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Some More Rambling About “The Sopranos”

Some More Rambling About “The Sopranos”

We’re still watching “The Sopranos,” and are now into Season 3. This is the season that features the iconic “Pine Barrens” episode. It’s also the last pre-9/11 season, still containing a brief shot of the Twin Towers (in a sideview mirror of Tony’s SUV) during the opening credits. This shot was removed from the credits in the later seasons.

As we watch the episodes, it makes me feel nostalgic for old times. I can’t help but identify with these wise guys and their partying lifestyle. Their camaraderie and their gusto for life reminds me of my circles of friends back in the day, back when I was young and carefree. And a fool, no doubt, though not as dumb as some of the young men on this show who come to terrible ends. I knew the limits.

We didn’t live anything like the characters on The Sopranos, except maybe in our imaginations. I mean, we skirted the law in some ways, and we were rough around the edges. We surely used the same crass language. But some really awful stuff happens on this show; I get that this gangster lifestyle of extortion and murder is not be celebrated. Yet somehow watching these guys evokes nostalgia for the smoke-filled dens of my wayward youth.

Maybe it’s just how well this show represents its social era, with its looser mores, and inevitably takes me back to life then, when I was younger and had different priorities. When I was a bachelor man and spent a lot of time hanging with the gang. Before mid-life hit and everyone moved on. The old groups have scattered; some of us got married and had kids and became responsible. Some of us moved to far away places to pursue new dreams. Some of us died. I sure miss them.

These episodes that we’re now watching were originally broadcast twenty years ago. Twenty freakin’ years ago! Where does the time go? All too quickly it passes by.

What I Got Out Of “The Sopranos”

What I Got Out Of “The Sopranos”

An episode of The Sopranos always begins with the opening credits scene. It pulls you in immediately with a compelling rock song – a little bit funky, a little bit hip-hop. It’s a song for the ’90s but it reminds you of the ’70s. The song goes…

You woke up this morning
Got yourself a gun
Your mama always said you'd be the chosen one
A shot from the opening credits of The Sopranos.

A serious looking middle aged man is driving on the highway through an industrial section of northern New Jersey, smoking a cigar. He definitely could be a 70s tough guy. The song goes…

When you woke up this morning
All that love had gone
Your papa never told you
About right and wrong

He exits the highway and proceeds through lower class sections of the city. You see buildings that will become familiar as you watch the show, which promises to be urban and gritty. The song goes…

You woke up this morning
The world turned upside down

Suddenly he’s in a much nicer neighborhood, pulling into the driveway of an upper middle class house. The grim look on his face as he exits his SUV suggests a lot of serious business on his mind. What has he had to do, and to put up with, to get to this large automobile and this beautiful house? The scene ends as he closes the car door. He’s come home.

That’s what this show is ultimately about; coming home. It’s about family, the bedrock of American life. And in the grand tradition of American fiction, it’s about aspiration, about wanting to rise in wealth and status, and maybe even become the boss.

And, of course, it’s about crime. Because Americans do love a good crime story. Via character dialogue, the show even unabashedly compares itself to The Godfather and Goodfellas, the two iconic movies which define the modern era’s obsession with Mafia-related entertainment. Some of the characters on the show aspire to achieve the celebrated fame of those movies, though others, wisely, prefer to stay in the background.

But the real point is that these characters are part of the modern era. Organized crime, like the rest of society, has had to adapt to the times. The show famously starts with mob capo Tony Soprano in a therapy session with a psychiatrist. He’s there because he’s having anxiety attacks; even a tough guy has trouble coping in this world turned upside down.

Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions are a wonderful contrivance for looking into the psychology and the moral perspective of someone who makes a living as a criminal. Through these sessions, he is humanized, and we learn that he has the same problems as any other middle-aged family man. He has to balance work and family life, maintain his marriage, and raise his children, all while overcoming the baggage from his own upbringing. In some ways, he’s just like the rest of us.

