Saturday, January 23, 2016

(Core Post) Tony Soprano: Keeping it All in the Family

            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?)

1 comment:

  1. These are good questions, Lance. I have read many articles and chapters on The Sopranos mixing of family melodrama/comedy with traditional mafia movies. The episode that frequently comes up is "College," the fifth episode of the first season when Tony has recently become the head the (mob) family and is taking Meadow to visit colleges. He happens to see an old associate who once snitched and is now in witness protection. Naturally, Tony kills the guy and goes back to Meadow to continue the tours as any average dad might.

    You're right that the college tour part of the episode is similar to All in the Family (Tony and Meadow see the world differently, they argue about it but ultimately love each other), the murder/revenge part is straight out of any popular mobster movie. I guess this relates to Newcomb and Hirsch's view that viewers will read into a show as their politics and world-view let them. An Italian friend of mine from New Jersey found the show tiresome as a caricature of people she said didn't exist; shrinks frequently love the show because of the strong pro-psychotherapy message in it; other people might be upset by how much sex, infidelity, murder, etc. there is in it.

    I would say in response to all of those opinions—as well as similar thoughts about the show that was a rough companion to it when it aired, Sex and the City—that it shows a general rise in the interest in frank representations of sex and violence in the early-'00s. There had not been much sex and violence on TV to that point and it ultimately crossed over from the cable to network context. That we can watch Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder, showing scenes not too different from what was on the Sopranos or SATC 15 years ago, shows how the culture has changed since the 1970s and how TV has responded.