Friday, September 26, 2014

The Sopranos 1.4: “Meadowlands”

Airdate: 1/31/99

Nephew Christoper, in a neck brace, complains to Tony what ostensibly Uncle Junior did to him, so Tony talks turkey with the man, and ultimately decides to make him “real” boss after Jackie’s death from cancer. Tony also develops feelings for Melfi, and has her followed by a detective, who overzealously pulls her over in a fake DUI stop and beats the dickens out of her boyfriend. Son A.J. unknowingly gets a school bully to back down; he realizes what dad does for a living when Meadow informs him that’s why he won the school fight.

We finally get a watchable episode, at least in terms of plot – but the characters are no more likable and their dialogue still annoyingly quippy. (Ever notice how no one thinks about their words on these kinds of shows?) This is still a problem, particularly with Tony, whose panic attacks and anxiety elicit no sympathy due to his completely feckless behavior (this week, we get to see him staple a guy’s chest with an industrial staple gun). Also in this episode, we see the son, AJ, get into a couple of fights at school (where, apparently there is no adult supervision whatsoever), and then face his bully out on the playground. The bully backs down – not ­because he has learned the error of his pugilistic ways, but because he (apparently) knows what his nemesis’ father does for a living. Once again, the show displays its cynical colors by taking a potentially sweet situation and turning it ugly in all shades of brown, black and blood red.

On the topic of incredulity, why doesn’t Melfi end her role as Tony’s psychiatrist after figuring out it was he who hired the cop to rough up her boyfriend? It makes zero sense for her to continue, knowing her life and well-being could be in danger.

Rating: **

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Sopranos 1.3: “Denial, Anger, Acceptance”

Airdate: 1/24/99

Christopher and Brendan return one of the trucks from the previous episode, but the latter is still not sitting so well with the family. Tony tries to help a Hassidic Jew by teaching his spousally-absive son-in-law a lesson (the boy also tries to cut in on the hotel business – I think – this part is very confusing). He can’t quite crush the spirit of the young Jew, until he decides castration might be the way to go. Meantime Carmela host a fundraiser at the house, but offends her friend, Charmaine, by treating her like a maid, instead of just temporary help. Apparently Charmaine gets her vengeance by confessing to Carmela that she and Tony slept together. And Brendan gets whacked by Junior in the end, in the form of a bullet through the eye.

Once again, the psychiatric sessions are the best part of the show (particularly when a painting incites another one of Tony’s furious walk-out), and the scenes involving the business are incomprehensible and boring, The plot involving the Hassidic Jews and the motel are pretty Anti-Semetic; it’s not just the characters being so – the show romanticizes their behavior, so it also embraces their ignorance. (The scene of the “boys” visiting Jackie, the cancer patient, is particularly ugly, as is Tony’s idea to castrate the Jew when he won’t talk.)

And this time, Meadow, Tony’s daughter joins in – she tries to score some meth from Christopher – now her insolence is matched with criminal behavior, just for good measure. Add to that an ironic crosscutting finale that rips off the “War of the Families” sequence from The Godfather and you just a have a plain old unpleasant time.

Goof: Meadow’s friend references Glassboro Stare College – it hadn’t been called that since 1992, when they renamed it Rowan University.

Rating:  *

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Sopranos 1.2: “46 Long”

Airdate: 1/17/99

Easier to split this and future recaps into separate plotlines, of which there are usually 4 or 5 per episode.

Tony’s nephew and his pal hijack trucks, but those of a line protected by Tony’s uncle. Tony’s pissed; he doesn’t like the friend, Brendan, especially after he botches another hijacking of a truck carrying Italian suits, in which the driver is killed accidentally. Tony’s son’s teacher gets his car stolen, so Tony arranges to have his henchman locate the thieves and get it back. It’s already been carved up for spare parts, so they get a new one, although the teacher does notice the wet paint. Tony’s mom still refuses to go to a retirement center, but after insulting the black live-in assistant and running down her friend with a car, she is forced to go by her doctor. Dr. Mefi warns Tony denying the anger he has for his mother, and her warnings are validated when he beats the daylights out of his strip-bar employee for not knowing how to use the phone, in a classic case of anger displacement.

Sopranos’ second episode is better than its first (it couldn’t be worse), but not by a whole lot. Tony’s neuroses are further explored in a clinical and artistic way, and just like before the scenes with Dr. Melfi are the most interesting ones. Less so, again, are the boring, confusing moments with the mobsters, who are just plain unsavory. One subplot, involving the tracking down of gay car thieves, is disturbingly homophobic; a surprise, given HBO’s well-known status as a gay-friendly network. Tony’s mom continues to be interesting, although her stubbornness is getting less and less appealing – it would help if we get a glimmer of why she’s like this (a la Lost In Yonkers), to assuage some of her prickliness.

Prescription: Explain more, slow down, focus on emotion, verisimilitude.

