Wednesday 12 September 2007

The Sopranos

Over the last couple of months I have watched The Sopranos in its entirety. All 86 episodes from the pilot to the controversial ending (which I will not reveal for those still watching) and I am, frankly, shattered. Not only exhausted after the experience of watching almost a decades worth of television on demand, but also now bereft of something truly special. I only wish that I had watched it in 'real time' so as to have really deserved it all, to have earned the right each week to see another instalment rather than simply pressing play every time I fancied another hit like some kind of junkie. Is it the best TV series ever made? Are you watching too much if you start to have Sopranos dreams? Is it suitable viewing for your wife if she's eight months pregnant?

David Chase had originally written a movie script about a mobster in therapy who discovers that his mother wants him whacked. He was persuaded by his agents to show it to broadcasters as his time on Northern Exposure was coming to an end. HBO picked it up and asked him to play the story out over 13 episodes. Chase said he only expected a small cult following but the critics rallied around it and not only did the programme return for another series but it began to influence the medium of television as a whole. Increased budgets, cinematic lighting and effects, but most importantly scripts which continued to push the boundaries of what was acceptable on TV. Not only did this drama place the criminal at the forefront of the action with the police and authorities trying vainly in the background to exert their influence, but the level of violence, profanity, sex, even the haunting images of its dream sequences placed it at the vanguard of a new approach to TV and its audience.

To call The Sopranos a family drama is not just a wry crack. It is all about the relationships between those that consider themselves part of a family unit. Whether that is the immediate members in the Soprano household, the extended members outside of it, those 'cousins', 'nephews' and 'uncles' that orbit around it, the many members of Tony's other 'family' or even the other Italian American characters whose very cultural identity is affected by the exploits of Tony and his crew, all these lives are linked together by the values that hold any family together; honour, loyalty, forgiveness, love. And the strongest of these is love.

The vast mass at the centre of this swirling universe is of course Tony Soprano. One of the amazing things about watching the series in the way I did was that it allowed me to look again at the pilot as soon as the credits had finished rolling on the finale and it is simply staggering to see how James Gandolfini has transformed. Over the seasons the voice has lowered, the stature increased, the girth widened, the breathing laboured. He has steadily grown into the imposing figure at the head of all these families but all along of course there are the fragility's that contradict his simple bulk; the panic attacks that fell him like a tree, the medication that slows him like a drugged elephant, and, later, the gunshot which almost takes him. It is whilst he is in the resultant coma near the start of the final season that you can see what a fine actor he is. A slight change in his accent and bearing and Tony Soprano becomes a different man entirely in this coma/dream world as he works his way back to consciousness and his waiting family. Then you realise what work has gone into creating this iconic character. That we can feel sympathy at all for a man who displays such hatred and violence, especially when it is towards the women in his life, requires huge skill from writers and actor.

And it is the women in his life who do exert such huge influence. As he discusses with Dr Melfi his mother has the power to cause so much damage, to create such turmoil. She is such a poisonous character that my wife and I found ourselves hissing like cats whenever she appeared. Her influence affects his relationships with all women. The gumars, the other women Tony sleeps with or fantasises about, all of them dark haired and surely reminiscent Livia, as difficult as he finds this to accept. Even his feelings for Dr Melfi, as she points out, are part of this pattern. Lorraine Bracco, so brilliant in Goodfellas, plays Dr Melfi with such dignity. That rigid posture in her chair displays so clearly her wish to seem relaxed and in control despite her very real fear of Tony. Through everything she tries and keeps trying to help him, professional at all times even when, after a brutal rape, she knows that she need only ask him and Tony would 'squash' her attacker 'like a bug'. Edie Falco recently said that she was convinced that those watching the programme would see through her and realise that she wasn't a mother in real life. But let's be honest, the family she takes care of is not leading an ordinary life by any standards. The failure of her and Tony to exert discipline over their children is hilarious, and I'm not sure that I've ever watched a programme where I'm willing the woman to commit adultery. It seemed so unfair that whilst Tony was fending off the nubile lovelies who were throwing themselves at him, Carmella was putting herself through the wringer for looking at Furio or that painter chap.

I have always had a soft spot for the two goons Paulie and Silvio. Like two Shakespearean supporting characters they have always been around the action making comments in their own inimitable way (or in Sil's case irresistibly imitable). I don't know how the guitarist from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band gets cast in a TV drama but it looks to be the most inspired piece of casting since Mos Def turned up as Ford Prefect.And then there's Christopher, Tony's surrogate son. We have watched him rise and fall, rise and fall and all the time that special connection to Tony has been tested to breaking point. The natural heir to the throne?

Character is created jointly by writer and actor and it is important to realise just how good the writing in the Sopranos is. Not only has Chase created a cast of characters that are memorable, individual and idiomatic but also a group of people who continue to surprise. It is amazing to watch a narrative unfold and to find yourself, mouth open in astonishment, dumbstruck at the twist that has just occurred. And I don't mean an 'Ooh, it was them' kind of twist but those moments that happen in life when you don't realise what someone is capable of.

This is not to say that The Sopranos is faultless. There is a period around season 4 where everything slows a little and becomes a bit miserable but the series recovers and the final season is made with such energy, bravery and love that you cannot fail to be in awe of its creators. So, is it the best TV series ever made? Well, best is a rather silly word and I've never been able to do that ordering thing with books or films so let's not go there (but yes it is, probably). Are you watching too much if you start having Sopranos dreams? Undoubtedly. Is it suitable viewing for your wife if she's eight months pregnant? Well, there was no early onset of labour, but she won't mind me telling you that she watched most of the more violent parts from behind her hand.

The Sopranos is essential viewing for anyone who wants to appreciate what television is capable of (and therefore what we should demand from those who make it). Granted, with each episode costing millions of dollars not all TV can look like it, but the quality of writing and acting is something to which all TV should aspire. The only problem is how do I go back to normal television now? What do I watch next? Any suggestions?


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