I’ve been slowly rewatching The Sopranos, having last watched it as it aired 10+ years ago. It’s fascinating seeing it again not only through more mature eyes (I was in high school and college back then) but now in context with how much television has changed since it began.
As a teenager, I mainly cared about the plot - who was gonna get killed next, when will the “war” between NY and NJ occur, what happened to the Russian, etc. I appreciated the commentary on upper-middle class life, Tony’s psychotherapy, and his relationship with his wife but that was all secondary to the mafia part of the story. I now realize how little of the showtime is actually devoted to the mafia plot (varies from 50% to as little as 20% depending on the episode) and how much stronger the other aspects were.
All those dumb mafia plotlines and cliffhangers that enamored me before is what took over “prestige” television. Meanwhile, from season 2 onward the show decided to reject the entire concept of “plot.” Each season has its arcs, but the show overall is incredibly episodic. They rarely have cliffhangers. Most episodes tell a story to completion. A major character may die, Tony’s marraige may have a large setback, but eventually things revert to a band-aided status quo. This goes back to the show’s incredibly pessimisstic philosophy: people are resistent to change, we choose comfort over what is best for us/our family/the world. (I like comparing that philsophy to it’s sister shows, Deadwood and The Wire – Deadwood says people can better themselves if they work together as a community, The Wire says people usually want to better themselves but the system doesn’t allow for it)
Despite the pessimism, the show is probably the most entertaining TV drama ever. Most scenes have at least one funny remark and the full-blown comedic scenes are hilarious. Most of the actors are fun to watch. The cinematography and editing can be as good and clever as the best movies. The commentary on America circa early 2000s is insightful. The use of music is great. On top of all this, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco give the two of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
It’s depressing how such an intelligent show ushered in some “golden age of television” when all of it’s apparent successors have been regressions in maturity(besides The Wire, Deadwood and apparently Mad Men though I haven’t watched it). They learned all the wrong lessons. Just like teenage me, they like the “big sweeping plotlines”, the gore and gritty realism, the shocking character deaths, the tension of the penultimate episode of the season and just copied those ideas without having anything interesting or entertaining to say. I don’t know if this is because the showrunners are much younger or due to network interference (they now have a formula to make a “critically acclaimed” show). It could also be that televison isn’t naturally suited to telling a clean plot (as the filmmakers are committing to 30+ hours to tell a story, which is way more than necessary). You can either work around this by rejecting plot altogether (as The Sopranos did) or lead the audience on with cliffhanger after cliffhanger. It makes we wonder of some alternate timeline of 2000s/2010s television that learned more lessons from The Sopranos and less lessons from Lost. Which gets me to…
I’ve also been watching Westworld, which is yet another prestige drama that is fumbling its way to success by being competent. I guess eventually the show will have something to say about emerging artificial intelligence (though it seems to be getting awfully close to the same story as Ex Machina). Meanwhile it’s falling for same trap as Lost, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and its peers: it thinks cliffhangers and monologues of deep thoughts are entertaining enough to pull the viewer along. It wouldn’t hurt if shows like this were a little fun or took their characters a little more seriously than conduits to advance the plot to the next mystery.