Look above to view one of the most darkly hilarious scenes in TV history, and it just got a lot darker. The death of James Gandolfini is yet another blow to the world's fat hedonists. One by one, all my favorite fat actors die before they reach their dotages - no more John Candy, no more Chris Farley, no more Richard Griffiths, no more James Gandolfini, can John Goodman be far behind? The first thing that should be said about James Gandolfini is this - he gave the definitive TV performance. No show has ever asked so many nuances from an actor as this show which barely made it to television asked from a former bartender and truck driver who was the son of a bricklayer and fell into acting almost by accident. David Chase, showrunner of The Sopranos, compared him to Mozart. I can't imagine that acting on television is as hard as composing, but if it is, then there was something about Gandolfini that was truly extraordinary.
I did not come to The Sopranos on its original run. My parents didn't have cable, and my college kept picking up and dropping HBO. But there was a bigger reason, the show simply seemed too intense and violent. It seemed to ask viewers to squirm in their seats until the next character was whacked, and that was just too much for me to take. Furthermore, there was a subset of dedicated Sopranos viewers - fratboys, bros, fake thugs - who made the show seem truly ugly. To them, Tony Soprano was no different than Tony Montana - a simple badass who was 'hardcore' because he made people spurt blood. I only started watching the show around 2007 - perhaps not coincidentally, the year which Mad Men began. Even then, I could barely take the intensity of the violence. This wasn't the cartoon violence of genre movies, this was real violence with human cost and real world dimensions. I could only keep going because I wikipedia'd every character to see if and when they'd be killed, and I still haven't been able to watch the last half-season. Am I lazy, or am I really afraid of what's going to happen? I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this show when it first ran, the suspense between the sudden violent escalations must have unbearable.
(spoiler alert...) Imagine my surprise, however, when I discovered that the show was not in fact about violence. The violence was merely a tool for the show to ask its questions - questions about morality, about self-delusion, about the capacity for violence, and most importantly, about our own complicity in violence. Did even Scorsese or Coppola use their violence to such depth of effect? Has any writer since Kafka or Dostoevsky used violence to ask larger questions than The Sopranos did?
The Sopranos does not mark a beginning, it marks an end. In The Sopranos we see the end of America’s fascination with organized crime, the end of America’s white immigrant working class, the end of trust in the nuclear family, and the end of America’s illusions about the price of success. It is, in every way, a show about deaths. It does not glorify the importance of death, a la Six Feet Under, but it does accept death as life’s natural end. It does not glorify violent people as misunderstood, a la The Godfather, but it allows us to see violent people as humans who have redeeming qualities weighted against their brutality. But whatever else The Sopranos is, it‘s above all a moral parable about humanity’s desire to convince itself that we act in good faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary. We invariably slump into our seats a little as Tony is ‘forced’ to kill friend after friend, Paulie turns violent after the slightest insults, Carmela finds an infinite number of excuses to maintain her lifestyle by staying with Tony, Christopher puts off his desire to find something better than mob-life, and hundreds of peripheral characters who are drawn to the danger of criminals like flies to shit. Like Westerns before them, images about the mafia are embedded in the American DNA. At their beginning both Westerns and Mafia movies glamorized outlaws by portraying them as taking what more privileged people refused to give. As time went on, both gradually exposed the rot behind that myth, until finally a work came along that exploded our illusions finally and forever. In Westerns, it was late John Wayne’s movies like The Searchers or True Grit which showed the hatred and bigotry that motivated the Old West. In mafia movies, we went from the paean to organized crime that was The Godfather to the pathos of Godfather II, to the uneasiness of Goodfellas. And finally, here was a piece that made us realize how dangerous it is to view criminals as heroes even as we became ever more drawn to them. With every season, we became more complicit in the evil perpetrated on the screen. And by exposing the rot at the core of our desire to see glory in violence, The Sopranos both became an elegy for an enormous chunk of the American Dream, and a Premium Cable Requiem for the dominance of a medium that made us feel the American Dream so intensely.
Some great works languor in obscurity until the world is ready for them. Some are embraced right away, and clearly The Sopranos was one of the latter. The Sopranos was the perfect show for the Bush years. It tapped into that deep-seated, almost unmentionable anxiety of its era; that all of our prosperity, all of our comfort, and all of the joy it gives us, was bought in blood. If American money is blood money, then perhaps we all deserved to die like Adriana crawling on her hands and knees in the woods, or like Cantor Fitzgerald workers in the Twin Towers, or like the millions of Vietnamese war dead. Many young men took to The Sopranos because of its violence. But an older generation took to The Sopranos because of its anxiety - an anxiety born of familiarity. Ostensibly, the subject of The Sopranos is mobsters and their lives. But like all great literary works, the real subject is us. People with similarities to Tony Soprano are his contemporaries in every suburb of America. They were born into the Golden Age of American prosperity, and their childhoods are tinged with memories of an older, pre-1970's era when cities were places of innocence and excitement. But crime rates went up, and every family with enough money moved out to the suburbs, where they accumulated wealth and prosperity beyond the dreams of their grandparents. Like Tony, these contemporaries fought with their parents constantly, who told them that they were spoiled and knew nothing about life's hardships. Like Carmela, these contemporaries use every excuse to maintain their upper class lifestyle at the expense both of those beneath them and of themselves. And as the children of these contemporaries grow up, some of them, like Meadow, use their still greater privileges to achieve things beyond even their parents dreams, while others, like AJ, languish in upper-class loafer misery.
The Sopranos is not a show for young people, it's a show for the old. David Chase was already in his mid-50's when The Sopranos began, and before that he was a mid-level TV writer with a long history of depression. At a period when The Movies' influence was waning upon American life, David Chase was an obsessive cinefile who devoured everything from Fellini to silent pictures to b-movie matinees. His life was movies, and he spent thirty years trying to break into an industry that simply wasn't interested. What David Chase did with The Sopranos was not simply to create a grand summation of everything he learned from movies, he also defeated the movie industry who spurned him. Most of the best TV shows of today (make your own list), are not simply great television. They have completely replaced the movies - giving us a new excellent 1 hour movie every week, and telling stories with a depth and maturity which American movies on their best days now seem barely capable. While moviemakers struggle to make anything that isn't a mega-blockbuster or a barely funded independent project, television becomes ever more baroque, ever freer in its content, and ever more daring - a daring which reached its apogee with The Sopranos.
For me, The Sopranos and Mad Men stand at the top of the pyramid - no TV drama since I, Claudius has had as powerful an effect on me. But if I, Claudius had reached the achievement of the other two, it would have to have seven times as many episodes with no drop-off in quality. Mad Men is The Sopranos' true successor, not only because Matthew Weiner was a producer on The Sopranos, but because it asks the next logical question that evolves from The Sopranos. If The Sopranos asks (and documents) if America is falling from grace, then Mad Men asks why the fall from grace had to happen. If a historian from the future travelled back in time and asked me what it was like to grow up in America, all I could do is take him to the video store. We'd take out lots of DVD's and watch The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. But we'd probably start with The Sopranos.