But, of course, he also has his unique work-related problems, the exact details of which he cannot reveal to his therapist. In other words, he’s not like us at all. As the story develops, we the audience get a tantalizing look into his world. This is why we come to these kinds of shows; his life is far riskier and edgier than ours, and we want the vicarious thrill of living it through his eyes. We want the excitement of transgressing moral boundaries, but not the consequences.

Which just goes to show the moral dilemma that this show raises. If we enjoy this story, and even identify with its protagonists, are we not condoning their behavior? These guys murder people, then go to their favorite restaurant for some wine and pasta, like us when we leave the office for a night out at Olive Garden. If they’re so much like us, then are we like them? Do we accept, even celebrate, a world where crime pays?

I think that question troubled the creator, David Chase, which is why he famously ended the show without resolving the chief protagonist’s story arc. But to be fair to the television audiences of the time, crime has always been a popular subject in TV and film, and has often been glamorized. What makes The Sopranos different is how it places this subject in the context of the social era at the time of its premiere in 1999.

In the 1990s, crime rates were high, the Culture Wars were heating up, and there was a pervasive sense of society coming apart. Baby Boomers were in mid-life, parenting Millennial children. David Chase (b. 1945) is a Boomer, and I think he was exploring his generations’ experience of the era – including that question of how much moral looseness a society can and should tolerate. While not all of the actors are strictly Boomers by birth year, some being just a little too old or too young, I think the mid-life characters are meant to be. Tony Soprano clearly is, based on flashback scenes of his childhood in the 1960s.

In one scene, when Tony’s teenaged daughter uses language which upsets him, she defends herself with the statement, “this is the 90s.” Tony retorts, “out there it’s the 1990s, but in here it’s 1954,” pointing first out the window, then at the floor of the house. Tony is a moral reactionary, despite his chosen profession. His Millennial daughter is what we would call “woke” today, and might even have reacted to her father with an “OK Boomer,” though that is an expression well ahead of her time.

Tony clearly wants to return to the “father knows best” social order of the good old days. You can tell that all the old gangsters do. They even complain about the breakdown of morals in their own organization. Drugs have had a corrosive influence. You can’t trust the gangsters today, who turn state’s evidence instead of doing their civic duty and serving time in prison. You just know that any of these guys who surivived to see 2016 would be sporting red MAGA caps at a Trump rally. They certainly wouldn’t survive today’s cancel culture, being too blatantly racist and sexist and homophobic.

The Sopranos stands out as an artifact of its place in history, the Bush era transition into the 21st century, with the Cold War receding in the rearview mirror, and all of these new concerns coming down the road. With its frank maturity and uncensored sex and violence, it also helped inaugurate the television noir age we enjoy today. In many ways, it did it better than any show since. It’s so well written, acted and directed, that you might even say it achieved Peak TV.

That last statement, I suspect, is controversial, but it really was the first thought I had when I recently started rewatching the show. And I have a lot of shows fresh in my memory; I’m a man who watches way too much television, a mid-lifer in a new era of staying at home with endless streaming video. In the great trove of video content available online, The Sopranos is a real gem from what already seems like a fading time.


This post is the second in a 2-part series about The Sopranos, following up on an earlier post.

How I Started Watching “The Sopranos”

How I Started Watching “The Sopranos”

On June 10, 2007, I was on the road, and spent the night in a hotel. I don’t remember where I was going or why, and I only know the date because I looked it up; it’s the original air date of a certain television episode.

What happened was, that night, I decided to watch a little TV before going to bed. The hotel had HBO, which I did not have at home. At home, we had satellite TV, but my roommates paid for it and I did not ever make demands of what programming they should get. Since the hotel had a channel I did not normally have access to, naturally I chose to check it out. As it turned out, The Sopranos was about to come on. Of course, I had heard a great deal about this show, which was a cultural mainstay of the era, but I had never watched an episode. So I gave it a go.

