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The Sopranos Part 4: An Essence of Damn Fine

Author’s Note: If you read Part 1, you may remember started I began all of this by describing the murder of Tracee. Originally I intended to finish off this series of essays on The Sopranos by coming full circle back to Tracee, in an interview I conducted with actress Ariel Kiley. As it happens, the interview was indeed conducted, but I’ve opted to tie things up on a different note, as there were still other elements of the show left to explore. As such, while this is the end of my 4-part series on The Sopranos, my interview with Ariel Kiley will be posted up to 25YL very soon as a kind of epilogue to this exploration into the series.  

Oh, how I wish the challenge of this article was the prospect of running out of anything meaningful to say. Contrarily, as our series on The Sopranos draws to a close, the issue I face is an overwhelming sense of having barely tapped into the implications of The Sopranos. Symbolism, theories, the meaning of certain dream sequences, the complexity of the characters. Another four essays wouldn’t even suffice. If I were so inclined, I could write a novel on my takeaways from the show, as I think most fans could. The Sopranos transcends simply being dense or layered, it’s a free flowing river of material for musing. I’m certain another one of our team members will tackle this show again, maybe even in the near future, as there’s more than enough to go around.

In Part 1, my goal was to hammer home the cynical, confrontational nature of The Sopranos, explaining why gratuitous sex and violence is actually the key to the show’s genius. In Part 2 we descended further into the depths of evil, as depicted in The Sopranos. With Part 3, in keeping with the spirit of 25YL, I decided to get a little Twin Peakish and wax poetic on the abstraction of The Sopranos, getting into its bleak sense of family, a notion that Tony’s mother is the personification of the mafia itself, and all this implies for Tony.

So, where next? Continuing to dwell on the darkness of The Sopranos for a fourth consecutive article would be as monotonous to read as it would be to write. As such, the final entry into our first comprehensive exploration of The Sopranos takes a step back and looks at the many elements and working parts contributing to the show’s success.

First in the agenda:

Comedy was integral to the success of The Sopranos 

While it wouldn’t be difficult to linger even more on the soul-crushing aspects of The Sopranos, I wouldn’t want anyone to leave 25YL thinking the show is difficult to enjoy. While at times my previous essays may have likened watching The Sopranos to an unpleasant experience, I want to make it clear, this show is a blast and everyone should experience it… more than once.

Where I dropped the ball in all three of my previous essays, something I’d even call a glaring failure, was omitting the truth of how The Sopranos is not only fun to watch, but that it is equally as comedic as it is dramatic. Within this show, viewers will find a signature sense of humor, as it shows over the top characters resorting to over the top behavior, veering into absurd comedy at times.

This signature sense of humor can be defined by two distinct elements: morbidity and continuity. While other series’ have certainly exhibited a sharp sense of dark comedy, The Sopranos seems to have a brand all its own. Most comedic depictions of the macabre are situational, The Sopranos maintains a sense of humor about the existential and bleak world of mob life in general and perpetually. Early into the series we’re treated to a genuine laugh-out-loud moment as Olivia Soprano drones at Tony to “Go into the ham and grab the carving knife… and stab me, here…” as she points to her chest. This theatrical display arrives at the prospect of going to live in a decidedly posh retirement community. Such a light approach to heavy subject matter persisted through six seasons, making accessible a world defined by its desolation. Narcissism, sociopathy, emotional manipulation, sadism, deceit, all of these dark truths prevalent in The Sopranos are handled skillfully as to be overwhelmingly emotional when they need to be, but absurdly funny when framed in proper context.

One aspect of The Sopranos never failing to pluck a chuckle from me is the writers’ near-parodic commitment to the continuity of Janice Soprano’s narcissism. We watch as she stands at the center of a wake for the death of her own mother, asking everyone to share a memory, but not before taking care to remind everyone that she is an artist. Everything has to be about Janice. Three seasons later and we’re still seeing the same kind of behavior, as Janice enters a hospital room where her brother lies unresponsive, shot in the chest. Instead of taking even the slightest of moments to maintain composure and possibly appear as an adult, Janice makes a spectacle of her grief as she immediately breaks into some gruesome horror-show of melodramatic Hollywood crying. Janice even brought props for this performance of profound jackassery,  removing obvious preemptively placed tissues from her purse. It’s been years, nothing has changed—all eyes, please.

Unlike Tony, whose narcissism is destroying every unwitting soul he comes near, almost everyone on the show realizes Janice is a buffoon. Narcissism is destructive and harmful, when inflicted upon the unaware. But when one knows exactly who they’re dealing with, narcissists can be funny to watch.

Commitment to continuity within The Sopranos reaches ridiculous levels of precision, becoming comedic. We see Tony loaning someone a drill in an episode of season four, then in season five he’s complaining to his cousin that his electric drill is missing, as everything seems to disappear around his house. A personality trait, mind you, echoing his mother’s forgetfulness about giving away personal items which dates back to season one.

Whether it’s Bobby Bacala walking into a room dressed from head to toe in camouflage, Junior Soprano outright trolling Tony because he “never had the makings of a varsity athlete,” or Carmine misunderstanding Johnny Sack and momentarily considering how much he’d tax Ralphie to let him f*ck Johnny Sack’s wife, The Sopranos is home to some of the funniest moments ever aired on television. Don’t even get me started on Christopher Moltisanti’s drug intervention. “Disgusting.”

