Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why The Sopranos Is Incredibly Overrated

[Update: Thanks to for linking to my blog! The link can be found here. ]

[Update 2: Now that the series is over, this post has been updated at this link.]

In an SNL sketch many years ago, there was a satirical commercial for “The Sopranos” in which critics spouted hyperbolic reviews about the show, such as “The Sopranos will one day replace air as the thing we breathe to stay alive.” It was a commentary of the ridiculously over-the-top accolades the show was getting at the time. I remember that sketch fondly, as it seems that even today, people have been so busy falling all over themselves in praise of “The Sopranos” they haven’t really taken a look at all the ways the show falls short.

First let’s start with the facts: “The Sopranos” is one of the most popular shows in the history of television. It has helped to transform television in several ways and was at least partially responsible for the rise of the serial drama and the establishment of HBO as an outlet of exciting, creative television. I’ve enjoyed many aspects of this show greatly, including the promos(!), and I think Gandolfini and Falco get all the praise they deserve, but I also think the show is horribly overrated. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Déjà vu - If you think about it, more seasons than not, the Sopranos has been about one thing: Made men misbehaving and doing things they’re not supposed to do. Think about the list through the years - Richie Aprile (and to a lesser extent, Jackie Aprile), Feech La Manna, Tony Blundetto, and most recently, Vito Spatafore.

Spread through all the seasons, these guys did stupid, stupid things and forced Tony to resolve their issues in increasingly painstaking ways. Whether it was starting an unauthorized side business or whacking a guy they weren’t supposed to (or in Vito’s case, whacking off a guy he wasn’t supposed to! Shoot me), these guys’ storylines transformed “The Sopranos” into “Variations on a Theme of Wayward Mobsters,” for better or worse.

2) Contrived plots – Paulie’s aunt is his real mother? A hot Hispanic chick, quickly and implausibly falling in love with AJ at a construction site? Chris hooking up with that Jamba Juice woman who he coincidentally met at a support group meeting (which by the way, it seems, is a plotline that has been completely dropped [See #3])? “The Sopranos” has always been fueled by a strong dose of soap-opera, but sometimes, as Lisa Simpson once put it, it watches like something that came out of Charles Dickens…or Melrose Place.

This was clearest in the Season 4 plotline in which Assemblyman Zellman starts dating Tony’s Russian ex-girlfriend. What are the odds that a) Zellman would actually meet this woman in the course of daily events, and b) Upon meeting her and finding out she was Tony’s ex, would decide to sleep with her without thinking of the consequences? If there’s even the chance that you’d piss off a mob boss, wouldn’t you try to get another girl? Certainly someone Zellman’s government position and his dashing good looks could land another beautiful woman. I mean just look at the guy:
Hot. Anyway, this gave us a one-episode arc for Zellman which ended with Tony beating Zellman with his belt. How dramatic.

C’mon “Sopranos,” you’re better than this.

3) Unfinished Storylines

I recently saw this 7-minute video, which made its rounds on a bunch of major outlets:

(From Youtube user palgy83)

The video is brilliant, summarizing all the major plot developments in the Sopranos while simultaneously giving some sly commentary. But while the video does actually motivate you to watch this show, it also reveals what I call one of the show’s greatest flaws: Unfinished subplots.

This is best demonstrated by one of the finest episodes of Season 3, “Pine Barrens.” Whatever happened to that Russian guy? Why was his body never found? What happened to Chris and Paulie’s car? Many will argue that these unanswered questions are what makes the Sopranos great. Not everything is brought to a conclusion, just like in real life, and any show that does answer all the questions is being too convenient. I strongly disagree.

In movies (and to a similar degree, in TV), I’ve heard that scenes generally exist for one of two purposes: 1) To move the plot along, or 2) For character development. The best shows on TV, like “The Wire” or “The Shield” (both of which I think are superior to “The Sopranos) are able to deftly use episodes and scenes to accomplish BOTH of these things. Despite my problems with season 4 of “The Wire,” I still think it is the one of the only shows on television able to masterfully juggle dozens of characters’ storylines, and do so in a way that’s responsible and that gives resolution to each one. “The Shield” has also managed to deliver on almost every single one of its storylines, with very few exceptions.

In “The Sopranos,” many characters drop in, sometimes only to disappear or die just a few episodes later. When Eugene Pontecorvo made a big appearance at the beginning of Season Six only to hang himself shortly afterwards, it made me feel manipulated and cheap. Here was a man who just wanted out, and the show makes us feel for him by giving us glimpses of his dysfunctional family. But rather than build this character up and afford him the decency of screen time, they killed him off unceremoniously (in the most unceremonious way possible, actually), to drive home its broader point of how inescapable the mafia is.

I could go on and on about this point about characters’ subplots. Artie and his wife constantly pop up every now and then for an episode or two, then vanish. Paulie’s cancer storyline went nowhere. Whatever happened to that guy that was stealing from Artie in Season 6 (Doogie Howser’s old friend)? AJ’s panic attacks? Melfi’s rapist? Do we even care anymore? The list goes on and on. It’s gotten to the point where if an intriguing plot is introduced, you can have no confidence whatsoever that it will be brought to a logical conclusion.