(mild spoilers follow so if you don’t want any at all just don’t read the rest of this post)

I liked what I saw. Even though I had no back story at all, other than knowing that James Gandolfini portrayed Tony Soprano, I could follow along, kind of. The guy’s son was rebellious and annoying, and there was some kind of gang war or something happening. There was some threat to the family. They went to a diner, and this guy came in – maybe he was a bad guy? – and then suddenly the show just stopped. The screen went blank for a bit. Then the credits came on. It was some kind of glitch; probably the hotel’s fault. I didn’t think much of it, and went to sleep.

The famous last scene of The Sopranos.

The next day or so, I went online and checked the news feeds (I was already getting my news exclusively via the web by this time). I learned that I had watched the series finale of The Sopranos. The first episode I ever watched was the last episode of the show! And the final scene had intentionally cut abruptly to black, which was generating a big hubbub online. The creator, David Chase, had apparently mystified everyone. What I gather now is that he chose not to provide a conclusive story arc for the main character, which would have resolved the show’s fundamental moral question – can a guy who steals and kills for a living really be just an American guy, with all the same problems as the rest of us? And why did America spend nearly a decade celebrating this professional crook?

Now, it might be for the best for me that there was no resolution, because even though I watched the last episode first, it really wasn’t a spoiler. Nothing had been concluded and my appetite was simply whetted. I ended up watching the entire series a couple years later, by renting the discs on Netflix. Yes, I mean the physical DVDs, mailed to me periodically. That was how it was done in the 2000s, before streaming took off.

I enjoyed the show tremendously – it’s well deserved of the many accolades it has received. In my mind, it is the show that inaugurates the more hard-hitting, stark, and mature age of television that we live in today – though I know the trend was underway throughout the 1990s. It’s also a show that culturally defines the Bush years, along with another one which started in the same year of 1999 – The West Wing.

This blog post was inspired by the fact that the family is now rewatching (adults) / being introduced to (teens) the show. What happened was, we wanted to watch the premiere of Godzilla vs. Kong, but without going to a theater, since it’s pandemic times. So we got a subscription to HBO Max. Well, there was The Sopranos thumbnail staring at us from the screen, and since we like to have something to watch together on evenings when everyone is free, we decided to make it our new show. And personally I am enjoying it the second time around as much as I did the first time.

I have more to say about The Sopranos – a review of sorts – but I’ll publish that in a follow-up post.

Space Force: A TV Show for the Age

Space Force: A TV Show for the Age

The family and I really enjoyed watching the Netflix comedy series Space Force. It’s a great vehicle for Steve Carell, with his gift for playing lovable losers. Though in this show he is not so much a loser as “the man for his time and place” who “fits right in there,” to quote a mysterious stranger. In the case of Space Force, the time is now and the place is at the head of a brand new branch of the United States military. And Carell’s character, General Mark R. Naird, has the right stuff for this challenging job.

One thing I like about the show is that it is very topical. It is the only consciously Trump Era fictional television series of which I know (still waiting for a COVID-19-conscious sitcom). The President is even a character, though we only know him in the form of texts and Tweets from “POTUS.” General Naird has just the right mix of sincerity and guile to handle this unpredictable boss, as well as his peers in the other military branches, and the competitive space efforts of America’s great rival, China.

To balance against Carell’s typically understated performance, John Malkovich provides a more animated supporting character, Chief Scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory. If you are a fan of Malkovich, which we are, you will enjoy him in this role. Since this is on streaming video, there is ample opportunity for him to exploit his propensity for foul language. Just another example of how TV has changed since my childhood. The rest of the supporting cast also provides solid performances.

Space Force is completely farcical and makes no effort to be realistic in terms of the science or engineering of space exploration. There’s an irony to the depiction of the easy accomplishments of this fictional organization, in contrast to the actual state of the U.S. space program. It’s like the show is satirizing what the ignoramus-in-chief thinks the Space Force is capable of doing. Like it’s set in his imagination.

