Who watches the watchers (anyway)?
During the end of year round up on the British arts discussion programme The Late Review, the subject of The Sopranos came up. After viewing the clip, each critic in turn gave an opinion. Tom Paulin (Fellow of Hertford College Oxford, biographer of Hazlitt, poet) runs his hands through his hair and makes his point. He accepts that the programme has its merits. He wonders, however, whether the people who made the programme knew what those merits were, what they were doing.
As we all know, The Sopranos (at its best) is much more than the sum of its parts, or of its parts according to the TV Guide. It is much more than a wry juxtaposition of the Mafiosi and the Shrink. Furthermore, it is compelling because it manages to overcome its own smarts. As well as being a series shot, written, performed, soundtracked with remarkable subtlety, it is a compelling and moving piece of television that doesn’t demand an adolescence misspent either in the library or in the video rental shop to understand it. Still, Paulin wonders if the makers were aware of the Jungian archetypes at work, the forces that seem to make these suburban characters so epic. To which the answer is, of course, “Yes, maybe, who knows, who cares. Isn’t the snooker on the other side?” Paulin resurrects the lumbering and zombiefied corpse of authorial intentionality in order to make himself, who he is, what he does, look smart and important. I think, I hope, everyone just laughs.
Lying behind his words, though, is an assumption that the makers of The Sopranos, and by implication those who work in its medium, don’t really know what they are doing. They need their work filtered, ordered, and shaped (not just criticised) by those valued highly enough by the powers that be to be critics. In deigning to use the critical framework used for literature, for poetry, Paulin might see himself as lending a helping hand to the medium, so that at some point the work will be serious, will come to know itself. In a deeply Freudian sense, as Mr. Paulin might have it.
The gristle that sticks in the craw of halfway house cultural commentators like Paulin is that much of the modern audience, and much of contemporary pop culture, have rendered his Leavisite pretensions quite laughable. The makers of The Sopranos and the audience of The Sopranos are literate in the vocabulary relevant to the exchange implied between themselves to a degree that he will never be. The same is true (in their own ways) for those involved with King of the Hill, for Dawson’s Creek, for The Royle Family. People don’t need to wait around for Tom Paulin’s reading list at the end of the lecture anymore.
From the other side (in many ways) of the critical pond comes another piece of Sopranos critique to compare and contrast. Greil Marcus writes of an episode from the second series, screened in the U.S. on on January 30:
The episode kicked off with a jumping piece of old, East Coast, for all I know New Jersey-specific doo-wop pulsing through a pizza joint run by a man in his 50s; it ended with teenage Meadow Soprano and her friend Hunter cooking at home and singing along to New Jerseyan Lauryn Hill. As events, the songs were more than 40 years apart; in the way the words of both were more interested in themselves than in addressing any listener, in the way they slid off of each other’s sounds, the songs were almost the same.
Now, from the off I should point out that living in Britain I haven’t seen any of the second series. I should also point out that the above comes from Marcus’ “Real Life Rock Top Ten” column, an enthusiast’s list of cool things. Despite these disclaimers, I have to question whether anyone who actually watches the programmes needs to be told that the soundtrack is laced throughout with delicious and telling ironies. To pick out a single example suggests that we need the critic there to note it, to order it, to make it real. My suggestion is that the programme itself is a critical medium, constantly referencing and making implied judgements that are to weighted by the viewer. They come so thick and fast, and often with the sort of ambiguity and nuancing you might find in a conversation with an old friend, that the critical (or rather, Critical) function seems at best an irrelevance and at worst an actual obstruction, a misdirection. It should be noted that Lauryn Hill’s is another example of a form that thrives on taking the wide literacy of its audience seriously. As I say, I haven’t seen the programme, but if the tune which Meadow and Hunter sing along to is “Doo Wop (That Thing),” then I must slap my forehead and sigh. We need the critics, for this?