Ironically, the show hardly entered my consciousness during its run because I refused to pay for HBO and because I do not watch crime dramas. But when, at its conclusion, The New Yorker dubbed The Sopranos “the richest achievement in the history of television,” I got hooked on its DVDs.
I was a young girl living in India when I attempted to read Mario Puzo’sGodfather. Yet, something about the book left an impression. Perhaps it was the suspense, the anticipation of terror and death, the dark side of human nature displayed in all its glory.
Eventually I saw the movie on American television. And twenty-five years later, crossing the New Jersey turnpike last April, I recalled the scene of Sonny’s assassination vividly.
While The Godfather is dark and bloody and almost too serious to be true, The Sopranos, with its humorous yet twisted characters and witty dialogue, rings authentic. A cinematic masterpiece, Sopranos weaves together all of the ingredients of today’s society in a complicated tapestry of Americana. There is greed, ambition, power play, business strategy, corruption, and the resulting tragedies in all their glory. And, most importantly, there are women who have no power whatsoever.
Which brings me to the inner conflict I’ve been having with television’s “richest achievement.” The Sopranos is so misogynistic that I wonder how the producers managed to get accolades year after year without a peep from feminists.
There is Tony’s wife, Carmela, who has been hailed as a great mother and wife, but whom I find the most dislikable of all. She has the power to change things but won’t. Instead, whenever Tony brings her a designer cocktail dress, a fur coat, or a stunning piece of jewelry, she routinely obliges him with sex in return, choosing to ignore the blood that has literally been shed to acquire her accoutrements. And she conveniently turns a blind eye to the series of “goomahs” —mistresses—and prostitutes with whom he dallies.
Then there is Tony’s sister, who wants to replace Tony with her boyfriend as the boss of the “family” and eventually ends up killing her fiancé in a domestic dispute.
There are also the goomahs: clingy, needy, unbalanced women who look up to Tony as if he were God leading them on a path to salvation.
There are the dancers in the strip club, too, who satisfy the gangsters’ every whim, even pine for relationships with them, and eventually pay a heavy price; some even die in the bargain.
And then there is the psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, who, week after week, inculcates in Tony the idea that the women in his life, starting with his mother, are the cause of his evil deeds. Freud initiated the cult of “mother blame,” but The Sopranoscarries the cliché to such extremes that one begins to wonder if the show’s satirical intent is to make us all aware of the traps its female characters create for themselves.
It is this very satire that makes me watch tape after tape, I suppose. As Tony blames an Indian restaurant’s chicken vindaloo for his food poisoning, I cringe from the edge of my sofa, only to realize that creator David Chase is trying to expose the intrinsic racism of America.
The most interesting segments of the show happen when Tony struggles with his business strategy, quoting Machiavelli’s Prince and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. “It is better to be feared than to be liked,” he says in one scene. In another episode, Uncle Junior advises him, “You steer the ship the best way you know how. Sometimes, you are smooth-sailing; other times, you hit into rocks.” I find their words reassuring because I, too, have to make daily decisions in my job about whether to metaphorically “clip someone” or to work with them.
People watch the show because they relate to the Greek tragedy unfolding in front of their eyes. There is friendship, love, need, transference, insecurity, and sheer stupidity. There are people who are stuck in a certain lifestyle because they don’t know anything else. And then there is the suspense, as you wait to find out who will get “whacked” next. But there is something more at work here. My guess is that The Sopranos has been so popular because audiences have found in the show a metaphor for the greed, the backstabbing, and the immorality of American society today.
I, like many film lovers, find the show to be nearly the best thing ever recorded on film. The writing is funny, minimal, punchy, and colloquial, all at the same time. The acting of the main characters has been called Shakespearean. But most of all, it is hard to recall another TV show in which every frame has been lyrically composed, and every season moves along a smooth arc of tension and suspense and resolves itself in such a surrealistic crescendo of revelation, betrayal, and tragedy that one is left breathless. There are no patched-up happy endings here, no formulaic, Hollywood or Bollywood storylines, no celluloid pseudo-reality. Instead, each season reveals a deeper stratum of human nature, so dark and yet so true that one is forced to ponder life’s eternal questions one more time.
|Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found atwww.saritasarvate.com|