UPDATE: Matt Zoller Seitz agrees with me: The Wire gets it.
It’s a curious thing to watch a popular show long after it’s done. For one, there are fewer people to talk to, and the ones with whom you can will barely remember individual episodes and subtle moments. TV, and serialized TV especially, has too much narrative.
But there are benefits, hindsight chief among them. The Sopranos changed television and spawned many offspring, it is often said.
How does The Sopranos hold up for someone who saw it after Mad Men, Justified, Boardwalk Empire, Six Feet Under, The Tudors, Sons of Anarchy, etc., or, basically, every critically acclaimed cable drama of the last ten years?
In most areas, it still outshines them all, but the post-Sopranos moment also reveals the (few) limits of the canonical show.
The Sopranos, Post-Wire
I had the strange fate of having seen that other acclaimed series, The Wire, before the mob hit. I loved The Wire so much I thought there was no way The Sopranos could top it. But I couldn’t make those judgments until I’d given the first show a fair hearing.
So which came out on top? I’m sticking with The Wire. Why? The Wire isn’t “better,” in the simplistic sense. It’s different, but the right kind of different for me.
The Sopranos has it beat in a number of areas: it’s more influential; its individual episodes are often stronger and more tightly constructed; its characters more complex, more worthy of prolonged discussion; it is also more daring in terms of storytelling — dream episodes (which I didn’t like, by the way), dark comedy, tragedy, it has it all. The series took a narrative subject — the mob — did it in a completely new way, bringing to down to earth, and then, making it soar higher than it ever had.
Kudos. But The Wire excels as a complete work, start to finish. It is, famously, novelistic — better than Dickens, some say. More importantly, The Wire‘s story did something neither television nor film has really been able to do completely: give a relatively holistic picture of a society’s institutions and how they work to (not) produce change. That’s a bigger question than the Sopranos, and one almost entirely without precedent. We already knew television was perfect for giving us characters to talk about and wrestle with, for posing moral questions and giving us good stories. The Wire used serialization for a higher calling. It isn’t as artful — or arty, perhaps — but it had a more expansive and socially relevant mission.
So I think it’s more accomplished, but I understand the comparison is futile: both series have different goals.
The Sopranos, Post-Antihero
At first it was hard to get into the series. After so many cable shows with white dude anti-heros, Tony’s mercurial nature — lovable, violent, childish, psychotic, unfaithful, faithful — seemed too familiar.
Very familiar. Indeed people don’t talk enough about how much a series like Mad Men is indebted to The Sopranos, narratively, thematically, structurally. Yes, everyone did at first; it was easy given the Weiner connection. But the connections are boundless: even the “big question” (“Who is Don Draper?” vs. “Who is Tony Soprano?” is the same. Ditto for Boardwalk Empire, though since it’s not as good as either series, fewer people care.)
All the post-Sopranos cable dramas add something to the mix, though. For Mad Men, it adds a greater sensitivity to history and culture, better female characters (see comments for more explanation) and an even more demanding pace. Ditto for Boardwalk Empire. Shows like Breaking Bad, Damages and Lights Out are more lean and more focused on the consequences and social ramifications of professional achievement (boxing, drug-dealing). Damages and Nurse Jackie make their anti-heros women (and in some ways harder to understand). And changes of scenery are always nice, from the deserted west coast of Sons of Anarchy to the historical glamor of Tudors‘ England.
The cable landscape has in many cases graduated from The Sopranos, taking the liberty of crafting challenging characters and complex story lines to new places. It took me until season four to truly fall in love with the mafia show (my favorite episodes were the Christopher Columbus one, a brilliant satire on identity politics, and the HUD scam one, a telling fable on failures of generational change).
Still, however, of all the anti-heros, Tony Soprano is still the greatest, the perfect concoction of villain, victim and lovable stranger. As a stranger to himself, Tony is an ideal case study for how individuals can separate what they do (murder, corruption, racism, etc.) from who they are. Tony does grow throughout the series, but by how much? Towards the end, the series seriously asks viewers to consider whether Tony really is a sociopath, through Dr. Melfi and a real-life psychological study. It’s an important question, and a daring one. The series writers really gave Tony enough rope to hang himself, what with the death of Chris and any number of other men he betrayed or killed. Yes, Tony loves his family (that kind of violence would cross the line, for almost all TV shows) but he’s a depressive in the wrong business.
Of course, the real point of the show isn’t so much whether Tony is a good or bad, but whether his environment — the mob — is pushing him in all the wrong directions. In fact, the mob pushes everyone in the wrong direction. Nearly all the characters are easily detestable for their connection to violence, corruption and exploitation. Is it the people or the mob? The Sopranos takes the anti-hero’s troubles and expands it to question his entire social circle, family and professional environment. (Sidebar: what it does not do sufficiently, which The Wire does, is suggest more strongly that the poison of the mob is only rectified by an outside moral force: government, by either decreasing or increasing regulation).
The Sopranos, “The End”
I’m too late to really discuss many of the plot details of the show — everyone’s stopped caring (though I have to say the Chris and Adriana story lines broke my heart like crazy).
But there is the issue of “the end”!
Tens of thousands of words have been written on the series’ last scene. So I can’t top that. I will say I agree with the theory that Tony dies. Throughout the entire last scene, which is edited like a piece of video art by the way, we’re seeing Tony’s perspective. The screen goes black, as does his vision, so he must be dead by the “guy in the members-only jacket.” Given the themes of the show, it seems to make sense, though of course that’s not the only reading. (And, hey, Meadow, learn to parallel park! You live in Jersey!).
My partner, Derek McPhatter, though, has an interesting take on end. He says the writers, unlike that of The Wire, were pioneers and didn’t know The Sopranos would grow to become “the greatest show of all time.” David Simon had a master plan for The Wire, but The Sopranos writers were burdened by excessive hype and probably faltered under its weight. A crazy ambiguous ending is great if the series is crazy and ambiguous, but none of the other episodes ended like that. It was just too arty — like TV edited by Christian Marclay or Bill Viola — for a series that ultimately gave you conclusions you could grapple with, if not fully understand.
But no series is, in the end, perfect. It is better to ambitious and fail, than safe and satisfactory.
There’s much more to say about The Sopranos, but I’ll leave that to the many books and courses to come!