It took five seasons and numerous emails with my thoughts on the show before my friend finally asked me an important question:
“Do you like ‘The Sopranos’? I can’t tell if you do.”
It wasn’t the easiest question to answer. Many of the more recent canonical TV shows, I can very quickly divide into love and hate, and, more importantly, I can easily dismiss any vying for the “greatest of all time” title. There is no way “The Wire” is the best show ever because its fifth and final season is genuinely bad television. For the same reason, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, which spends five seasons hitting it out of the park, one season stumbling, and one season in the borderline unwatchable category, can’t be the number one, though I would heartily assert it is better TV than both The Wire and The Sopranos, though everyone else in the world has been telling me otherwise for ten years.
“The Sopranos” doesn’t necessarily have a bad season, though the front half of Season 6 is certainly its worst. I had to think to come up with my favorite though, which I concluded was Season 4, the season about the past and how things have changed (I can hear those who know me chuckling).
When it came to individual episodes, it really depended on which characters were featured how I felt about them. Given the number of nominations I was aware Michael Imperioli earned over the years, I was floored at how dull and uninteresting Christopher was. Sure, he had some good one-liners and the occasional well-performed scene, but by and large, his storylines struck me as incredibly flat–one can only relapse into drug use so many times. It is worth noting, however, that “D-Girl” is hands-down my favorite episode of this show and is actually somewhat Christopher-centric. Most of the time though, I just wonder, “Where’s Sil? Where’s Bobby? Can’t we put Junior back in the fray?”
Another part of the problem is that, while there are a long list of genres I love, the relatively short list of genres I hate tend to be as follows: gangster, Westerns, stuff about criminals, mind trip—you know, all the genres that have gotten all the accolades over the past two decades. So, it was an uphill battle for this show from the beginning because I never have and never will find Mafia stories all that interesting.
At least The Sopranos had the family element going for it though. More importantly, Margaret Lyons beautifully summed up what it was about this show that helped me put up with the boring mobster stuff. Please read the whole piece, because it really did fundamentally change my appreciation of the show, but here is the one line that really sticks out:
“The Sopranos is about the performance of self when we haven’t picked what we are.”
Millenials may think we can be anything, but there are some of us who still live in families like mine, where during Christmas time, I put forward a version of myself that doesn’t really exist. I smile and joke and make a mention of something that happened at Midnight Mass to ensure Grandma knows I went to church. I make it seem like that husband and family are just around the corner. I make it seem like I spend more time with my family than my friends, or heck, even my family and my blog. Around my friends, I put forward a version of me that isn’t exactly me either. At work, the same. As someone who got a Master’s Degree with a large emphasis on the performance of self, intellectually this is right up my alley, because we are always performing, and, a lot of the time, we are performing roles we don’t want to be in. We may not be mob bosses who have to stick to these roles or else there are life and death consequences, but the general concept should be familiar to everyone.
I think we can all relate to that idea of pretending to be someone we don’t want to be sometimes, which is why this show, and Season 4 in particular stuck out to me. In this season, several guys return from the clink after years removed from the real world. Some are ready to jump back in, but can’t be what the new order needs them to be. Others try so very hard to get out a la Michael Corleone, only to be pulled back in again. And, at the center of it is Tony, seeing it all go down, realizing that relationships, such as the one between himself and his favorite cousin, may change, but the people they have to be are never going to. He realizes, no matter what, he is stuck in what he is and there is no way it isn’t going to end poorly.
It was a show that made me think. It has me still thinking, honestly. Is it the greatest ever? That, I can pretty easily answer no, but I am also the person who is going to offer up The Dick Van Dyke and The Mary Tyler Moore shows as perfect pieces of television long before anything made in the 21st century.
I even told my friend I don’t prefer it to “The Good Wife”, which is, in my mind, the best show on television right now. In many ways they deal with the same identity politics, in that several characters are stuck in places they would rather not be and have to do what they can with them. Unlike The Sopranos, which had more than one “off” episode (I’m looking at you, Kevin Finnerty), “The Good Wife” has faltered arguably once with a strange story about Kalinda’s life before the firm. Otherwise though, this program, which produces 22 episodes a season mind you, compared to The Newsroom and their six, Game of Thrones and their 10, and the now-lofty 12-13 of most major cable shows, and manages to do so without much filler, with a plethora of compelling characters to choose from and a bench of bit players that rivals the UK basketball team.
So, as someone who waited 15 years to see what the hype was about, where do I stand on The Sopranos?
I can most certainly see how it shifted the paradigm for television drama and helped to popularize the anti-hero concept on TV (though, as Emily Nussbaum rightly points out, Carrie Bradshaw beat him to the punch on that one). I respect on an artistic level what it did, though I am still mildly baffled at how many references only media scholars and intense film nerds like myself would ever get are peppered throughout the show.
Again, I am deferring to Lyons on this one. It is a show I respect and revere, but is it a show I love? No. Me? I need characters I can invest in. They can be complicated and flawed, sure, but I have to fundamentally care about what happens to them. Save for Carmela, Bobby Baccalieri, Silvio, Paulie’s mom, and a handful of others, there were precious few characters I found myself genuinely emotionally reacting to when they were in peril. Once or twice the show gut-punched me, but mostly I admired it from a distance as a piece of art, not full enmeshed within it, as I tend to be with my all-time favorite shows.
Much like the show, Tony Soprano was always an arms-length away for me. He could make me smile and laugh, but he never made me cry. When he got shot or had his life on the line, I wasn’t that compelled, though maybe it is because I knew they can’t kill off Tony. Most of all though, there was just way more to dislike about Tony than to like by the time the series ended. While I found him fascinating to scrutinize, if put to a decision, I would say, no, I don’t really care about him. And, for me, that is a problem.
I admire it as a show that made me think, but it isn’t a show that makes me feel nearly enough, which is what I am looking for when it comes to searching for the greatest TV show of all time. I am certainly happy I watched, but I’ll still tell you it is no “Buffy”, it is no “The Good Wife”, and it is not “The West Wing.” It certainly isn’t half-bad though.