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The Sopranos

*DISCLAIMER* This show has gratuitous language, violence, and nudity are all very prevalent. Also a graphic depiction of a rape. Not for the faint of heart.

We’ve reached another bittersweet milestone: we reached the conclusion of the seminal HBO television show The Sopranos. This is the third HBO show we’ve watched all the way through, following Sex And The City and The Wire. SATC was a fascinating insight into the mind of the modern New York woman and The Wire completely broke down commonly held beliefs and notions about how the modern American City operates as a social institution. The Sopranos is an intensely deep look at a smaller social institution: the modern American Family. It is weighty, dramatic, and at times intensely violent and sexual, but the themes of family, respect, and loyalty are compelling and moving. Incredibly interesting and engaging television program.

The show follows Tony Soprano’s rule as the head of the New Jersey mafia. Tony is married to Carmela and they have two teenage children, Meadow and AJ. The show starts with Tony, a captain in the DiMeo crime family, suffering from crippling panic attacks. He decides to try therapy, an unheard-of decision within the Italian mafioso culture. Tony comes a generation that respects stalwart, dedicated men who can handle problems on their own without needing help. The Gary Cooper, “strong, silent type” man is referenced multiple times throughout the series. From here, the story follows Tony’s dealings as captain and eventually boss of the family.

This is the most succinct way to describe the show. At its root, the show is about a family and the deconstruction of the American Dream. The generation of Italian Americans that are under the lens of this show are not the original family immigrants. Most are twice removed; it was their grandparents that originally came from the Old Country. Their ancestors immigrated to work towards the American Dream: work hard in America, land of opportunity and prosperity, and you’ll achieve success. I’m not sure when this culture stopped believing in this dream, but somewhere along the generational timeline, a group of young people decided to take the easy way towards getting what they wanted. In their minds though, crime is not the easy way to success, it is just another route fraught with perils, hardships, stresses, and occasional joys just like any other. That’s what is so interesting about this show. Obviously the viewer sees this crime family operating and the despicable things they do, but as you watch, you begin to empathize with these characters. Not necessarily justifying the morality of their actions, but at least the motivation behind them. It doesn’t matter how hard you work as the owner of your community’s local pork shop, you will not, most likely, achieve grand financial success. And that’s where the viewer’s empathy is born. If Tony has found an alternative route to success, why wouldn’t he take it?

This raises another important question. Is the American Dream actually the American Myth? We see Artie Bucco, childhood friend of Tony’s, work hard at his family restaurant, trying not to buy into the mob lifestyle, and yet where is his realization of the American Dream? He continually hits obstacle after obstacle. One can argue that many of these come from being associated, however crime-free, with Tony. But really, Artie is just a man who is trying to make an honest buck and can’t seem to make it happen for himself or his family. So what is it that these characters are fighting so hard to achieve? At one point, Tony is attempting to solve a serious contention between the New Jersey and New York families, and pleads with the New York boss to put the matter to bed. He tells his rival boss that they have a job to do, and this beef is keeping them from doing their job. It’s keeping them from putting food on the table for their families, which is the ultimate goal at the end of the day for these men. Looking back at Artie, he managed to achieve that goal, yet still wasn’t happy.

Ultimately, this is a sad show. We saw broken people wandering through a crime-filled existence, without really knowing what they’re trying to attain. We see a traditional nuclear family, husband/wife/daughter/son, completely break down due to infidelity, selfishness, deception, anger, no communication. We also see this family from a more generational vantage point, and see how sinfulness can permeate relationships and how it can be transmitted genetically from parent to child. We see cycles of anger, self-pity, and depression link generations and we just want to yell at these characters to break out from the mold set by their parents. This aspect of the show especially has led to many long conversations trying to decipher the generational mysteries about our own families.

I do want to address the controversial last episode. I was reeling from it. I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head, just mulling over what happened and how to interpret it. What’s weird is that I actually knew how the episode ended many years ago when I foolishly read an online review of it after it premiered. *mild spoiler?* What I was not aware of is how abruptly it occurs. Really, not much of a spoiler, but what does happen definitely resonates with the viewer. It takes awhile to shake off that last episode. Which proves, if nothing else, it was well made. It’s odd though, that these characters don’t achieve redemption. This show ended differently than a show like The Wire; that wrapped everything up nicely, even if it wasn’t a happy ending for most characters. It at least had a sense of finality to it. The Sopranos ends in the opposite way. Things aren’t tied up, there isn’t some grand redemption moment for Tony, or for anyone for that matter, and there isn’t a sense of resolution. Only a sense of repetition. Things will continue to go on as they always have with different faces, only slightly morphing as the Italian Americans continue to climb further from the roots their family tree.

