Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Sopranos: "Poor Jun!"

A couple of weeks ago I asked for more tragic characters on television. This week's episode of The Sopranos gave us pathos instead. Uncle Junior completed his journey from The Godfather to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Paulie Walnuts became a tiresome old man who won't shut up about the past. ("'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation," says Tony when he's had enough.) A lot of Sopranos fans are feeling sorry for Uncle Jun and Paulie, if the message boards on Television Without Pity are any indication. Both characters are killers who show absolutely no grasp of morality, but because they are so infantile, it's difficult to hate them, especially for those of us who have spent eight years being entertained by them on TV. As much as I'm enjoying the final season, it is making me realize how much of a cheat The Sopranos is. Creator David Chase is a great innovator of the TV series format, and he took a big risk in building a show around a protagonist who behaves so despicably. The problem is that Tony Soprano, and almost all of the main characters, were so compellingly monstrous in the first few episodes that they couldn't go any lower. Yes, several of them have shown signs of redemption (Tony feeling bad when Ralphie killed a stripper, Christopher going through rehab) only to revert to their old ways, but that's not tragic. It's a sitcom convention -- like Sam Malone gaining respect for women and then sliding back to sexism over the course of one episode of Cheers. I hadn't realized this before, but one plot is glaringly absent during the eight seasons of The Sopranos. Unless I've missed something, no one has lost his or her moral compass during the course of the series. OK, wife Carmela and daughter Meadow have become less naive and more complicit in Tony's gangster activities, but they didn't have far to fall, and Chase really had no other option here. (Too much was going on around them for Carmela and Meadow to plausibly remain clueless.) A few "civilians" have been caught in the Sopranos' web, like the screenwriter played by Tim Daly, but in all cases that I can think of, they've been weak personalities gone astray because of gambling or drug addiction. Has anyone willingly crossed over to the dark world of Tony Soprano because of greed, revenge, or a thirst for power? The same problem plagues The Riches, which is nonetheless watchable because of Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver. In the pilot episode, we first see Izzard's character picking pockets and stealing from purses at a high-school reunion, which he was able to attend by stealing someone else's identity. Since then, he's lied and stolen many times, but we're always able to forgive him because he's reverting to his old ways. We know that, as long as The Riches is on the air, he is never going to be worse than he was in the first episode. And that takes most of the mystery out of storytelling.

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