I suppose you could argue that the TV show Space Force normalizes the current administration and its feckless ways. Maybe it’s even a little sympathetic to it, so as not to alienate Trump supporters, who surely make up a substantial portion of Netflix subscribers. Arguably the show also normalizes the idea of inevitable Sino-American conflict. These are dangerous times, and perhaps we shouldn’t be making fun of these things.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that no one has announced a new comedy TV series set in the COVID-19 era. But I would welcome one. Humor is cathartic, and helps us to process the difficult realities of life.

So check out Space Force and enjoy the show. One season is available on Netflix, with no word yet of a second season.

Silent of the Week: Lesley Stahl

Silent of the Week: Lesley Stahl

Last night we watched 60 Minutes, on regular broadcast television. Yes, I mean through an antenna. We don’t have cable or satellite so it’s either that or streaming (which is my preference).

We’ve started making a habit of watching this show every Sunday evening, in part because we have a family member who likes doing things the old-fashioned way. It’s like a throwback to another era – you actually have to watch the show at the scheduled time, instead of whenever you feel like it! I’ve been getting my news off the Internet for years, and it’s refreshing to go back to this old format.

One of the segments was an interview with the Minneapolis Chief of Police, about the George Floyd killing, protests and police reform. The interviewer was Lesley Stahl (b. 1941), who has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991. You could say she is the last of the old guard, certainly one of the last of her generation still prominent in journalism.

Stahl’s career took off when she covered the Watergate scandal as a young reporter. She’s been at CBS most of her life, and for most of that time with 60 minutes – the sort of career longevity that characterizes the Silent Generation, in contrast to younger ones. And she’s certainly in her element, lending gravitas to a profession that in many ways has been hollowed out in an age of sensationalism and misinformation.

You can watch the interview here: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/minneapolis-police-chief-medaria-arradondo-geroge-floyd-killing-60-minutes-2020-06-21/#x

A slow noir sci-fi show that’s perfect for bedtime

A slow noir sci-fi show that’s perfect for bedtime

If, like most of us in this day and age, you enjoy a good binge watch of streaming video entertainment, then I’m sure you are familiar with this pattern: you start to watch an episodic series, and you get pulled in. Each episode ends with a plot twist or cliffhanger and when it’s over your appetite is whetted, and you can’t help but watch the next episode. Before you know it, it’s after midnight and you are regretting staying up too late yet another night in a row.

If this is a problem for you, then you might be interested in checking out this show that my BFF and I recently finished. It’s called Tales From The Loop. It’s an anthology sci-fi series, and it is *so* slow paced that getting through an episode is like a slog through a swamp.

That’s not to say it’s a bad show; it has interesting stories and characters, and a really cool retro 1970s aesthetic. It’s contemplative and sad and a bit dark. The episodes make me think of Ray Bradbury short stories; they are thoughtful and personal, using sci-fi as a background to tell a story that is ultimately human. Interestingly, Bradbury had his own anthology TV show, but unfortunately it wasn’t that good.

Tales From the Loop also reminds me of an earlier sci-fi show that had a similar premise – that somewhere in America there’s a small town where all kinds of secret weird science research is going on. That other show was called Eureka, and was more of a fun adventure series with slapstick comedy. Tales From the Loop is serious and dark, which fits the current social mood and the new noir age in film and television.

What’s great about the slow pace of the show is that by the time an episode ends, you will be ready to go to sleep. That makes it perfect for watching at the end of the evening when you just want a little entertainment to wind your day down, and don’t want to get caught up in binge watching. I think it deserves its own subgenre name, to cover the fact that it is both quiet and contemplative, as well as dark and despairing. Let’s call it calme noir.

Tales from the Loop is available on Amazon Prime. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Best Streaming of the Decade

Best Streaming of the Decade

I can’t believe it’s 2020 already. Happy New Year one and all.

2019 ended with a flurry of social media postings of decade retrospectives. Here is mine – my favorite streaming TV series of the 2010s.

The 2010s stand out to me as the dawn of the age of streaming video, when the TV/Internet convergence that had been touted before finally came to pass.

