In their comprehensive tome, The Sopranos Sessions, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz write the following:
“We all know David Chase’s view of human nature is bleak. The Sopranos is set in a universe where good and evil have renamed themselves, principle and instinct. Animals are not known for their inclination to act on principle. Nearly every significant scene enacts the same basic struggle, pitting the self-preservation instinct against the influence of what Abraham Lincoln called, the better angels of our nature. These angels have glass jaws.”
Dumbing it down to Little Carmine’s intellect, the recurring theme in every episode of The Sopranos is the same. Given a choice, Tony and all humans in his orbit will never, ever do the right thing. They will always yield to their darker impulses.
This theme, hammered home with the blunt force of a baseball bat, alternately whispered in soft, sub textual tones of the demon on your other shoulder, is impossible to miss. Over seven seasons, 86 episodes and eight years, Humanity sucks! Capitalism sucks! America sucks! Depression sucks! No one on The Sopranos escapes without either being killed, emotionally broken or otherwise crushed in the giant maw of the great big nothing. The only survivors are able to do so by becoming willfully blind to their toxic reality.
I’ve written about The Sopranos before and I’ve said that I believe that David Chase is a miserable prick of a human being. If the old adage, misery loves company, is true, then Mr. Chase has a legion of companions. Like the garbage dumps along Tony’s routes, Chase loves to spread his noxious refuse far and wide, polluting the perfect landscape of what he views as willful human denial with his version of the truth. If that truth causes further emotional rot, so be it. That’s the price we all deserve to pay for our steadfast refusal to see the big picture.
There is no question that The Sopranos was groundbreaking for its time. It took a character who would have been treated as an antagonist in any former TV show and made him a protagonist. Furthermore, all crime shows that came after Tony Soprano carried the essence of his genes. Some offspring were worthy, such as The Shield and Breaking Bad, while others like Sons of Anarchy and Ozark were little more than sad, bastard children. Even other shows outside the crime genre such as Lost, 24 and Mad Men owed their success to The Sopranos. All of this may be my opinion, but it should be factual.
Last year, I was excited when I learned that The Sopranos had finally been offered with audio description. I waited for it to come out and have spent the past two months watching the show. I have finally come to the end and I can tell you two things.
The first is that the series still holds up after 15 years being off the air. The writing, acting and production values are supreme.
The second is that the show is an exhausting, dispiriting, ultimately redundant slog to get through. Even the complexity of the show is still predictably formulaic. Every season, Tony confronts new challenges in both his personal and professional lives. Every season, he prevails, but he doesn’t, all while dragging everyone around him down on his sinking pleasure barge of hedonistic misery. Tony Soprano never changes. No one in his world ever changes. Human nature is static.
This is a starkly conservative concept, so it should be comforting to me. Somehow, it’s not. That leads me to an inescapable question. Have I changed? I don’t hold the deep and abiding love of The Sopranos that I used to. I like the show. I respect the show. But I don’t love the show.
So what is different about me? Is it my age? Is it my emotional state? My physical state? The world around me? Jesus! If there’s anything to validate David Chase’s shitty view of humanity, it should be the current state of things. So why do I come to the great black screen of ambiguity at the end of the series and not rub my hands together in glee and say, ahhh, brilliant! Kylie, lets run it again! What’s more, why do I find myself contemptuous of Mr. Chase, rather than figuratively sitting at his feet in pure reverence?
Why haven’t I written in this blog in a while? Maybe, like Tony and his motley crew, I worry that my writing is reflective of a man in stasis. Why pass that misery on to others? If this world is steeped in bitter bile, why add to it? Why pass it off as artistic brilliance when it’s really just tepid mediocrity? Have I run out of source material? Are all of my themes exhausted? Am I dying a slow death of the soul that James Gandolfini might have undergone while inhabiting the vacuum that was Tony Soprano?
David Chase seems to be trapped in a paradox. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that humans can’t change. On the other, he displays repeated contempt for the whole of humanity for being unable to change. Am I incapable of change? Have I slowly, gradually changed and have just been unaware of it? Obviously, I’m older. I’m heavier. My ankles hurt more than they used to. I’m now a pet owner and I love Kylie dearly. I have a job that brings me immense pleasure on a daily basis. I love the surface pleasures like food, cigars, beer, music, a rainy thunderstorm, a good book or TV show, old-time radio, clocks, a stimulating conversation and swimming. My greatest pleasure in life is sex, which of course has proven to be elusive over the past few years.
But what else is there? As Tony Soprano muttered when he was trapped in his Kevin Finnerty coma dream, “Who am I? Where am I goin’?” I am now 47 years old, which coincidently was the same age Tony was when the show ended. What will I leave behind when the black screen finally comes up for me? Will I be Tony, trapped in an endless wheel of doom, or will I be someone else? If I had my druthers, I’d be more like Hank Schrader, able to do the right thing in spite of my flaws. But who knows. There’s the role we write for ourselves, and then there’s the role that we actually play.
I’m still trying to answer that elusive question. But I’ll tell you this… I’d rather be surrounded by a group of people who traffic in vapid inanities, but who are content with themselves, rather than to be accompanied by one deep thinker who wallows in syndical existentialism, all the while going about in pity for himself.
Or, maybe I’m just cloaking writers block in philosophical argle-bargle?