Sunday, 6 December 2009

Sublime Screenplay (1) The Sopranos

From the very first episode, my husband and I loved The Sopranos. We never fell by the wayside, as we did with Lost, Heroes and the like, loving it so much that we were prepared to follow it into the inexplicably late BBC2 scheduling, put up with the gaps in transmission and gradually fill our shelves with the box sets as each series was complete. When it came to an end, we were desolate (until we discovered The Wire that is). But now, two years after the series finished, we find ourselves dipping into the box sets and still being entranced by the stories, no matter how familiar they are. So what is it about this particular TV Series, that always draws us back in (no matter how many times we think we are out)?

Like all good TV it starts with the screenplay.  David Chase and his team of fine writers  have created a world, a set of characters, a story that we can believe in. The directors, actors and producers, put flesh on it - and in this case, the cast are all terrific, and the direction superb -but they'd be nothing without the words.

There are several features of the Sopranos that make it stand out above the crowd and I'd like to take a moment to highlight a few of them.

1.The situation.

The genius of the Sopranos lies in its premise. Tony Soprano (the wonderful James Gandolfini) is your average working class American made good. He has a wife, two teenage children who drive him crazy, an elderly mother, and as we open the show, he is suffering from panic attacks due to an apparent mid-life crisis. A man who wonders what happened to the "strong silent type" is forced to face up to his emotions by going to therapy. So far, so normal, except that of course, Tony Soprano is anything but. He has another family - the Mafia - his whole existence is based on a life of violence and crime. It is this that makes the show stand out. We are naturally drawn to Tony - we sympathise with his problems, we admire his struggle to be a good father, we are concerned by the state of his marriage, and yet he does unspeakable things, again and again and again. The duality of good and evil in one person, the question of whether he will be redeemed, the fact that Tony is like us in so many ways, makes for absolutely compelling TV, and from episode 1, we are hooked.

2. Recurring stories.

The Sopranos is very strong on narrative, and not only that, on repeated narratives. Time and time again, we see the same story, but told in a different way to keep it fresh. Here's a sample:

Young Turk Rising - In Series 1, this is all about Tony and his nephew, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli - a standout performance). Tony is constantly frustrated with Christopher's unreliability, Christopher with Tony's lack of trust. Christopher wants more responsibility, but Tony (rightly) feels he lacks commitment and focus. This one never completely goes away - and the Tony/Christopher relationship is pivotal to the whole show - but by Series 2, Christopher has settled down and is rising up the organisation and has people under him. Ironically, now it is Christopher who feels the burden of mentoring two young men. They too are impatient for power and glory and gradually spiral out of control, with tragic results. By Series 3, another young man comes into the frame, the son of Tony's oldest friend, the deceased mob boss Jackie Aprile. The twist on this version is that Tony promised his friend to keep young Jackie out of the business, but is powerless to stop him, and when he comes under the wing of the slimy Ralph Cifaretto, we know there's a disaster waiting to happen. The final version of the story is Antony Junior, Tony's son. Unlike the other young men, AJ is not reckless, aggressive or bold, yet his inability to stay at college, or hold down a job, leads him to drift. There is always a risk he will end up in Tony's world, though Tony continues to make efforts to prevent this right to the very end.

Respect Your Elders - Series 1 centres on Tony's relationships with his mother, Livia, and his uncle, Junior (Dominic Chianese). Tony is a good son, but his mother is a mean, manipulative, depressive (a brilliant turn by the late, lamented Nancy Marchand) who drives everyone away but Tony whom she treats abysmally. She's the only person who can do this without being killed, because she's his mother and has his utter respect, whatever she does. Junior was one of Tony's mentors when young ( a mirror of the Christopher/Tony relationship), but in old age he is fractious and petty, with a tendency to see slights where none are intended. He is both a liability and a danger to Tony's business and their relationship is fraught. Tony is torn between his desire to look after his elders, and his struggle to deal with their daily irritations. By the end of the Series he has learnt the truth about his mother, and rejected her, and found a way to control his uncle. In Series 2, Bobby Baccalara, Junior's driver is worried about his sick father, a hitman. Bobby's father has the opportunity for one more hit, which he seizes with relish, but Bobby is desperate for him not to do it, because of the state he is in. A rather extreme version of most people's worries about sick parents. As we move through each Series, Junior and Tony reach an understanding till Junior develops Alzheimers with terrible consequences for Tony. And in Series 6 this story is developed in a different way through Tony's friend Paulie, whose discovery of a family secret causes him to reject the mother who has only ever been loving and kind.

Who Can You Trust?  Trust is at the heart of all Tony's work relationships. Doing business with mafia colleagues, all out for themselves, he has to constantly check he is not being shafted. Protecting himself from the FBI, he has to watch for the friend who has been turned. Being the head of the operation, there is always the risk of rebellion in the ranks. In Series 1, this is played out with the story of Livia and Junior, plotting against Tony. In Series 2, Tony's friend Pussy returns after a brief disappearance, raising questions about whether he is working for the FBI. Richie Aprile, Jackie's brother, comes out of jail, to manage the Aprile crew. He feels passed over in the system, and has a short fuse, but is a great earner - how far can he be relied on? Series 3 and 4 introduce us to Ralphie Cifaretto, who becomes captain of the Aprile crew, another brilliant earner for Tony, but also the most unpleasant character of the whole show. Tony detests him, but needs him, and the question is for how long? In Series 3, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), Christopher's long-suffering girlfriend, is approached by the FBI, will she turn and can she now be trusted? Series 5, sees Tony's cousin, Tony Blundetto return from prison, and try to go straight.  The pivot of this story is that he and Tony are very close, and would do anything for each other. But he, too, has a strong temper - can he be relied on to stay out of the business and not cause Tony any trouble? Finally, in Series 6, yet another captain of the Aprile crew, Vito Spatafore, causes Tony anxiety when it is discovered he is gay. In such an intensely homophobic culture, can Tony give him a pass?