At best, all of these untied loose ends are unsatisfying. At worst, it’s lazy writing.

But I will give credit where credit is due: One of the most satisfying plotlines has been Chris Moltisanti’s, precisely because they’ve stuck with it throughout all the years. Moltisanti was being bred to be Tony’s successor, then turned his back on it to pursue his Hollywood dreams. His story is given room to breathe and is given a resonance that other storylines sorely lack.


All that being said, I still like the show and look forward to watching it to its conclusion (Last Sunday's episode was incredibly powerful). But let’s try to be realistic: “The Sopranos” has substantial flaws, just like many other shows on television, and it should be evaluated as such.

BONUS VIDEO: A&E recently bought the rights to rebroadcast “The Sopranos.” Here’s a take on how the show might look on television, edited.

(From Youtube user noscha)


Anonymous said...

LOOL it was a MAD TV sketch, get your shit together

Anonymous said...

i really must disagree with all 3 of your arguments. for one thing the repeat scenarios are only normal because people messing up and having to be dealt with is a big part of the reality of mob life. plus they are all done very differently, and each story is totally unique even though it involves someone "messing up" which im not sure is completely true in all the cases you mentioned. also some may argue that what gives them common ground also helps reflect on their differences, for instance tony deals with each one differently depending on his relationship with them, hence bringing more light to tony's character.

the second thing about contrived plots. well firstly lets face it pauly was a bastard, it makes sense, just look at the kind of man he is through the series. that whole angle was priceless, and worked in many ways, humor, drama..
so A.J. got with a hot girl? so? whys that odd. chris hooked up with a girl from AA i dont see how thats so contrived? because she had met tony? they werent actually having sex anyway they were ultimately just getting high together. and even if somethings "contrived" if its poetic, and done believably or believably enough whats the real harm? and it certainly was poetic imo.
as for Zellman dating tonys old girlfriend, well i'll give u that one. (but at the time i didn't think much of it and i think neither did most, so its a bit nit picky) personally though i would argue Zellman wanted tonys ex specifically for some phsychological reason, and thats why they ended up together. sometimes u want to be with the bosses girl. ever consider that? foolish, yes, but perhaps even more exciting for it.

as for the unresolved stories, well this is where i REALLY disagree with you! the story of tony beating up Zellman led to tony breaking up with Carmella. forget about that? it showed how one stupid drunken action can cause havoc more than one could imagine. it was a major plot device in the show and a major point the writers were trying to make, and imo they made very well. tony was a man who never truly learned that lesson
the story about the russian, well i think it was brilliant to leave that story unresolved, because it gave you the sense of dread pauly and his commrades must of had, always unsure if that russian would ever make a suprise return, if they had to worry or not. it mirrors real life beautifully. and though nothing ever came of it, it was always stored away, deep deep in the back of our minds for the reason of it never being resolved.

"but ultimately i see where me and u differ. for you wrote
In movies (and to a similar degree, in TV), I’ve heard that scenes generally exist for one of two purposes: 1) To move the plot along, or 2) For character development."
and i couldnt disagree more. there is much more to the medium of media than story telling. (although the sopranos was some of the best story telling regardless, in the sense it was convincing and engaging)

but imo what made the sopranos greater than anyother show, even the wire, is the characters always felt real. in the wire you know your watching fictional characters, but the sopranos cast with all their flaws, which are never air brushed, you were watching real people, people you knew in your life personally, or perhaps it was you that you saw on the screen. i think thats what divides people on the show, some want to see only cinematic heroic characters, people that a bigger than life. but for me i prefer the gritty realistic depiction of the sopranos

tymongoji said...

^Dude, no. The Wire's characters aren't cinematic or "bigger than life" (how did you even come up with that? Lol)..nearly all of them are based off real people in Baltimore, with extreme journalistic integrity and attention to detail. The only character who was truly larger than life was Omar, and that was the point - he's the only character not beholden to an institution, so he does whatever the fuck he wants. And even Omar is, in fact, based off of three or four real stick-up men from Baltimore.

The only reason The Sopranos characters feel "more familiar" than The Wire's is because they're a bunch of middle-to-high-class white people. And who, may I ask, is the largest demographic watching these shows? White people, many of whom also love Mad Men. How are we supposed to relate to the struggles of the black underclass if we've never even met any of those people? To someone who grew up in the hood, Avon Barksdale is going to seem much more real than Paulie Waulnuts. To someone who grew up in the suburbs, vice versa.

Anyway, the article raises some great points. It started to feel more like the SOAP-ranos after a certain point, with tons of wasted storylines, slow-moving plots and even some cringe-worthy melodrama. Yes, it's a really good show even at its soapiest, but I don't see how it's *better* than the massive achievement of epic, satisfying storytelling and social relevance that is The Wire. I just don't see it.