It’s a powerful show. Tony is a man who does deplorable things, yet we empathize. You don’t think you will, but you do. At least I did. And I never would’ve thought the show could do that to me. In my review for The Wire, I stated it was the best television show I’d ever seen. Still true? The Sopranos is certainly punching in the same weight category. The Sopranos has depth, and something that resonates with the viewer. I think, in the end, the show makes us ultimately compare ourselves with Tony. “What an awful guy. I’d never do such things.” Yet as we slowly begin to justify his deeds, it shows us how much of our own sin we sweep under the rug, just as Tony does. And this is where the real power of this show comes from. By turning the floodlights onto our own problems, we realize how much we need redemption and how dangerous an unredeemed life can be. Tony and his family certainly are an entertaining example.

-Jon

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The Wire

I just finished up what was, possibly, the best show I have ever watched. Gritty, real, suspenseful, and complex, HBO’s The Wire has more to offer the average TV viewer than nearly anything on TV today.

The show primarily follows the Major Crimes Unit of the Baltimore Police Department as they try to crack several high-level cases. This is as simplistic of a description as you can possibly get. The show is incredibly layered, and in reality, it is about the overall social institution of the modern American city and the competing institutions within it. There are several aspects of this show that blew me away as I watched, mainly because it was very challenging. This is no network cookie-cutter TV show. As the viewer, you are thrown into a world you might know nothing about, and expected to keep up with the lingo, a huge array of characters, a deep web of plots that continually intersect and affect each other. I don’t think I’ve ever been challenged so much by a television show, just simply to keep up with what’s going on. With this in mind, it’s certainly a tough show to get the hang of, but once that is accomplished, once the language is learned and names are remembered, you dive into the world headfirst and are shocked by what you see.

We begin with Jimmy McNulty, an alcoholic murder detective in the Baltimore Police Department, and the story follows the events that occur due to his desire to bring in real criminals. From there, you’re introduced to police officers, police commanders, politicians, drug dealers, drug soldiers, drug addicts, longshoremen, stick-up boys (I had never heard the term stick-up boy until I watched The Wire), elementary school kids, journalists, prisoners. This barely starts the list of the cast. You meet so many characters, all of them different, fighting the particular system they are in, trying to change it rather than be changed by it. That’s the difficult part about watching this show. Each season deals with a different urban institution: the police department/drug trade, the harbor union, the local political structure, the school system, and the media. Each system is made up of individuals who are figuring out how best to survive. To me, that is what is most hopeful/depressing about the show, that at the core, it is about survival, and how Americans can do nothing but do their best to survive with what they’ve been given. No one chooses to be born in the poor neighborhoods to parents who don’t stick around or who can’t provide. Often, the people that we see are people trying to get out of their particular situation, and by doing so they compromise ideals or blend into their system in order to find their way out. It rarely works. This show breaks down the stereotype pushed on us by the American Dream, that if you just push, work hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, you will eventually succeed and be happy. This show takes that concept of success and completely turns it on its head. There are characters who you think find success, but what have they given up to get there? How do they view that success once they find it? The natural instinct in every human being to survive is shown to be innate yet flawed, as so many of us don’t have the means to survive, or the concept of survival is far different than we originally expect.

There is a realism in this show that I’d never seen before. Right out of the gate, you are thrown into this world. There is no set-up, no checklist of character names/professions/relationships that are marked off in the first two episodes to ground the viewer into the environment. From the very first episode, the viewer is treated like just another citizen on the streets of this Baltimore, as someone who has lived this life and understands the names and the looks and the language of these people. Which is definitely a difficult thing to wrap your mind around when you’re a white, male Iowan. It was a challenge to keep up with this show. We constantly had to pause and discuss what we just saw, or rewind a scene to catch dialogue. But if you can catch up and learn to follow along, holy cow is it rewarding. I’ve never seen a show that felt so raw. There isn’t sugarcoating in this show. It’s violent, it’s visceral, it’s authentic. Nothing feels out of place, or made-for-TV. And that’s why when things happen that you don’t expect or didn’t think could happen, it’s jarring. It’s easy to look at a city’s low-income school system and hope that the teachers are all just trying their best to teach the kids, or that the politicians are actually attempting to make good on their campaign promises to bring reform. Is it really happening that way? It shocked me to see assumptions and conventions I had in my head about how society runs flipped and turned around, and the reason it was really shocking was because I believed the show. There isn’t any doubt as you watch that this must be how things are done. Obviously, it’s still a TV show, so real life will prove itself to be somewhat different. But it’s a testament to the show how incredibly real you feel it all is. Things don’t seem faked in The Wire.