Some of the shows on my list actually began in the late 2000s. Some of them were originally released on cable TV rather than a streaming service, but I mostly watched them on Netflix or Amazon.

For example, The Walking Dead premiered in 2010, and I first watched it on cable. Then I cut the cord a few years later, and picked it up on Netflix (watching each season delayed by a year).

Here is my list of favorite TV series of the past 10 years, all binge-watched over the Internet.

Aggretsuko
Better Call Saul
Black Mirror
Breaking Bad
The Crown
The Expanse
Fleabag
The Man in the High Castle
Marianne
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Mr. Robot
Stranger Things
The Walking Dead

The Quiet Rage of Millennial Retsuko

The Quiet Rage of Millennial Retsuko

I recently finished watching Season 2 of the Netflix series Aggretsuko, which I recommend if:

  • You like anime.
  • You need a show with short episodes to watch during meals or whatever.
  • You want to see a show that captures the Millennial zeitgeist.

Yes, I really do think this show does the last thing on the list, which is a big reason why it fascinates me. Plus, all the anthropomorphised animal characters are just adorable.

Restuko at work.

Aggretsuko is an anime, full of the tropes of that genre. You have to watch it in Japanese, with subtitles. It’s main character, Retsuko, is a young single woman working an ordinary office job. She is self-conscious, anxiety ridden, stressed by the demands of everyday life, and feels pressure to fit in and appear normal from her peers and social media – in others words, a Millennial. She remains calm – if nervous – on the outside, while cultivating an inner rage that comes out in private moments.

It’s not only the peer pressure and the burnout that make Retsuko so Millennial. As her story develops and she grows as a person, she is able to adapt to the many aggravations coming from the personalities that surround her. She matures, and learns to own her rage, while remaining true to herself. And what she learns about herself is that she just wants a conventional life.

Aggretsuko is loaded with references to modern pop culture and social trends. It satirizes modern life, but there is no nihilism here. In the end, the ordinary aspects of life – a job, a family, friends – are celebrated and valued. And when Retsuko rages, she doesn’t rage destructively to take down society, but rather constructively to find her place in society. Now how Millennial is that?

Silents of the Week: the Cast of Grace and Frankie

Silents of the Week: the Cast of Grace and Frankie

Undoubtedly, the Silent Generation has made a huge impact in the field of arts and entertainment. Their careers go back to the Golden Age of film and to the dawn of the TV era. For my generation, which was weaned on television, they were the young actors of the sit coms and dramas to which we were first addicted as children.

So it is amazing to me today, after we have evolved past the convergence of TV and the Internet and into the streaming era, that their generation still has its own television show. That’s right, I’m talking about Grace and Frankie on Netflix. Every one of the four actors in the roles of the two comically disordered couples is from the Silent Generation: that would be Martin Sheen (b. 1940), Sam Waterston (b. 1940), Lily Tomlin (b. 1939), and Jane Fonda (b. 1937).

Now, it’s true that the show is produced by Boomers and the lead characters are probably meant to be parodies of Boomers, but the Silent personality still comes out. The characters are neurotic and confused, the tone warm and humane. The show is about elders opening up, pushing boundaries, and staying hip with the latest social trends and language – in the 2010s!

Grace and Frankie is the swan song of a generation that has managed to keep itself relevant through over half a century of social change. It is a reminder of the long-reaching effects of the transformative time of their youth – embodied in part in the family dynamic with the main characters’ quirky Gen-X adult children. The plot may be contrived, the writing clichéd and predictable, but the show is always fun.

We’re in the middle of the fifth season and we like the show almost as much as these guys do:

Generation X: Waiting for the Apocalypse

Generation X: Waiting for the Apocalypse

My BFF and I started watching The Walking Dead again after a long hiatus. She just couldn’t stand the show any more after a certain something happened at the start of Season 7 (if you watch the show you know what I mean). And so we stopped watching it. But in time she was ready to get back to it, and we have watched all of Season 7 and are now in the middle of Season 8.

