Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Another Great Married Couple

I refer, of course, to that rare union of quality and television.

Remember a few seasons back, when Carmela had a talk with Tony, trying to get him to set up a trust or a will, something to put her mind at ease, vis-a-vis "if something happens to you"? When Tony resisted, Carm got tough, reminding him that “everything comes to an end.” Alas, it’s true.

We’re now in the final act of, arguably, the greatest TV series ever. I’d argue it’s better than any Mafia movie, besides the first two Godfather films--and I’m including "Good Fellas." Fine, argue. But as to my initial arguable claim, what arguments are there, really?

Has there ever been a better-written series? (Some say “The West Wing,” forgetting that almost everyone in that White House talks exactly like everyone else. Some say "The Simpsons," and they may have a point. And some writers say “Deadwood,” but can’t say why, other than to quote wonderful lines of iambic pentameter, which don’t explain the show’s occasional dullness). The writing on The Sopranos, raw, refined, comic, tragic, simple, complex, specific, sweeping, daring, restrained, timeless and utterly of its time, is as good as it gets. (I should add, I love "Deadwood," and if they'd cast Calamity Jane better, she'd be one of the greatest characters anywhere, anytime, but the actress isn't up to the role). Speaking of which...

Has there ever been a better-acted series? (Some say “Homicide: Life On The Streets,” but where’s the range? Some say “Upstairs, Downstairs,” and I say, make up your mind. And some say “Prime Suspect,” which I haven’t watched enough to say anything about, except that even at 60, Helen Mirren is hot.) If TV and film are about singular moments and over-all arc, where has a wider range of actors been given so many great moments to play and played them so well? Where have we seen such character-driven story arcs in TV, such a complex, unflinching portrayal of flawed humanity? Have any two actors ever created a more convincing married couple? (Some say “Mad About You” . . . oh, never mind.)

Has any actor more truly lived in front of the camera as a character than James Gandolfini as Tony? The other day, my brother said, “It’s the single greatest sustained creation of a character in the history of television—and that includes Lucy.” I think he means Lucille Ball’s character, not the one in the “Peanuts” specials. Tony looms. Think about someone else playing the role. My sense of the match is, no matter who it was—Brando, DeNiro, Pacino, or freakin’ Orson Welles—it would have been a lesser show. Who else could bring the mix of rage, self-loathing, wit, sexual threat, contempt, wonder, helplessness, bitterness, regret, self-delusion, inertia . . . about a dozen notes at once? Who could play any better the tenderness, sheepish deceit, and brutality of a Mafia dad swerving from a college trip with his daughter to hunt down an informer and choke him to death? What actor has ever been better suited to a role? Gandolfini looms.

I have to say, Edie Falco gives him a run for his money. Carmela has more going on than Tony does, really—a rich interior life coming through that veneer of brittle materialism in every move Edie makes, every expression on her face, every inflection of her voice. It's an absolutely unique character, and you never doubt her for a minute. Even the occasional weak moments from the kid actors end up playing fine in the family scenes, because the structure is Tony and Carmela. He’s the lot and the basement, and she’s pretty much the rest of the house.

Which is not to say that everyone else is mere set decoration. There have always been amazing supporting roles on The Sopranos. Off the top of my head: Livia, Uncle Junior, Christopher, Adriana, Big Pussy, Hesh, Tony’s cousin Tony, Richie, Janice, Ralph, Rosalie, Artie and Charmaine, Gloria, Bobby, Johnny Sack, Phil, Vito. And of course, Dr. Melfi. Even Silvio and Paulie, who seem less than human sometimes, have had great moments.

What great moments will season seven reveal? How does it end? I’ve heard there are bulletin boards devoted to this kind of speculation, but I refuse to check them out. If anyone’s going to spoil it for me, I will. Or, to quote my darling spousette, “If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s myself.”

Already, it’s a new level of unapologetic venality in the first episode. Astounding dialogue in the lake house scenes, the way Tony plunders psyches with little digs, insults, suggestions, marching orders. And the writers, unfettered by the usual TV writer cramps, open the season with a backward leap of imagination, bringing back a scene from a couple of seasons ago and putting a new twist on it.

A.J. will figure big, if the writers complete the arc of the show and one of its central ideas. What the son does with what he’s given by his parents is an unavoidable theme. It seems entirely possible that A.J. could get whacked. He could also inherit the family business, a la Michael Corleone, especially with Christopher getting sidelined.

Somebody in Tony’s family is getting whacked, that much is sure. Christopher would be a prime choice, maybe served up by Tony himself, the way things are going. A nastier surprise could be Meadow, vulnerable and easy to track down in California. Is that too G3?

