Reflections after yet another Sopranos rewatch

This summer, we have been rewatching The Sopranos (my third time, The Girlfriend’s second). We just finished season five last night, and some thoughts have been percolating.

  • It’s striking how much both of the “offspring” (Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire) of Sopranos are riffing off Tony’s general story arc. Don Draper is a rising star in a powerful industry with a blonde wife, a penchant for adultery, and some serious issues to process from his childhood. Nucky Thompson is a man in a high position that many view as unearned and — in an echo of Steve Buscemi’s “Tony B.” plot — that only resulted from a happenstance event that allowed him to take the reins from the “real” boss.
  • The mafia isn’t the only dying institution portrayed on The Sopranos — talk therapy is also living out its afterlife. In both cases, drugs are eroding the dying institution’s prestige by breaking down its traditional practices. And though this theme is more submerged, I think we can draw a parallel between the corporate world (which the mafia can’t touch, as in the episode where Paulie is so pissed that Italians didn’t create Starbucks) and the rise of cognitive-behavioral therapy, anger management, etc. Christopher’s experience with 12-step programs is a little harder to place in this perspective — perhaps it’s just meant as a parallel to Tony’s talk therapy, in that both methods ultimately prove to be incompatible with the mafia lifestyle.
  • Anyone longing for a return to the gift economy should put that idea on hold until they watch The Sopranos. They deploy gifts and generosity almost instinctively as a way of creating a feeling of obligation and complicity in the people they’re targetting. Often they transition seamlessly from generosity to threats, almost as if the gift is necessary to get their claws in initially.
  • They are much more devoted to the traditional episode structure than many later “prestige” dramas. Events that I remember extending over half a season often turn out to be compressed into a single episode, and the discipline of having A and B plots with parallel themes is pretty faithfully observed. I imagine this would make Sopranos a better fit for syndication (or just randomly “dipping in”) than other members of the “prestige” genre it helped spawn.
  • Finally, it seems to me that basically everything that 2000s-vintage “prestige” drama wanted to do is already being done in The Sopranos: charismatic anti-heroes, careful attention to a very specific milieu, subtle but persistent meta-commentary on American society as a whole, more “cinematic” ambition and experimentalism (I don’t think any show does dream sequences as convincingly), riskier performances (for a whole season, Carmella is apparently all but silent and completely passive, but her feelings consistently surface in the dialogue of those around her), etc., etc. Talking with a friend about what “counted” as canonical “Golden Age of Television,” I joked that if I kept getting more and more strict, the entire genre would eventually consist of the Sopranos pilot.
  • A funny meta-element: the first major TV show to aspire to the level of artistry of film focuses on people who quite literally model themselves after movie characters.

Anyway, I think it’s a pretty good show.

10 thoughts on “Reflections after yet another Sopranos rewatch

  1. Didn’t know about those theologians. Worth noting that Mauss’s discussion of the conversion of wealth/power into prestige via the gift happens in the context of a non-state society (or, at least, one with an extremely minimal state). The Sopranos clearly isn’t taking place in such a context (but cf Tilly on state as organized crime), which is why the mob is more freely able to use violence in conjunction with gifts. There’s a big difference between Tony’s violent coercion and the passive aggressive coercive of “primitive” gift exchange. Short version: you want gift economy, get rid of the state (but read Clastres and Sahlins first!).

  2. As so often occurs, your opinion is extremely idiosyncratic. I’m not really talking about the intrinsic quality of the shows in any case, but about the widespread consensus that there was something distinctive about the shows that grew out of HBO’s early 2000s original programming — as exemplified by The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, to name the most indisputably “canonical” Golden Age of Television shows. Whether this is fair or not, Generation Kill is at best a marginal footnote in that discussion.

  3. I’m trying to disrupt the discussion. Not this discussion in particular, but the non-acknowledgment by the taste-makers of the sheer genius of Generation Kill. Brad Colbert is a better McNulty. Q-Tip a better Herc *and* Carver. Person a better Ziggy (who remains the best character in The Wire and played by the same actor). Rudy is sheer sui generis. Great stuff.

  4. Sopranos will, forever, be for me: “HMO:you’re covered!”, the ducks, and half-wits debating the relative merits of “Neetch” vs. Kierkegaard.

  5. Likely. Originally I didn’t watch it because the commercials for it made Ziggy/Person seem absolutely intolerable (which he is), but Evan Wright’s book and the series are two of the best documents on early twenty-first century warfare. It benefits from being a defined mini-series unlike, say, The Wire. The Wire didn’t do “open world” well. Game of Thrones does “open world” well. The Wire tried to do too much. I haven’t watched The Sopranos in years, so can’t say more than I have—ducks, Neetch, HMO—but Generation Kill is definitely Simon’s masterpiece.

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