Saturday, September 25, 2010

Don't Stop Believing (contains spoilers)

It's not often you can avoid one of the most talked about TV shows of all time, so that three years after it finished, you can sit down and watch it without knowing what is going to happen. When The Sopranos began in 1999, it seemed that everybody was watching it; everybody except me. It just didn't appeal to me; a program about a Mafia family based in the Garden State of New Jersey. So, while everyone else was watching and talking about it, I wasn't.

I bought all six box sets in late 2007 and the intention was to watch them during the following summer, when there was bugger all on TV. In 2010, we started to watch it and really only because many people said, 'If you're going to watch The Wire, you need to watch The Sopranos first'. Apparently, they're miles apart, but in many eyes the former eclipsed the latter and The Sopranos wouldn't be as good (or something like that).

The conclusions I drew are probably no different from what others thought. There are several motifs throughout the entire series - food, family, fucking. There isn't a single episode where food doesn't play a centre stage; but that said, family plays the big part - Tony Soprano's families, the surrounding families and families isn't just blood.

Watching the series the way I did was interesting; instead of watching it weekly and waiting months for the next series, the entire series was watched over the space of three months. This gave it the feeling of a true ongoing story, but it also showed how (through necessity I've no doubt) characters could come and go and be explained away in an instant. This was a little jarring at times, but didn't spoil the over all trip.

The Sopranos was essentially a very black comedy, inhabited largely by self-important imbeciles. Not one of the New Jersey Mafia had enough brains to blow his own nose; they reeked ignorance, but this only added to the charms of the series. It was also not really just about Tony Soprano, although he was the titular character; Carmella, Meadow and AJ all had vitally important roles to play as it became clear that the series wasn't actually about Dad being a mobster, but about a dysfunctional family facing a turbulent time in a difficult period of time for the USA. If it had a side story, it was never really clear. yes, each season had a specific theme and an always fulfilling denouement; but what it was wasn't defined; there was the feeling that events in the Organised Crime side of the story were always going to be second to the main event.

There were many things about the series that I didn't really like. I found the sessions with Dr Melfi almost pointless in many instances - almost like they kept Lorraine Bracco on the series because that was what the original episode was about - Tony's mental health problems. However, his sociopathic behaviour was never really addressed; instead we had almost a stereotypical look at the quack/patient scenario with much of Tony's state of mind not down to the fact that his father was also a big wig mobster, but because he had mother issues.

Tony Soprano is about my age; he looks considerably older; he's fat, he's going bald and above all else he is ugly in person like he is in soul, yet he managed to bed more women than Tiger Woods. It was like David Chase, the series creator, wanted to suggest that most women in America will sleep with a fat ugly bastard if he has money or power - however it was earned. I couldn't believe some of the women (and girls) that Tony slept with that he didn't have to pay.

Once a couple of regular characters were offed, it also took on the feel of who's going to get whacked next. You could call it a juxtaposition on other TV shows that rarely kill cast members unless cancellation is imminent or the actor wants to leave; but by the time Tony disposed of his nephew towards the end of the final season, I could be heard uttering the words, "Oh no," under my breath. I almost expected the extermination of just about every cast member by the time the finale came around.

But, don't get me wrong; it was a stupendous TV series, with some unbelievable highs and some genuine lows. I found it awkward at times rooting for a murderous and thoroughly despicable human being. But during the final episode when Agent Grasso proclaims after hearing about the death of Tony's biggest enemy, "we're gonna win!" you sort of understand why we ended up rooting for a really nasty man.

It was also inhabited by unbelievably hateful and selfish characters - such as Olivia and Junior Soprano; Ralph Cifaretto; Phil Leotardi; Janice Soprano and Richie Aprile - all of which made the equally hateful and selfish Tony Soprano look like a man of the people. Yet, despite being a sociopath, Tony occasionally displayed moments of genuine tenderness - but you had to wait a long time between each of them.

Like I said, I was sorry to see Christopher go; but his story was perfect in many ways; he was Tony's protege, but he was also the most conscientious, the one who thought too much, the one who became trapped by his own mistakes. Equally, while Silvio Dante was portrayed to be almost clown like - a parody of the Godfather films - he also had an equally nasty edge to him. He did jobs, as Tony's #2, that Tony needed doing properly. Steve Van Zandt was excellent in the role, even if he did come across as totally 2 dimensional at times, but the same can be said for a number of the characters. Yet the likes of Paulie Galtieri, Bobby Baccalieri and Johnny Sac all had back stories that were explored, in depth, Sil was and remained essentially a mystery man - almost like Tony's shadow.

Which brings us to the final and I think pretty controversial finale episode. Much has been made of it; there are web pages devoted to the final episode; many more than for the entire series. There appears to be 2 schools of thought regarding the now infamous 'Don't Stop believing' final scene. There are those, like my wife, who believe that that final scene was symbolic. Tony arrives at the restaurant early - almost unheard of throughout the series - and he sits so he can see the door. There is a sense of ease, but also of menace. Tony is obviously worried about his family, but he is also clocking everyone that comes in. The tension is ramped up by a guy at the bar, who keeps looking at Tony, but also by the way everything seems to be set up like one of those classic mobster gets killed in the diner shots. Our feeling of dread is further heightened by Meadow's inability to park the car; further delaying her arrival and making Tony even more worried. It almost reaches breaking point as the guy at the bar stands up and walks towards Tony - is this it? But the guy walks passed and enters the Men's room. The conversation at the table is good natured; the family have come through a lot and there's much more to face. Tony just wants a night in peace with his family. When Meadow walks in, we cut to Tony's relieved face and the screen goes black and silent. 10 seconds pass and the credits roll. The school of thought believes that once she arrived, he relaxed and the cycle begins again. He is going to live the rest of his life fearing for himself and his family, but tonight all is well.
Then there's the other, almost more prevalent, school of thought that believes the moment Meadow walks into the diner, the guy who was looking at Tony emerges, off camera, and shoots Tony in the head - killing him just as Meadow is walking through the door. There are reams and reams of words, written by people who have analysed every aspect of the series and are convinced that the ending was the ending of Tony Soprano and as the series was from his Point Of View once he was dead there would be no point of view any longer.

Personally, I don't care. It was a fictional TV series about larger than life murderers, adulterers and unstable people. It was really enjoyable and quite painful at times, but isn't all good TV?

Would I recommend others who haven't seen it to watch it? Most certainly, but it is no way a fulfilling piece of television. It isn't like it leaves you empty; more like you don't care, because you struggle to find any character in the entire show even the slightest bit likable.

Personally, I like my TV shows about murderous psychopaths to be based in Miami. I think Dexter perhaps might have never been made if it hadn't been for The Sopranos, but unlike Tony, Dexter Morgan is likable - that's part of the show's charm - he doesn't want to be loved, but everyone does and there's not a lot he can do about it. Dexter returns tonight in the USA, this is something that makes the end of my holiday a little bit better.

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