The key to a drama series this dark was balance. While a drama film may have zero changes in tonality, it’s easier to swallow because movies are short-form by design; one need only subject themselves to ugliness for a couple of hours. Movies build an atmosphere and wrap up quickly, leaving viewers to ponder. A dramatic tv series is long-form and as such, a perpetual tone as cynical as much of The Sopranos, wouldn’t be sustainable for very long, audiences would wear down. Had The Sopranos taken itself seriously at all times as a no-nonsense mafia show, it would have lasted a season or two, even on HBO.

What Chase Got Right and Where Lynch Went Wrong

As it happens, The Sopranos went for six seasons and became generally understood as God in the story of television’s current golden era. While the comedy/drama balance of The Sopranos was vital in its sustainability, its success is also owed to Chase having ultimately made the right decisions on distribution in opting to forgo the mass distribution of network television, a move in which Twin Peaks creators David Lynch and Mark Frost would later find solace. While it’s impossible to say whether or not Chase was looking at Lynch and Frost’s decisions in regards to the original run of Twin Peaks as an inspiration for where to go with The Sopranos, one thing is certain, the path Chase took allowed The Sopranos to blossom and flourish as a fully realized work of art. Unfortunately, the original run of Twin Peaks would not be afforded such a future.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
The final scene of The Sopranos opens with a similar composition to the da Vinci painting.

It’s important to note that most everything we love to watch on television since 1999 exists because of The Sopranos. Twin Peaks deserves significant credit, as it’s the alpha of auteur TV. That said… and it’s no more fun for me to write than it is for you to read, Twin Peaks was ruined by executive meddling. Season One and the first ten episodes of Season Two of Twin Peaks are phenomenal, as is the series finale. It changed television dramatically and for the better. In fact, David Chase himself has stated that The Sopranos and every other one-hour drama was definitely influenced by Twin Peaks. That aside, in retrospect Twin Peaks never stood a chance of surviving. For one, Lynch never had the option to go to paid subscription services. At the time, it wasn’t really an option. ABC bought Twin Peaks with no clue of how to handle such an ambiguous, genre-bending series. They were running Twin Peaks according to conventional wisdom and convention only hinders a visionary. Once ABC feared losing viewership at the hands of keeping mystery alive, they let Lynch walk out the door, proceeding to bastardize his show. The result of executive meddling at network TV is Episodes 11-21 of Twin Peaks, which is a section of Twin Peaks I try not to think about. While I understand many fans still enjoy these episodes, it’s common knowledge they’re a significant deviation from Lynch’s vision. Again, it’s not as though Lynch had a whole lot of options in the matter, but it’s also hardly surprising that network TV acted like network TV. Lynch and Frost trusted a scorpion.

For that matter, David Chase almost made the same mistake, as he originally pitched The Sopranos to Fox and other network channels. Fortunately for us, they all passed. When Chase went to HBO, they already had original television programming. Personally I recall the days of staying up late and watching Taxicab Confessions and Real Sex, hoping no one would come in my room. But aside from “adult content”, HBO had only just begun to break new ground in television, recently having picked up Oz and Sex and the City, both of which were doing pretty well. But The Sopranos didn’t do “pretty well,” The Sopranos exploded. Hesitantly at first, but ultimately relenting, HBO had given David Chase full creative control of the series. What happened afterwards could never have been predicted. As The Sopranos became the most buzzed about show on television, every other network started following suit, giving creators more freedom to create, rather than allowing executives to rein in creators every time a risky move was suggested. We could sit here and name off title after title of amazing television shows born as a direct result of The Sopranos, but I think it’s only important to talk about one: Twin Peaks: The Return. 

It took long enough, but inevitably Lynch went back and righted the mistake he made with the original run of Twin Peaks, taking his show to a paid subscription channel, rather than trusting network TV. What we got with The Return would never have happened without The Sopranos. So while Twin Peaks laid a foundation for the change of television as we know it, and succeeded, The Sopranos built a house upon that foundation, then built entire neighborhoods around it. I find to be a beautiful circle that Lynch could inspire Chase, and in turn have Chase open a door to allow Lynch the creative freedom he was never given.

Final thoughts 

At the end of the day The Sopranos was a celebration of ambiguous “open to interpretation” storytelling within the medium of television. It managed to mix absurd comedy with dark drama, violence, numerous surreal dream sequences, and even a bit of social commentary. It gave us characters as complex as Tony Soprano and relationships as complex as his marriage to Carmella. Viewers were challenged to deal with whatever was being thrown at them and were rarely given closure to huge questions. Anticlimactic resolutions to suspenseful subplots were a staple of The Sopranos. David Chase was known for writing numerous versions of scenes to keep actors in the dark about resolution.

The spirit of keeping mystery alive through genre-defying artistry was so well executed by David Chase, we at 25YL feel it would be criminal to overlook The Sopranos as integral viewing for all those seeking some Damn Fine TV. 

Written by Josh Lami

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