22 July 2008

Nobody Calls Me Mezzo

Apologies to those of you who share a mailing list with me and saw this yesterday. I'm widening out the consultation.

For the past few years, every time I'd started worrying that I was coming to an end of the list of post-1990 TV which I could persuade B. to watch episode-by-episode and which we'd both be interested in, I'd been comforting myself with the fact that neither of us had ever seen an episode of The Sopranos, the groundbreaking series (and studio stablemate of the damn near perfect Six Feet Under) widely acclaimed as the best TV show of the past 10 years.

We've now watched a season and a half of it, and can't honestly see what I'm supposed to like.

For a start, I don't care about any of the characters -- except, rarely, a couple of the women. When watching drama I'm able sympathise with well-characterised villains, and with complex morally ambivalent characters, and with heroes who are forced to do terrible things in the name of a greater good -- but the characters in The Sopranos perform atrocities routinely, banally, as part of their daily grind. That's just... repellent. It's like watching a soap opera about concentration camp guards.

The macho face-saving culture to which the men all subscribe (where it's apparently shameful to admit to -- among other things -- receiving counselling, having a relative with a learning disability, performing cunnilingus, forgiving anyone for anything ever) is one with which I simply can't have the slightest sympathy. If this was a drama set in, say, imperial China then I'd be able to accept it as a given of the characters' subjective world, but this is, for God's sake, about 21st-century Americans. I keep wanting to slap them in the face repeatedly until they grow up.

I honestly can't imagine why I'm meant to care whether a single one of them lives or dies, but the fact that all the non-gangster characters -- and even the news programmes we see -- find these people endlessly fascinating strongly suggests that the writers are assuming the opposite is true.

The psychiatry aspect of the show is occasionally borderline-interesting (and Dr Melfi is one of the few characters for whom I occasionally feel a twinge of sympathy, when she's not too obviously hero-worshipping Tony), but it's so bound up in the aforementioned idiotic social assumptions, plus obscure U.S. pop-culture references, that half the itme I have no idea what it's getting at.

In the last episode I saw, Tony's therapy sessions kept referring to some ancient pop-folk song I'd never heard of, as some kind of keystone against which Tony judged himself and other people. It was never made clear what the significance of this, for him or for anyone else, might be. At the end of the episode something mildly unexpected happened, and the song played portentously over the end credits. It was like trying to decode a transmission from Tau Ceti.

As a piece of anthropological observation, the show may well have something to be said for it, although I wouldn't want to watch two episodes of it, let along 86. As it is, I'm too busy trying to get a handle on the anthropology to penetrate to the actual drama.

My imminent brother-in-law (according to definition 2b in Merriam-Webster, anyway), who works in TV and knows about this kind of thing, tells us that we need to watch the first three seasons before we give up on it. Honestly, though, I'm not sure I can summon up the stamina.

What am I missing? Does it get better, or will I never like it if I haven't yet?

Am I being racist (for U.S. definitions of "race", since as far as I'm concerned Italians are the same ethnicity I am) in assuming that Italian-American men should be capable of the same degree of moral, emotional and intellectual development as everyone else?

Am I broken inside, or is this the most appallingly overrated television series since the invention of the medium?

I'd welcome your thoughts...

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