Change and Decline in US TV Drama: The Sopranos


Part 1: The Sopranos

Looking at examples of four of the most successful modern American television dramas, each of them have taken on a different course with the passing of time, ratings have eventually been lost, praise has usually waned, actors have left, but none of the turns which they took has been in any way expected.


The Sopranos began with a surprisingly original concept. It combined a Mafia boss and patriarch, Tony Soprano, his educated, bookish straight arrow of a psychiatrist, Tony’s real family and Tony’s Mafia family. Together the result was a drama with both serial and individual episode storylines, a humour that was bright although deliciously dark, characterisation which New York film critic Norman Mailer described as being comparable to that of novels. Articles written about it even included one that went by the name of, “If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for The Sopranos.”

Some of the highlights of its magnificent first three seasons involved a dream sequence with a talking fish which made Tony realise that his best friend was an FBI informant; a scene in which his Mafia associates Paulie and Christopher went to kill a Russian in the snowy New Jersey woods – only to find that Paulie had lost his shoe and the Russian may or may not have escaped (we’ll never know), as all the while Tony shouted on his phone to them “Is the package still alive?”, just as his teenage son Anthony Junior calmly sat and watched some television, intrigued but hardly perturbed by what he was hearing. A typical episode was split between the violent Mafia drama, usually lightened by and intertwined with casual black humour, family dinner with the Sopranos – who were a tight and loving family, despite their problems; and the revelations of Tony’s subconscious with his psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, which made for the most peculiar, intriguing and indefinable male-female relationship, not to mention doctor-patient exchange, in modern fictional history.

But, as was inevitable, the unavoidable change had to arrive, and it found its place in Season 4. Season 3 had already progressed to darker spheres; the rape of Dr. Melfi, probably the most vivid and graphic screen portrayal of any rape; and the killing of a twenty year-old pregnant woman by the series’ most disturbing character.

Season 4 went even further, although it’s difficult to say what creator David Chase or his fellow executive producers sought to express through this sinister slant. There was dismemberment, decapitation, and other unnecessarily violent moments which were superfluous in proving how dangerous and perturbed our, strange as it sounds, beloved Tony Soprano was.

But the problem was not even the huge scale of violence, which was frankly one of the major reasons a certain brand of people watched the show, while being for others something they were simply accustomed to. In seasons 4 and 5 The Sopranos lost both its humour and its quality of good single episode story arcs. For some reason we were invited to view an entire episode about how Mafia boss Johnny Sack took offence at a joke that was made about his wife, and the repercussions of this joke. Another episode focussed almost solely on a disgusting character’s disturbing sexual habits, while Tony’s devoted and beloved wife Carmela unravelled to become an intensely dislikeable, incomprehensible character. We were made to believe that while for the twenty or so years of her marriage to Tony, she had chosen to tolerate his infidelities and love him nonetheless, turning a blind eye to all his faults, she had suddenly fallen in love with Tony’s associate Furio – a man no less violent or immoral – and decided that it was about time Tony learned a lesson by kicking him out, throwing some furniture at him and ending their marriage. Coincidentally she appeared downright hateable next to her murderous husband, who was the real victim in the eyes of a viewer.

Season 5 regained some of its intriguing storylines, but delved deeper and deeper into humourless gloom. This time, however, it wasn’t so much the violence – which decreased in season 5, so much as a hoard of pretentious pointless scenes and sequences. The episode “The Test Dream”, for example, took us along a path of Tony’s deepest fears… except that it was unclear just what these fears were. We saw him sit in a restaurant with wife Carmela alongside their daughter Meadow and her fiancé Finn, except that for some reason Finn’s parents were played by Annette Bening and an actor who’d portrayed a former character, and Tony kept losing his teeth. They all spoke about chamber choirs and bands, and then Meadow was replaced by Tony’s son Anthony Junior. In another dream that same episode, his high school sports coach came to him and reprimanded him. The dream sequence continued with Tony’s ex-lover Gloria psychoanalysing him in Dr. Melfi’s office, and finally concluded, at last, with the message that he had to kill his cousin Tony Blundetto.

But, as so many critics and viewers have asked, what was the point of all these dreams? Creator David Chase argued they were subtle and artistic. In the season 2 finale “Funhouse”, indeed they were; every dream in that episode had its own particular narrative purpose, as well as entertaining flair, nonsensical humour and splendid dialogue. In “The Test Dream”, on the other hand, not only did the dreams seem to occupy most of the episode, but most of them resulted in no dramatic change – either to the plot or to the characters.

Although The Sopranos recovered greatly in season 6, part 1, where Tony was shot by his Uncle Junior, with a beautiful series of dream sequences across the two episodes in which he was comatose, it ended on an ambiguous note, alienating a lot of its devoted fans. Lovers of the show felt personally offended when the series ended, after eight years, with… nothing. Tony sat in a restaurant. Although many arguments have been made that he was about to get killed, either then, tomorrow or sometime thereafter, the atmosphere wasn’t particularly tense. The final episode revolved around Tony’s son A.J. deciding to go into the military, then his car blowing up, then Tony’s colleague Paulie being frightened of a ginger cat, then Tony’s son A.J. deciding not to go to the military. It wasn’t anything spectacular. We were also told that one of Tony’s associates was ready to testify to the FBI, but had no idea whether this would mean that Tony would face prison or that he would simply – as he usually did- ‘take care of’ the poor guy.

But it was creator David Chase’s casual attitude to the execution of the ending – rather than its plot, which most irked its viewers. It appeared to be a deliberate message to its spectators that the show had been meaningless, that all those unresolved story arcs had also been meaningless, and, as Chase later said in an interview with TV critic Brett Martin when asked whether life had a meaning, “Is there a purpose, you mean? Everything I have to say about that is in the show. Go look at Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. It’s all there: Life seems to have no purpose but we have to go on behaving as though it does.” All very well as a personal philosophical doctrine – but not very good when fed to the television public, who are more interested in the fact that they’ve invested hours and years of their time in a series, and care much more about their favourite characters’ destinies than they do about Chase’s own views on life and its meaning.

Next week Sophia considers The West Wing.

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