Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sopranos Finale

I'm not going to belabor the minutiae of what has to be one of the more drawn-out and blown-up exits in the history of television -- Tim Goodman has been doing masterful weekly deconstructions of the episodes for quite some time. But there are some things I am still digesting about the episode itself, as well as the series as a whole, and how it's really changed the face of what we have come to expect from that addictive slab of electronica plastered across our living-room walls.

Sopranos was one of those rare shows that genuinely lived up to its hype, albeit imperfectly and on its own terms. And obviously the sheer amount of craft in the acting and writing has transformed the landscape, littered as it may be with the creatively-retarded narcissism of reality shows. James Gandolfini was something of a known quantity from his role in True Romance (a movie that also had some wondrous hidden gems in Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, and even Bronson Pinchot). But he was nothing short of a force of nature here, exercising seemingly effortless control and interaction with a superlative cast. Michael Chiklis has done much the same thing in The Shield, and it's an amazing thing to watch, these collaborative efforts of genius.

That said, it was probably time to go, before things turned into parodies of themselves, as things have a way of doing. But even in its grand exeunt, the characters and the writers continued to tweak expectations and speculations, a sea of red herrings set free for viewers to follow and guess, if they were so inclined, even though simply observing the unfolding arcs was plenty. Most notable was how Tony's character, long played and written as something of the archetypal "anti-hero", kept getting peeled back further and further, as he continued to decompensate (as Peter Bogdanovich had warned Lorraine Bracco last season), and reveal the cold, hard truth to all except himself and the enablers around him. He never wanted to "get better", much to Melfi's eventual tragic realization; he simply wanted to stop having panic attacks so he could get back to business.

And the mirrored sociopathy in Tony's family, even his children, was what really came full circle in the final episode. It was always even odds that it would end with a bang or an arrest for him, and sure enough, Chase snubbed those predictions as well. Clearly the joy for him was in throwing in the little clues and diversions, the head-fakes and the jokey malaprops, the various Cleaver swag in the background (one of the funniest running gags I've seen since David Cross leaving blue smudges everywhere in Arrested Development).

It was never about the soap-opera elements so much as playing with viewers' expectations of character arcs, and narrative elements. Just when you thought Tony was a fundamentally decent guy in a rough business, they strip away the layers of contrivance and reveal him for himself, vicious, monomaniacal, lying even about insignificant details so as to keep his self-rationalizations straight. And just when you thought that Meadow was the conscience of the show, the idealistic one that would break free of the family and its ritualized displays of mock civility, she turns out to be a typical ball-busting mob princess, jumping into the legal game because of all the mistreatment her criminal father and his thug associates had to endure.

No resolutions (except for Phil), no deus ex machina, no Russian returning from the woods to settle scores, just transparently warped people justifying their self-indulgences, from Paulie's weirdness about cats, to Tony rationalizing his killing of Christopher with getting the gambling hex off his back, for however long. That's not what fans wanted, but if they think about it, they almost never got what they thought they wanted -- they generally got something better, like listening to a song that you expect to resolve to the tonic or the dominant chord, and it hangs on the minor or the subdominant instead. It makes you reconsider what you thought you liked about the song in the first place.

The show has closed off the mob-movie genre for some time to come, no doubt, not only by ensuring that any future attempts will likely suffer by comparison, but also by rooting out and de-romanticizing, de-mystifying the strange fixation Americans have had with it since Godfather and Goodfellas. (Although Goodfellas really did de-romanticize them as well, the specter of Scorsese simply loomed to large over the intricate crafting of that movie to do anything but inflate the cultural stock of the genre.)

I think the show worked as well as it did for as long as it did not only because of the level of craft, but also from the way Chase was so eager to simultaneously use and re-work the tropes of the genre. Taken as a whole, it's a great stylistic revision on the meta level, one that becomes more apparent in repeat viewings, and it's really a tribute to the vision of all involved that they were able to maintain that level for so long. It's got to be damned near impossible to attempt to embrace, repudiate, and re-invent a classic form all at once, but they deserve a hell of a lot of credit just for giving it a shot. That they mostly succeeded, especially compared to most of what else is out there, was just gravy.

Perhaps equally as notable as the passing of HBO's cornerstone series is what follows it tonight, John From Cincinnati. The time slot alone, not to mention the show's pedigree, indicates how important HBO views it in the network's fortunes. Having just watched the first episode, all I can say is, "What the fuck was David Milch thinking?". It's bad enough that this is an incoherent mess of forced, awkward dialogue; what's inexplicable is that Milch strangled Deadwood a full season early to get a jump on it.

HBO's fears of losing subscribers en masse post-Sopranos are well-justified; most of the other new series they've previewed look less than compelling, which leaves them with Entourage and Big Love. (Curb Your Enthusiasm is returning, but personally I found the last season to be tedious and practically unwatchable. I didn't even make it to the season finale.) With DVD cycles shortening up, I think a lot of people -- especially Netflix subscribers such as myself -- might just say "fuck it" and catch those shows upon release a couple months down the road.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

did Sopranos kill HBO?