One huge element of the show that really adds to that feeling of authenticity is the music. Aside from five instances in the entire run of the program (a song played over season ending montages), all music in the show is diegetic, or environmental music. If you hear a song in a scene, it’s because the song is coming from a character’s boombox, or from the speakers of a passing car on the street, or the house music from a strip club. There is no atmospheric music, no musical score in the traditional sense. And even more so, the music supervisors of the show added that much more credibility by choosing songs that would legitimately be listened to by citizens of the city. There is a lot of rap in the show’s soundtrack, and very East Coast, Washington D.C. area rap. Not lots from New York. The program showcases popular songs from Baltimore artists, things that the people of that city would be listening to. I didn’t notice it for a long time either, which is really interesting seeing how much music can add or subtract from the video medium. It just adds an entirely new layer of realism to the show that I love. And the theme song, holy cow it is an awesome one. The song is Way Down In The Hole, originally by Tom Waits, and it is performed by a different artist for each season of the show*. It is a powerful song, and one that wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as the best choice for this show’s theme song. But that’s what makes this show great, there are parallels and painted pictures and metaphors all over the place. As the viewer, you’re encouraged to piece things together and make your own opinions about how things are done, how the characters interact and live their lives, and catch on to a vague sense of what the show is trying to say. There is no easy solution or wrap-up at the end of each episode. There are symbols that just barely point to what the show might be trying to communicate; it’s up to the viewer to really bridge those gaps.

On the whole, I’d classify this show as a bit of a downer. There are moments where hope shines through, but this is a show where characters (main and peripheral, there is no invincibility spell even for some of the show’s most important characters) meet untimely ends, characters fail, efforts to do good or to succeed or to survive absolutely fall flat. This is a show with very few heroes, yet at the same time you find yourself rooting for a wide variety of the characters at different times. The Wire takes the normal procedural cop show format and turns it inside out. In those shows, you have good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are the cops who have to solve a crime perpetrated by one of the bad guy criminals. And at the end of the hour they’ve solved it and somebody is in jail. Nothing like that in this show. You know how as you grow up, you begin to see things less in terms of black and white and more in terms of a gigantic spectrum of colors and circumstances and finding real truth is difficult? In The Wire‘s Baltimore, characters seem to be born with that knowledge. And having that knowledge doesn’t make life any easier. These are all people who are just trying to find personal success in what they do, and it is very nearly impossible to do so, because in life, there are almost always things that keep people down. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re born, or what you try to do, there are forces beyond your control against which you constantly have to battle. McNulty wants to solve crimes, he wants to be “good police”, but what can you do when the mayor puts pressure on the police chief to juke crime stats so that it looks like there is less crime than there really is? The police are told to whatever is necessary to make the stats look good rather than solve real crime. Go for the low-totem, easy-to-bag criminals and make good numbers rather than bring down the kingpins who are responsible for the real, society-affecting crimes. Everybody is looking for a way out of their own personal hell, their own undesirable situation, and the lines begin to blur on who is really succeeding. It’s powerful stuff you see in this show.

And that’s why I’m labeling it the best show I’ve ever seen. It tells the best story, and in the best way. This is a story that really matters to people, because whether they know it (or believe it), these cultural issues affect them. It shows how important survival is, but really tests you to figure out what is acceptable to give up in order to survive? We clearly cannot do it on our own power. I think this is a very alien concept to the modern American mind; we can’t do it ourselves, we require some outside power to come to our aid. We grow up being told that we can do it, we can achieve all our dreams, as long as we just work hard and apply ourselves. And I think the message that we are incapable of that on our own is a tough concept, but ultimately, a real truth in life and important to remember. It’s a struggle to work through too, because the next question is inevitably: where do we find our help? None of these characters ever seem to hit upon it the right way, but it’s incredibly entertaining and challenging to see them struggle with the question. Also, there is lots and lots and lots of sex, violence, and language throughout this show. Like I said, no sugarcoating. Be forewarned.

-Jon

* The version by the Blind Boys of Alabama (Season 1) is far and away my favorite.

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