemies; sometimes friends. Look at his daughter wrong and don't expect to keep your teeth.

In the very first episode, while Tony is talking to Dr Melfi about 'trouble at work with a debt,' we cut to a severe beating of the debtor.

The use of music is interesting. The Alabama 3's Woke Up This Morning is the soundtrack for the opening credits, these always played over a drive home for Tony. There is no pre-credit action. The final piece of music each episode changes every time. Sometimes it picks up the theme expertly; on other occasions it grates deliberately. The final tune of the final episode is Journey's Don't Stop Believing.

Our expectation is that this utterly unpleasant protagonist, who we will miss when he is gone, is doomed. Few people in the show die of old age. We know his family will mourn him but will we? The final episode leads us up to the point where everything looks in place for Tony's murder. We wonder how we will react when this inevitability arrives.

Are good people all good or bad people all bad? That is what the Sopranos makes you think about.

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