‘Sopranos’ perfect even if flawed

Dec 16, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Something seemed kind of wrong with “The Sopranos” this year, but my feeling is that David Chase must know what he is doing, since he created the thing and supervises the scripts and is smart as hell. He’s as slow as heck, however. Would it really be too much to ask that he spend less than 16 months on the next batch of episodes?
“Sopranos” has saturated and permeated the culture the way only a hit television series can do. The Sopranos (like the Osbournes, but moreso) are part of us. They are us, period. In every episode, including the recent season finale, Tony and his family members face banal everyday problems-having trouble with the remote, haggling with the seller over the purchase of a house-that we are all bound to recognize. But then Tony will do something that we can’t or don’t do, like have someone killed.
One moment he’s the slightly awkward, clearly caring father visiting his daughter at college, having dinner in the apartment where she lives with a platonic boyfriend, making small talk and mild jokes, trying to disguise his prying as mere paternalistic curiosity. And the next moment he is maniacally turning kitchen utensils into lethal weapons in his efforts to murder a fellow mobster who Tony thinks caused the death of a beloved racehorse.
Not participatory TV
I have heard many, many complaints about the quality of the “Sopranos” episodes this year. People felt that not enough happened. My best friend said he was frustrated that the characters he liked the most seemed to get insufficient amounts of screen time. I get the feeling that Chase is determined that “The Sopranos” not play out neatly according to its audience’s expectations or, more importantly, to him perhaps, according to the audience’s wishes. This isn’t participatory or “reality” television. He’s not going to take surveys to find out which characters the audiences likes and dislikes. He’s an auteur, as much as any celebrated or fancy French film director is an auteur, and he is going to see this thing through his way.
No matter how emphatic people were in their complaints, I get the feeling they will be right back in front of their TV sets tuned to HBO whenever Chase decides to return with a new batch of episodes. I haven’t heard anyone say, “I’m so disgusted, I’ll never watch that show again!” It would be like never speaking to an old friend just because they did something that upset you. You still love them. You don’t desert them.
It’s amazing, really, how many emotions James Gandolfini and the rest of the cast will take you through in a single episode. In the season finale, Tony had moments where he was charming, vulnerable, even cute-like when he showed his wife, Carmela, the house-by-the-sea he wanted to buy, “Whitecaps” (also the title of the episode), and said, “Kinda reminds you of the Kennedy compound, doesn’t it?” He has visions of grandeur as many of us do, private and unrealistic, and he faces some of the same common frustrations and irritations-even to the point of, in the phrase that banks coldly stamp onto bum checks, insufficient funds.
The guy trying to sell Whitecaps to Tony was really behaving just as crookedly and was just as interested in taking advantage of a potential sucker as Tony and his minions are. But the guy doesn’t have murder in his arsenal of tactics and dirty tricks. And so he suffered his punishment: Dean Martin records played at deafening volume from a boat just offshore.
But the season finale belonged, of course, to Edie Falco as Carmela. This was the night Carmela finally, after a million other opportunities, found out about Tony’s habitual and flagrant philandering. And Falco let loose with a performance that was so powerful, it pinned you to the couch just as surely as if the couch were peeling out from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds.
“I am watching Edie Falco win an Emmy,” I thought to myself as Carmela went through the agony and anger of a woman betrayed. She was virtually winning it right there-not that the performance was in any way false or distancing. It wasn’t “Ooooh, she’s `Acting,’ with a capital `A.”’ These were among the most compelling scenes ever in any “Sopranos” episode and in their own way, they were as frightening as any of the explicit, graphic violence. Hovering in the air, of course, was the fear that Tony would become so enraged he would turn to violence even against Carmela, but when he threw a punch, he put his fist through the wall. And then again, and again.
Some of Chase’s choices do seem quixotic. Next to the two Sopranos, my favorite actor and character in the series-and I think a lot of people share this feeling-is Michael Imperioli as Christopher. This season, Christopher’s heroin habit went way out of control and he was sent off to rehab. But that meant two episodes with little or none of Imperioli, which was rough on us regular and faithful viewers. Then again, Imperioli was responsible for writing one of the oddest episodes of the season, the free-floating thing about the Irish and Italians fighting over a Columbus Day parade.
It’s fun to intervene
Before Christopher was sent off to rehab, relatives staged an “intervention” that turned out to be one of the most darkly hilarious scenes in the history of the series.
The threat of violence is always there. And Chase makes sure the violence is ugly and alarming. Tony called off the assassination of a geezerly old capo in the last episode. But then, casually and matter-of-factly, the two African American men hired to commit the killing were themselves shot to death so they couldn’t ever talk about the plan. Their murders were treated by Tony and his cohorts as mere trifling formalities, a reflection of their insidious racism as well as their indifference to the heartless pain they inflict.
Tony’s world began to crumble in the first episode of “The Sopranos,” when he longed for the ducks that had briefly taken up residence in his back yard and sought therapy for panic attacks and depression, thus admitting, at least to himself, vulnerability. I think the next season will see that world unravel entirely. Carmela’s awakening marked the next major step in Tony’s decline and fall. The song played under the closing credits wasn’t some hip rock tune this time, but the plaintive “I Have Dreamed,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Tony has dreamed, and lived his dreams, but when they shatter, the shards will scar his body and soul.
As to the quality of this past season of “The Sopranos,” I find myself of two minds. One, I agree with those who say the season was disappointing and fitfully frustrating and sometimes even annoying. And yet I’m still of the opinion that “The Sopranos” is perfect. It’s perfection, goodness knows. Even its flaws are somehow, well, flawless.