We all remember the violence and betrayal, but for me, it is now the throwaway Sopranos Scenes that confirm its genius.
I was recently trying to list my ten favourite TV series of all time for my blog “EnglishmanlovesAmeria”. At number one I immediately put down The Sopranos. It was almost a reflex. Then I felt guilty.
“Nope. Far too lazy a choice. Everyone thinks that. Put down something more obscure instead, make yourself seem interesting”.
I thought it would be easy. But nothing would come. The other shows on my list were all outstanding classics. HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, “I Claudius” from the BBC. I went through these and seven others desperately trying to make a case for each to be number one.
But none of them could usurp the New Jersey saga of violence and psychology that first aired in 1999. In the end, I decided it was a falsehood to try to replace it simply because it was an “obvious” choice. It may be a cliché that “The Sopranos” is so good. But it’s a cliche for a reason.
It is the only series I can watch over and over and see something new every time. The subtleties of the plot and dialogue are better precisely because I now know the outcomes. Like all adolescent boys when I first viewed it, it was the brutality that excited me. Now it is the non-violent scenes that fascinate me. I see characters much differently to how I did all those years ago.
A damaged child armed with a Smith and Wesson
Vin Makazian the corrupt cop who longs for the respect of Tony Soprano I perceive now, not as an unethical jerk, but more compassionately as a damaged child armed with a Smith and Wesson. Vin was once a good guy but is now a broken husk of a man, raging under the weight of his “degenerate” gambling habit. In lesser shows, his character development would have been left at just that.
However, we are shown that this is not a man without morals. He sneers at Soprano’s suggestion that he takes advantage of the bordello whores. The madam recognises him as a lost small boy. Tony never does.
The scene in which he is explaining how he hid under his bed to escape his abusive father is both heartbreaking and revealing. He longs for the approval and acceptance of Tony Soprano. Tony is his esteem shattering father.
In the end, his suicide is not an act of cowardice but the last honourable action of a man struggling to maintain the crumbling remnants of his self-respect. His final act of defiance is to proudly put on his police badge before making the fatal jump.
A lesser writer would not have bothered with any of this, would have created Vin merely as a character to move the plot forward. But the writer Frank Renzulli disdained using him as a mere one-dimensional plot mechanism. Vin only appeared in a handful of episodes in season one, but his character has an impact out of all proportion to those few appearances. This was the genius of “The Sopranos”. There were no wooden or wasted characters.
Even the extras got great writing!
When the Soprano matriarch Livia dies, the wake is held at Tony’s house. Much to the disgust of the family Janice monopolises the gathering and turns it into a self-centred party game in which she foists on everyone her unwanted and egocentric soliloquy. Now I had watched this episode countless times. But only on my last viewing did I notice a further example of the care and dedication put into this programme.
Just before Janice is giving her mawkish speech, an extra playing a family mourner walks down the stairs behind her, apparently having been to the bathroom. He sees Janice has gathered the congregation in a “circle of doom”, and silently creeps back up the stairs in avoidance of the embarrassingly awkward assembly. Blink and you miss it. It is a brilliant throwaway gag, and the kind of pathos pricking black humour that has never been surpassed by a T.V. Show since.
You can never escape “this business of ours”
Finally perhaps my favourite scene of all. It features Vito Spatafore, the closet gay mobster who flees Jersey in a forlorn attempt to live a regular life.
At first, it all goes so well: the boyfriend, the antique collecting, the small town clapboard serenity. But the scene of Vito at work reveals how his mobster lifestyle has corrupted any chance of him ever pursuing a “normal” life.
Vito is working as a handyman, the dull winter weather echoing his mood as his overdubbed narration counts down the minutes to his tedious day. It vividly relates the ennui that now fills his life. He saws wood, he bangs nails, all the time wishing away every monotonous minute. A hired killer whos most significant thrill is now his lunchtime sandwiches and the delayed anticipation of looking at his watch.
We have all done it at some time in our lives. We have all shared that boredom with Vito. All of us have had that same internal monologue.
“Don’t look at your watch. Not yet. Save it”
“Eleven thirty. Has to be. Look at the angle of the sun.”
Boy, I miss this show!