Last week David Chase’s hit series The Sopranos returned to HBO for its fourth season, prompting a new round in America’s favorite parlor game: “The Significance of The Sopranos.” On 15 September, Carla Meyer wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Actually, the similarities between Bill Clinton and Tony are eerie and perhaps not coincidental, because the series began in the Clinton era. Both Tony and Clinton are powerful men with put-upon but loyal wives, an embarrassing sibling, accomplished daughters and affinities for cigars, fine food and oral sex.”
On the same day, the New York Times Book Review offered a gem by Sylvia Nasar, writing about Inventing America, a new American history textbook, which concludes with the authors’ claim that the dichotomy between Anthony as loving (if tyrannical and conservative) father and Tony the Exterminator represents “a metaphor for how the conflicts and decencies of private life coexisted with the cold-blooded indecencies that the marketplace often fostered” in American history. And, for the truly addicted, the New York Times Books website features not one, but two, extracts from academic exegeses of this New Jersey Bible of post-millennial cool. (“This Thing of Ours” and “The Sopranos on the Couch.”)
So The Sopranos is already an American icon. But is it an icon because of its originality or because of the comfort of its predictability? No one could deny the consistently high quality of The Sopranos’ acting and production values. James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) shifts from downtrodden provider to dead eyed enforcer in the microscopic twitch of a shoulder. Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano) and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Jennifer Melfi) play against every cliché deployed in celluloid representations of Italian-American women. (Just compare Edie Falco’s Carmela to Michelle Pfieffer’s dumbed-down Angela DeMarco in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob, for example.) Further, Jamie-Lynne Sigler (Meadow Soprano) and Robert Iler (Anthony Soprano, Jr.) infuse the Soprano offspring with a compelling adolescent unpredictability unmarred by the moody-cute posing of most prime-time teens.
And if there were ever a banner ad for production values, The Sopranos‘ titles would be it. From the first grainy shots (with their nostalgic nod to Martin Scorsese’s home movie-style opening for Mean Streets) to the last notes of A3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” the opening titles confirm that this show has mustered behind-the-lens talent as compelling as its actors.
In scene after scene, the camerawork strips noir’s romance of deep shadows, angled lighting, and expressionistic framing from mobster life. This lack of visual drama heightens the tension between the quotidian and the aberrant in the series. At the same time, the shooting establishes a steady color palette that ranges effectively from Carmela’s kitchen to a garbage-strewn meet beneath a crumbling bridge, bringing to The Sopranos a coherent and consistent look unusual in contemporary TV, where lighting and mise en scene so often sacrifice the long-term demands of meaning to the contingent demands of mood.
Once upon a time, too, the story lines, the characters and the scripts were original enough to bring a whisper of charm to mid-evening viewing. The premise of a mob guy with panic attacks who finally goes to a shrink (despite its slightly didactic sub-text that “strong men can feel pain and still be the boss”) was quirky enough to distinguish The Sopranos from the mainstream cop shop and family drama strands of primetime. For five or six episodes, too, the erotic tensions between Tony and Dr. Melfi, between Tony and Carmela, and between Tony and his lieutenants (here the eroticism of violence, not love) ran tantalizingly in and out of the audience’s vision. But three seasons later on, Carmela is still dissatisfied with her marriage and Tony is still seeing his psychiatrist. He’s still can’t trust his subordinates and, worse, he still can’t control them.
Nor have the characters developed any more than the scenarios. That his subordinates now include such sleazy seducers as Ralphie (the delectable Joe Pantoliano) makes little difference, when they step through the same old scenes (succumbing to the shock-the-family sexual tactics of Janice (Aida Turturro), for example, in the 15 September premiere). Indeed, this episode signals an increasing disinterest in character as it accelerates the sneaking marginalization of the female lynchpins, Carmela and Dr. Melfi. They act simply so that Tony can react.
Carmela’s worries about estate planning offer no insight into their marriage (she’s always hankering after the bizarrely conventional). They merely open up an episode-long riff on the many places inventive criminals with luxurious homes can stash their money. Dr. Melfi’s level alto voice and her businesslike suit, which so contradict her seductively crossed, nylon-sheathed legs, are nothing more than prompts to allow Tony to fill in plot points the viewer might miss — in this case, the reasons behind Tony’s dispatch of Michael on a death errand.
Most fundamentally, though, this season’s Tony is still first-season Tony, the latest incarnation of the sitcom Dad who debuted, quite wittily, as the put-on provider with a twist. Never able to do enough to satisfy everyone, always holding up a world on the apparent brink of disintegration, he was a suburban slave who, instead of retiring to the basement and firing up his power tools, ordered a hit to restore his equilibrium. Now, he’s still in exactly the same place, a fact that making his step more leaden, his paunch more pronounced, and his bathrobe more disheveled as he waddles down his driveway, cannot hide.
Despite the murders, the explosions, the betrayals, the dysfunctional family, Tony has never escaped the limited domestic universe for the more emotionally lethal territory of something like Coppola’s first two Godfather films; Fredo’s murder, for instance, still shocks, nearly twenty years and innumerable viewings later. When someone dies in The Sopranos, though, it’s rather like a death in a cartoon or video game. It neither surprises nor shocks because first, killing is what fictional mobsters do and audiences have seen it ad nauseam, and, second, the action is too busy signaling to the audience how shocked it should be.
When the weak and reckless Christopher (Michael Imperioli) hits the cop Tony claims killed his father, and then symbolically tapes the twenty from his victim’s wallet to his mother’s fridge, the over-constructed Freudianism is almost laughable. While reality hounds might say that this is exactly how banal contemporary mob life is, they might also remember that a stamped certificate of authenticity doesn’t inoculate drama against tedium.
In this season opener, that tedium grew so intense that I had to stave off boredom by refining my taxonomy of the names and nicknames exchanged by the characters. But I did come up with my own contribution to the U.S. parlor game de jour. As far as I’m concerned, America’s seduction by The Sopranos reflects this richest of all nation’s longing to slump by the pool, worry about the kids, and sit down together for a meal on Sunday, secure in the knowledge that the country lies in the hands of a ruling elite with absolute disdain for any law and a visceral desire to beat the hell out of any challenger. This is a sentiment that Tony’s classically strong-but-silent heroes, and the studio bosses and filmmakers who created them, would all too easily understand.