Each of these stories makes sense for the characters involved, and are entrhalling in their own right. But the added beauty of them (except perhaps the FBI stories) is that they could all happen to anyone. Isn't middle age in part about mentoring the next generation? About caring for the older generation? And managing difficult staff problems?

3. Multi-layering.

Another brilliant part of the show, is how multi-layered it is. It consistently works as straight drama but often there are a variety of meanings. For example, a Series 6 episode, The Ride,  tells the story of Tony's men sorting out a local fair in celebration of an Italian saint. There are problems with the church paying enough to them for the event, and so Paulie, Tony's often unreliable colleague, cuts corners. As a result a ride breaks, people are hurt, and Tony is furious. But intercut with this story we see Tony and Christopher seizing on an opportunity to steal some wine, and that Tony enjoys the high he gets from taking this "ride", something that doesn't happen to him much these days. Christopher, who has been on the wagon for two series, falls off dramatically, after drinking some of the stolen wine which leads to him taking a "ride" of heroin.(With thanks to my dearest other half for pointing these connections out).

The series is always good at reflecting modern life subtly. A man trying to convert Tony wears a T shirt protesting about Terry Schiapo, whose life machine was turned off; Tony is confronted with the reality of health insurance when he is in hospital.Christopher works with some people of Arabic extraction, but are they really terrorists?

Another clever aspect of the show is the constant references to other mob stories - Jimmy Cagney movies, Goodfellas, The Godfather - which both remind us of the genre, but also reflect our attitudes to the Mafia. All the characters love to refer to key scenes in these movies, almost as if they are creating a heroic myth about themselves. Whilst the subsidiary characters - the doctors, lawyers, priests on the right side of the law - are all shown to have a ghoulish fascination with both Mafia on screen and in real life, a nice little dig at those Sopranos fans who relish  the blood and guts.

Films are also often used to directly commentate on the action. Thus, when Tony's mother dies, he is watching a Cagney movie, where the son is selfish and the mother loving, a complete reversal of his relationship. When Christopher murders a bent cop, the TV is showing a cop show, where the cops are heroes. Tony likes to suggest he is a soldier, and is often seen watching war movies, as if to emphasise his role as a military leader.

4.Corruption and Complicity.

And then, there's complicity. Within minutes of being introduced to Tony and Christopher we watch them carry out an act of horrifying violence. Though quite tame by the time we reach the end,it is an indication of things to come. We are being invited to participate in the life of a man who commits violence on a regular basis, and as an audience we become complicit.

But it isn't just us. It's everyone who Tony touches. His wife, Carmella (Edie Falco), tries to lead a good life, raising their kids, going to church, doing charity work. But she knows it is built on the back of horrible crimes, which she tries not to think about most of the time. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Tony's therapist, struggles to keep a professional distance with the "moral neverneverland" he inhabits, yet she too is drawn into his world, giving advice on situations, that in her heart of hearts she must know will lead to someone, somewhere being hurt, and in one episode becoming drunk and aggressive herself. Tony's kids don't escape either. Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), an intelligent (if somewhat brattish) teenager, seems to see things clearly at the beginning, though she is happy to use Tony's credit card. As she grows up Tony's behaviour impacts drastically on her life, and after one moment when she could perhaps confront him and walk away, she chooses to stay. From that point on, she like her mother, ignores the basis on which their family life is founded, and by the end is engaged to the son of another mob man. The chances of her staying uncorrupted in the future seem pretty unlikely, particularly when Tony has noted several times how like him she is, and she is developing a career as a lawyer. AJ (Robert Iler) is less forthright than Meadow, and has an ambivalence about the Mafia. It seems glamorous, but he hasn't really got the stomach for it, yet he too enjoys the comforts it brings, and it is hard to see him being able to  break away.

Other pleasures include the wonderful range of characters (I haven't even mentioned Janice, Tony's sister, or Silvio, his right hand man) and the strong sense of humour that runs through it. Christopher's attempts to break into Hollywood are a joy as are the many blackly comic moments when various people are trying to dispose of corpses without attracting attention. And memorable one liners abound:

"Cunnilingus and psychiatry have bought us to this" (Tony on realising there's a hit on him because he mocked someone's sex life)
"Never mess with the Russians" (Tony to Janice who then goes and does exactly that)
"He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians, guy was an interior decorator" (Paulie mishearing Tony on the phone - he killed Chechnyans and was a Russian Green beret)
And of course, "You fat fuck" (everyone to everyone)

That's just a small taste - you can see more here.

Oh, and the ending was so bold that it infuriated and delighted fans in equal measure. So much so, that people are still talking about what it all means. I tend to side with this interpretation, but there are others. I just love the fact that we were made to think right up until the very last minute.
So there you have it, a show that doesn't hide the moral repugnancy of its main character. A show that isn't frightened to depict the true violence of the world it portrays. No matter how stomach churning the various beatings and murders are, there is always a point to them. And a show that isn't afraid to treat its audience as a group of intelligent human beings.

Salut - David Chase - you've created a masterpiece.

Bada Bing!

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