The weapons charge has been set up to be Tony’s downfall, assuming he’s not killed in the all-out war that’s brewing with Phil and the New York family. Killed, I don't think. But behind bars? I can see it.

What of Carmela? If the writers fulfill the promise of her character, she has to get closer to her moral center, doesn’t she? We may revisit that soul-searching, and there could be consequences from that. Could she be the one who gets whacked? Oooh, the ultimate whackee. That would cut way deeper than anyone else’s death, even Tony’s.

Jeez, imagine Tony behind bars, mourning Carmela, still trying to run the show from inside, dealing with his kids. A sad ruin of a bruin of a man, who brought it all on himself, simply by Not Doing The Inner Work His Shrink Told Him To Do.

What else could happen? Personally, I’d like to see a little more of Italy, including that walking phallus-with-a-ponytail, Furio, and the female Don played by (ahhhh) Sofia Milos. Or another of Tony’s fantasies, perhaps starring Maria Grazia Cucinotta...but I digress. I don’t see us getting out of town after this first episode. Things are contracting, not expanding. There’s no breathing room for Italy.

And obviously, there’s no happy ending possible in a show like this. One of its great moral lessons (I’m not saying it’s a unique or original lesson, but the way it’s delivered is all that and more) is that what goes around, comes around. I can feel it coming around. And I’ll be sorry to see it go.


djayt said...

also, of course, the music is great. Best music of any show in tv history, and that includes Lucy's husband kickin' it Latin Style on the congas.

Jasph said...

Can't believe I overlooked that. It would be cool to do a list of some of the superb music cues over the years. In the latest episode, the reprising of "This Magic Moment" as Bobby comes home and holds his little girl, is one of many. A little more on the nose than what they sometimes do, but still.

Also, the way music gets used as part of the action, not just as soundtrack--like Tony fuming as Bobby's and Janice's daughter and nanny sing "Four Little Ducks," taking us all the way back to the first episode.

Tina said...

You know, even during those times when the show isn't being loved upon by critics, I'm still always completely entranced from beginning to end. Paul is longing for them to get back to the more mob-heavy storylines, but I don't mind the slow-simmering drama.

I tell you, I could not breathe when they were at that cabin. As pleasant as most of it was, you could just feel the bad stuff coming. Loved, loved, loved, Tony inducing all the water paranoia with Janice and her daughter.

I don't expect it to end well, I've come to terms with that. All I ask is that no one harms Christofuh, he's my favorite and I will be forced to stop watching it. Unless...he's killed by Adrianna, who really isn't dead! Awesome.

scotland said...

When I was growing up one of the hardest pills I could ever imagine swallowing was admitting to my own virginity. This of course in the midst of the sexual revolutions hey-day and the pressures of forming a sexual identity was a form of poor self image. I'd like to admit before I rant any further that I have never seen this show,never read an article about it, can't imagine that at this point in time I want to alter this condition or imagine a surrogate for this deprivation. Anyway here is my review: The Sopranos seem to have found their place on the page, their full range of talents is under control. Within the weavings of themes in this epic piece they haven't lost the romantic appeal to their devoted audience. Hopefully as a group they will find respect and will not leave the stage without a perfect flower and untarnished image. I have to include myself among their most infatuated of fans. Something like the only picture of love and passion I know.

Jasph said...

I thought of another great music moment: When Uncle Junior shoots Tony. Remember the Artie Shaw big band thing that's playing? It's "Comes Love," an old standard sung by Helen Forrest. (Joni Mitchell does a great version of this on the Both Sides Now album.)

When Junior yells downstairs, asking who's down there as Tony's making dinner for him, Tony yells back, "It's Artie Shaw."

The last part of the song goes:

Comes a nightmare, you can always stay awake
Comes depression, you may get another break
Comes love, nothing can be done

Love and bullets, baby. Scott, I'd never suggest that it's on a par with losing one's virginity, but if you should happen to Netflix a boxed set of the first season, I can just about guarantee you'll be hooked.

Does anyone remember the first airing of the first episode, before they got the perfect theme song? The credit sequence ran with Booker T. and the MGs, "Green Onion."

darth taco said...

just look at you . . . ALL of you . . . knowing all these cannoli-riffic facts and moments and scenes and twists and things but most worstest of all, acting all Italianer-than-thou.

me being the thou, in this case.

which is all to say i'm sickeningly jealous that you have HBO and i don't. the good news is that we're almost a real, live netflix family in my family, so i'll soon be shifting into Silent Watch Mode and catching up to all of you.

THEN we will talk . . . and the flava will mos def'nitely be delivered unto the table.