Contemporary television scholarship often delineates the modern era of TV sophistication with the premiere of David Chase’s The Sopranos. The show brought cinema-level visuals, top-notch acting, and a complex, serialized narrative centered around a challenging protagonist to the small screen. Critics frequently interrogate Chase’s influences, from Martin Scorsese to Sigmund Freud, when pinpointing what made the program so cutting edge, but a recent viewing of both The Sopranos and Norman Lear’s All in the Family revealed to me a deep connection to television’s past that is often elided in analysis of Chase’s opus.
Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch describe television as a space for public forum, where social and domestic issues of the day can be discussed and debated in direct ways. While we saw this in Father Knows Best, it was All in the Family and other Norman Lear productions that modernized this discourse, revealing the often contentious societal divisions that can exist among even reasonably functional families. Each week was an argument as much as a dialogue, usually caused by the stubbornly old-fashioned world view of Archie Bunker. Tony Soprano, who shares a number of physical similarities with Archie, also situates himself in the same way. He is old-fashioned, socially conservative, and openly distasteful of progress in the world, Archie by way of Don Corleone. The dynamic between him and his bright daughter Meadow even mirrors that of Archie and Gloria.
Moreover, The Sopranos, while incorporating elements of mob drama and crime thrillers, often engages in domestic drama and explicit social discourse that can seem straight out of Norman Lear (In the case of a particularly weak episode I watched last night, this can sometimes be to the show’s detriment, dropping subtlety in favor of direct address). Despite its revolutionary elements, could this familiar rhetorical strategy be part of the reason that the show was so readily embraced, especially compared to other HBO dramas of the era Deadwood and The Wire (which gained critical accolades, but struggled to find wide audiences)? To what extent do we as viewers in the post-Sopranos TV landscape still look to TV as a public forum for the issues of the day? (And is this sort of discourse confined to network programs like Scandal or Black-ish now?)