Rating:  **

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Sopranos 1.1: “The Sopranos”

Airdate: 1/10/99

Tony Soprano has his first session with a pychiatrist named Jennifer Melfi, and we learn it to be a referral by his physician after a panic attack. Guardedly, he tells her his line is in “waste management” and only hints at his involvement with the mob, but she evidently suspects it by laying down the confidentiality ground rules, and he possibility that she might break them to get more out of him. He continues on about his beef with his uncle, preist (and his wife’s shady relationship with him), daughter Meadow, and nephew Christopher, whom he is grooming to be in the family “business.” (We see the two try to rough-up a guy who owes them money, but Tony winds up running him over with his car.) Later in the episode Christopher entraps a Czech guy, ostensibly a member of a rival family in the garbage business, and murders him. He buries the body in a lake, apparently at the suggestion of a dude named “Big Pussy.”

Another thorn in Tony’s side: a proposed hit on a turncoat named “Little Pussy”may jeopardize the Italian restaurant where the hit is supposed to take place. The proprieter, Artie, refuses to accept two airline tickets to close the place, so Tony blows the joint up, hoping that the insurance money will take care of things (not sure how; this is never explained). Nephew Christopher, in the final scene, feels a bit disenfranchised from the business when he claims he never gets due credit. Tony allays his despair, even though he’s a bit concerned over his nephew’s screenwriting aspirations. And Dr. Melfi uncovers the source of Tony’s breakdown when she inteprets the duck family flying away as his longing for a “normal” family of his own, something he decidedly does not have. Final shot: empty pool.

Pilot episode for the famed HBO series has a dynamite first ten minutes… and then goes downhill, fast. Quiet introspective moments, poignant dialogue and the possibility of a genuinely profound character study of Tony Soprano are all dashed in deference to an overplotted, overedited attempt to emulate Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese, at least in his ealy work, knew the importance of breathing room. Sure, he had the 50’s/60’s soundtrack, yes, he had the jolty bursts of violence, and the whirlwind introduction to the ethnic, familial characters. But his films were never fragmented – they were focused, focused with an intensity and intimacy on his characters so that you could identify with them. The Sopranos takes a kitchen sink approach, hoping something will stick. Very little does.

Also, there’s a key error in structure here. The first half of the show is Tony’s therapy session, in which he flashes back to the events leading up to his collapse. But it would have to come from his memory – there can’t be other things – such as his wife’s AK-47 surprise for her daughter, or his nephew’s drug deal hit. Writer/director David Chase is just using this to start telling his story, which continues after the therapy session ended. As such, it’s a bit confusing (and this show sure doesn’t need any help in that department).

Are the good things? Yes – I did enjoy some of Tony’s musings to his therapist about how the “business” has changed, about his parents’ relationship, and about his past in general – always a good side-topic when the subject is melancholia. There’s the symbolism with the pool ducks, and one can interpret that any way he or she pleases. And Tony’s mother Livia, played by Nancy Marchand, is truly believable; she could indeed be anyone’s mother, complete with overcautiousness about everything. There’s a great scene in which they take her to a nursing home, and her fears about going are palpable. But the scenes ends abruptly with Tony’s second attack, and any sort of emotion is cut off. (Near the end, we get a scene in which we assume Tony’s uncle sprung her out, but we’re missing the key connective scene in which her departure from the home is dealt with.) This represents the pattern of “The Sopranos”: any time a moment of depth arises, usually relating to Tony’s inner demons or family, it shuttles to a moment of sheer boredom, usually involving his mafiosos and henchmen.

Why so boring? These scenes are just actors jabbering away their lines at each other; bad enough in a lightweight show, but this is information-heavy dialogue, so they need to be consumed and digested by the viewer to extract meaning. Imagine a film like The Manchurian Candidate in which the pace is twice is fast and the dialogue half as coherent. It wouldn’t be informative, it wouldn’t be effective – and it just wouldn’t be enjoyable.

And neither is “The Sopranos” pilot – the amount of work necessary to follow it is almost never rewarded with any kind of payoff, emotional or dramatic, or clarity to help fit the loose pieces together. Will it get better?  Pleassse, let it get better; we have a long way to go!

Rating:  *

Monday, September 22, 2014

I’m from New Jersey, but…

I’ve never seen The Sopranos. Let me just put that out there before you later discover my residence and wonder why I’ve never seen the show that forever linked the Garden State with organized crime, at least in the mainstream mindset. It premiered in 1999, when I was busy with my (first) career, and I didn’t have HBO. But more than that I wasn’t diggin’, and still don’t, the type of programming the networks started developing in the mid-90s: polished, scene-less, clever-dialogue-heavy shows with lotsa shock value and little emotional connection to the characters.

Prejudging? I don’t think so. I could be wrong, or I could have changed. Or maybe I just wasn’t giving the show, or other shows of its ilk, a fair shake. So here comes the next show of the Rocket: The Sopranos. It ran for six seasons, but bear in mind that cable seasons are much shorter than network ones, so the total episode count is 86. Not a whole lot to set up here, so I’ll skip the lengthy introductions. Suffice to say, here we go! Thinkin’ about clicking to another blog? Fugghetaboutit!!! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

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