When I watch this show, I can’t help but think of how Gen X it is. The main characters are almost entirely from our generation or from the Millennial generation. There is a smattering of characters from older gens, but they tend not to last, and there are some token kid characters with no real story arc. The Gen Xers are always in charge of the different groups, and have to become ruthless enforcers and daring opportunists, always thinking on their feet and doing whatever it takes for the group to survive. The Millennials meanwhile are the hopeful and idealistic ones, whom the Gen Xer leaders are protecting. What stung so much about the opening of Season 7 was that one of the nicest Millennial characters was brutally murdered. As my BFF put it, “they killed the heart of the show.” That made it hard to care about the series any more.

So on the show, each Gen X leader has their own unique way of leading, giving each group or community its own culture and political structure. The show ends up exploring questions of politics like what gives a ruler the right to rule, or how do you balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few. In fact, when one of our boys was taking a civics class and trying to understand the concept of “rule of law,” I used an example from the show to explain it to him.

There was one not very nice group in an earlier season that had a rule where if you saw something before anyone else and called out “claim” then it was yours. I explained how even the leader had to follow this rule; if one of the others called “claim” on something really nice, the leader couldn’t use his position to trump the subordinate and take that thing from him. If the leader acted that way, this basic rule that held the group together wouldn’t work any more, and the group would fall apart. That was the idea of “rule of law” – the law has priority over the whims of the politicians. This applies even in the very simple polity of a group of people banding together for survival after a zombie apocalypse.

What’s ironic about this show that explores politics being a Gen X show is that Gen X has actually eschewed political involvement our whole lives. It’s like we would only do politics if absolutely forced into it, as would be the case if civilization collapsed. In fact, it seems like Generation X has been waiting for the collapse – it’s our expectation after being told since childhood that the world is doomed. The popularity of end of the world shows like The Walking Dead is a manifestation of our yearning to see it all just go to hell.

I’ve even seen bumper stickers like the one above. You probably have too. We really do want to stand on the sidelines and watch the world burn. We don’t want to choose between the lesser of two evils – we want all the evil to come out all at once. We want to find out how we would handle it. We want the ultimate freedom of a lawless world where the winner takes all ethos prevails. Because that is just so Generation X.

Hence our society’s apocalyptic mood, our deep sense of foreboding that we express in this dark genre of entertainment. We are in a fin de siècle phase of history – the American century is coming to a close, and there’s no telling what come next. Possibly the Pax Americana is coming to an end as well. For some Americans, the wound to the pride has been too much.

Politics is driven by resentment. Long festering problems of economic insecurity and environmental degradation may have grown to the point of insolubility. It might seem that the only way out at this point is cataclysmic and violent change. To cut the Gordian Knot you need the sharp edge of a sword. Or a zombie apocalypse.

But remember it is the cycle that is coming to an end, not the world. Zombies are a fantasy. War, plague, climate change – those are real but of course we can survive them all. As we have before. History is inexorable and will take us into the next cycle whether we’re ready for it or not. We don’t get an escape hatch in the form of utter destruction. This craving for the end of the world is a cop out.

Consider the Greek roots of the word apocalypse: apo- ‘un-’ + kaluptein ‘to cover’. To uncover, to reveal. As in Revelations. The apocalypse is not a violent end, it is a moment of truth. It is the moment when the facade is swept away and the stark reality underneath is exposed, and we have to finally face the problems we have been putting off. It is happening now, shaking up and realigning our politics, pitting group against group.

Generation X can help lead us through this conflict. It won’t be the sci-fi extravaganza we have spent our lives fantasizing about. It will be a messy, mundane effort to reconstruct our teetering old political institutions to deal with life in the new century. And I hope that what prevails is a community built on the principles of one of the good groups from The Walking Dead – one that is fair and kind and inclusive. One that taps into, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”

But we can’t avoid the reckoning. We can’t avoid getting involved, hoping that it’s all just going to end. Not my generation, not any generation alive today can escape the future. We must face, without fear, the world that is bound to come.