Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Nihilism as funhouse: The Sopranos, season 6, part 1

(A Note: If you're here because I sent you here via e-mail, it's easy to get confused. My posts are the ones in this font. The ones in the different font are by Daniel. He mostly writes about music, and we pretend to know what he's talking about.)

(A further note: I can't believe I'm playing along with HBO's plan to stiff the cast members of further pay by pretending this is "Part 1" of season six. The two parts were filmed with almost a year in between. They're two seasons. Nyah.)

Okay. So season six of The Sopranos wasn't, technically, nihilistic. But that title sounded good (did you like it? Did it roll off the tongue?), and nihilistic is close enough to the way many fans felt after seeing the season, so I'll let it slide.

So what's the deal? Does most of America watch The Sopranos on DVD, eagerly slurping up episode after episode, waiting for the next big spurt of violence to tide them through the more ruminative hours? Or do people just forget that The Sopranos is about 95% thinkpiece, 5% violence in the long stretches between seasons? Because, while season six wasn't as good as the masterful season five, it was still pretty darn good. And, what's more, this season FORCES you to confront the way you watch television, the way you consume the most dominant medium in America.

The Sopranos has always been in a tough place. What it wants to be is a grim little 70s film, a meditation on the cost of doing evil and the inability of humans to change. But, somehow, the show became a pop phenomenon. And pop phenomena are defined by different criteria. They have to fit into very broad categories and be instantly definable by the man on the street. While what The Sopranos ACTUALLY is is closer to what I described above, most people would say it was about a mobster and talk about their favorite "whackings" if you stopped them to ask about the show (a few might throw in the notion of the mobster in therapy, but that idea has mostly been discarded since season one).

But let's back up a bit. Season six opened with a supremely off-kilter hour, one that knocked off two characters and sent the main character to the hospital with a critical gunshot wound. The show burned through enough plot for a whole season in that one episode. Then, it spent the rest of the season showing just how little it needed a standard "TV plot." The closest thing the season had to a standard plot was our concern over whether Tony would get out of his coma (he did, after an extended journey through something resembling Purgatory that was one of the series' finest hours). After that, the main question was whether any of the characters could change, could become better people. If you've been paying any attention to The Sopranos over the years, you probably wouldn't have been surprised to find that the answer was no (though Tony showed glimmers of being able to rise above himself, he mostly fell back on his old ways with a few notable exceptions, which I will get to).

If the dominant theme of the season was the inability to change (this has always been a more pessimistic show than Deadwood, where people change and evolve with every episode -- some call that grim realism on the part of David Chase and his Sopranos writers, but I'm not that cynical yet), then the method the writers used to examine this idea was by presenting the characters with an alternate life that showed them that the universe needn't be an evil, evil place.

Tony's stint in Purgatory showed him how his life would have been if he had stayed on the straight path and been a business man (culminating in one of the most haunting scenes in the show's history where he argues with Steve Buscemi over whether he should enter a house that may or may not be Hell before he awakens from his coma). Vito got a chance to live in an almost impossibly idyllic New Hampshire town and be true to his sexuality. Carmela finally got to begin work on her spec house (mostly because Tony didn't want her poking around the Adriana situation) and also got a trip to Paris to revel in the art and culture there and begin to ask questions of herself about the darkness her life of luxury is built upon (the Paris sequences featured a nice visual rhyme where the beacon atop the Eiffel Tower recalled the beacon Tony sees in Purgatory which was obviously meant to represent Heaven). Meadow ran off to California with her fiancee, A.J. discovered that he could find some sort of self-worth through a life in construction, Christopher became a sober husband and father, and even Paulie discovered that his dear old mother was even more of a saint than before (though this revelation sent him into a tailspin of violence). Indeed, Paulie, born to a nun and raised by her sister, was the original Sopranos alternate life, and the fact that his alternate life ended poorly suggests that all of these alternate lives are just illusions.

And, just as any viewer could have predicted, these characters mostly fell back on their old tricks. It's too easy to take what you want when you've been doing that your whole life rather than stick to legal methods of employment, the show argues (and it's probably right). Only the family Soprano was able to make some of the changes stick. The Tony of old wouldn't have gone to his rival Phil in the hospital to work out some sort of deal when Tony felt his family was threatened. He would have reacted with violence. But the new Tony knows a heartfelt talk can work just as well. Similarly, Carmela is beginning to pull back the rug and see just how complicit she is in the life she leads, while the Soprano children are largely safe, away from The Life.

And that's where The Sopranos disappointed many. By and large, we watch television to see the same situations over and over again. In a mob milieu, the idea of becoming a better person just isn't that dramatically interesting. But it's narratively interesting. And that's where I think Chase throws down the gauntlet.

When we watch television, we expect something to happen in every episode. We expect some sort of narrative resolution. Most shows accomplish this by telling one story per episode (think of, say, CSI). Others have stories that are told through the whole season, but each episode features specific story points that are met and wrapped up in said episode to provide a feeling of both forward momentum and closure (look at 24, where a new part of the terrorist threat is neutralized with each hour). Lost seems to me to be about the slowest a story can progress and remain a big hit, and that manages to wrap in a full "story" in every episode thanks to the flashback device (though they usually have a corresponding story full of island hijinks).

The Sopranos has gradually slowed its storytelling rhythms way down. It WANTS to defy your expectations. It knows its audience will keep watching because they're hooked, and it tantalizes you with possible storylines (all-out gang warfare!) only to yank those away. It's more realistic this way, but it also forces you to step outside of yourself and ask yourself why you're even watching television.

Most of us watch television to be entertained, to veg out. But if you veg out in front of The Sopranos, you won't be entertained. It's only by fully engaging it, by pondering its often blatant symbolism and thematic structure that you can truly enjoy it. To be entertained, you have to stop wanting to be entertained. It's a cruel little paradox, but one of the central tenets of any serialized storytelling form. To my knowledge, it was the first show to force viewers to say, "Okay. I can't watch this like television. I have to watch it like a film or 'read' it like a book." Maybe Twin Peaks. But that's a big maybe, since most of that show's viewers were just tuning in for the weird and the central mystery.

This is not to say that season six was perfect. It had a tendency to hit you over the head with its thematic points, and the Christopher on drugs stuff got long and boring after five minutes (pity it stretched on through most of the season). As much as I appreciate what Chase is trying to do, even I have to draw the line somewhere.

But still, Chase has taken our expectations and thwarted them. We expected a big build-up to a huge climax, but we got tiny stories of personal struggle instead.

We may get our huge climax yet, but, to some degree, that climax has already been wrought in dozens of incremental steps within Chase's characters' souls.

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