We needed to know what all the buzz was about when HBO aired the final episode of The Sopranos. We really didn't know because we've never pulled in HBO in this house--and I'm not trying to be righteous. We loved The Wire, a Baltimore-set, detective drama our son recommended, another HBO series. So when that one ended, we started in having a look at the life and times of Tony Soprano.
Incredible. Just incredible. I can't say I love the show, but I am thoroughly and fully hooked. We watch it now, at our leisure, on dvd. Incredible.
In an episode we watched Saturday night, Christopher and Paulie botch a hit, when a huge Russian underworld goon escapes their grasp in the middle of some South Jersey forest preserve. It's winter, and there is snow on the ground. Once the goon is gone, Chris and Paulie get famously lost in the woods and cold. By my estimation, it's one of the finest episodes I've seen. It's hilarious--in part because it's always fun to see the cocky gangland toughs lose their way.
The Sopranos deconstructs ordinary television because, other than the Soprano family itself, the viewer knows that any of the other chorus of characters are completely expendable. Tony's mother, an incredible force, was dead somewhere into the second season, even though her legacy lives on. When those two thugs were lost in the woods, almost freezing, you simply could not look away because every last alternative was available to the writers at that moment. Both of them could have frozen to death out there because no one but Tony himself, and maybe his wife, Carmela (okay, maybe Dr. Melfi, too, the shrink he sees--I can't imagine the show without her either), absolutely no one isn't expendable. Every last character is fair game.
Television has rules: the show gets finished in an hour, for instance; the principals are rarely wrong or if they are, they learn from their mistakes; a show has a series of "beats," or moments, that create the drama; central characters don't die (except sometime at the end of the season).
The Sopranos has very little of that. Thus, despite The Sopranos' lusty violence, despite the fact that hardly anyone in America lives the way Tony's family does, despite the show's own often goofy melodrama, the story of this family approximates life itself far more closely than does almost anything on TV.
Hence its appeal. One of my students just sent me an e-mail, telling me she was going to miss class because her father had a bad fall yesterday and he's not doing well. No one expected it, no one assumed that it was going to happen someday because of the man's dangerous behavior--it just happened. That's the way the plot lines of The Sopranos, seemingly, are written: almost anything can happen almost anytime. That's the way our lives are written.
After hours of frozen wandering--and even a lost shoe--Paulie spots an abandoned old van and the two of them get out of the wind, not the cold. When they get sleepy, I told myself that people freeze to death by falling asleep. In other words, I was convinced the two of them could have died in that episode. All the options are open. It was comical and riveting.
Surprise is the essence of great story-telling, and surprise is what keeps me glued to the set. You honestly and truly don't know--dont' have a clue--what's going to happen because on The Sopranos almost anything can.
The violence is often repulsive; there are these moments--lots of them--when I tell myself I don't want to watch. Every last episode features naked breasts somewhere in the narrative. But even the sexuality wears a strange hue. The Sopranos features nudity in the fashion that Amsterdam does; the world famous red-light district is really little more than an x-rated theme park. But there are lots and lots of good reasons why some people shouldn't watch the show.
Does Tony really love Carmela? I don't know, but he is loyal, in his own vain and adulterous way--and he suffers for it, even though he doesn't really understand it himself. Is he really a violent monster? Sure, but he also loves his daughter. Is he someone to be feared? Absolutely, but he also engenders gargantuan loyalty.
Do I love the show? No. Will I watch it all the way through? Yes. Is it the best television has to offer? I don't know. Is it better than almost anything else, given the parameters of ordinary TV fare? Without a doubt.
It's gritty and offensive. There are more f-bombs per square inch than you'll find anywhere else on TV, and I still can't believe that there are really people somewhere in Jersey who live like Tony and Carmela Soprano.
But I know them because just like the rest of us, they don't have a clue what's coming around the bend. Anything can happen--almost anything--in The Sopranos, just like life. They fumble and dawdle and mess up, like a ton of others I know who don't come to us from a screen in our family rooms.