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:  *

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