Declan Lynch: Sublime 'Sopranos' never dumbed down
The drama was of such high quality it demanded its audience keep up its standards too.
Published 23/06/2013 | 05:00
Towards the end of an episode in the fourth series of The Sopranos, Tony is driving at night, listening to the sweet sound of the Chi-Lites on the radio. The song, Oh Girl, clearly has some meaning for him – maybe it brings him back to something in his youth, maybe it's just the beauty of the song itself. Whatever it is, Tony starts to cry.
The brutal "waste management consultant" is actually crying at a song on the radio as he parks the car and goes into a house where he finds the crooked assemblyman Zellman with an ex-girlfriend of Tony's called Irina.
Though he knew that Zellman, played by Peter Riegert, had something going on with Irina, he had not wanted to find him there, wearing shorts and sitting on the side of the bed. Now enraged, Tony takes off his belt, and proceeds to whip the wretched Zellman with it. As the assemblyman cowers on the bedroom floor, Tony eventually decides that he has had enough.
Leaving the room, he pauses for a moment with Irina, fondly touching her face as if he is just leaving the house after a routine visit. The gorgeous sound of the Chi-Lites plays on, as the credits roll.
It's all there, the savagery of the man shot through with deep vulnerability. The badness and the softness. The corruption and the righteousness.
It is on the borderline of the horrible and the hilarious. It is breathtaking.
And the strangest thing of all, is that it is completely believable. Which was down to a lot of things, and a lot of people who knew what they were doing – but mainly it was down to the genius of James Gandolfini.
There are not many actors who could take us on that journey, in less than the time it takes to play an old sweet soul 45.
But this was The Sopranos, in which they would apparently try anything, and usually make it work. I'm thinking of a scene in which Christopher arrives late to an important meeting in the Bada Bing, explaining to the "chairman" Silvio Dante that he was caught in traffic, or as he sarcastically put it, "the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive".
Of course this is a quote from Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, which featured one "Miami" Steve Van Zandt on guitar and vocals; Van Zandt who would later don a terrible toupee in order to play the role of Silvio Dante.
On hearing Christopher's crack, Silvio just grunts and the meeting resumes. Like any in-joke, it could have been self-congratulatory, just wrong. But the line worked even if you'd never heard of Springsteen, and for the diehards, it was a little reward for their loyalty.
Because with any work of this quality, in an odd way, the audience has to keep up its standards too. There is something in all of us that longs to dumb down, and usually even the best TV series will oblige us in that regard – comedies in particular such as Frasier and M*A*S*H got stupid and sentimental, for no good reason except that that's the way of the world.
Seinfeld held the line and its greatness is secure. Mad Men has been exemplary. The Sopranos never wavered for an instant.
They set the viewer a challenge right at the start, just by making it about gangsters. Personally I had decided that I had probably seen enough gangsters in my TV and movie life, enough wiseguys whacking each other and saying the funny things that wiseguys supposedly say, but which are actually just the words of middle-class writers.
I can only guess that they went for the gangster option partly because, like Mad Men with its Sixties setting, it would free them from the creative straitjacket of political correctness. And these were people whose ambitions were without limits.
In a hundred years' time, the character of Tony Soprano will be seen in Shakespearean terms, as great as Hamlet or King Lear – except unlike Hamlet or Lear, there is only one man who could embody all the dimensions of the part, and now he is gone.
And he did it on television, which itself raises interesting questions about the way our culture is going. People always talk about this, as if it's a big surprise to them that a definitive work of art could happen on TV. But these days, where else is it going to happen?
Literary fiction is largely a dead thing, a mere adornment to our comfortable lifestyles, just one aromatic candle after another. The movies are generally too one-dimensional to make proper use of a talent as large as that of Gandolfini's. The theatre is doing its best work keeping good actors off the streets until such time as they can get to a better place – again, that would be television.
But even though they did it on the small screen, with all the advantages that gave them, the makers of The Sopranos would also have struggled against that stupidity and that sentimentality which are always such a temptation.
Anyone who makes something as great as The Sopranos is essentially at war. They were at war for eight years, led by James Gandolfini. And in the end he brought them to the most glorious victory.
He is one of the heroes of our time.