There are numerous other examples, but when it comes to Donald Soprano and Tony Soprano, there are two differences, one more obvious than the other. The obvious, Donald Soprano has never whacked anyone. The less obvious, Tony Soprano had just enough of a conscious to seek out a therapist. Consequently, he reflected on his criminality. In that regard, Donald Soprano is no Tony Soprano.
What is it about Tony Soprano, Avon Barksdale, Walt, and F.U. that makes it so hard to look away as they leave ruined lives and dead bodies in their wake?
My theory rests on the assumption that I’m a part of the 99% that has a social conscience, but sometimes still wrestles with doing the right thing. At 2a.m., with the streets deserted, we still wait for the red light to turn, but not before imagining going. We get frustrated with people all the time, even irate at times, but we successfully suppress our violent tendencies. We get used to the tension between our better and worse-r selves. And fortunately for society, our better selves almost always win out.
Tony, Avon, Walt, and Frank are the 1% that effortlessly give in to their worse-r selves. Their lives are not complicated by other people’s feelings. Once off the rails, they have zero regrets. On second thought, scratch Tony from that foursome, his earnest therapy sessions with Melfi disqualify him from the truly pathological.
In large part, I think I find these dramas so compelling because I can’t fathom what it would be like to live completely unencumbered by doing the right thing. To not give a single thought to authority, social convention, and the social contract we enter into as drivers while running the light. To not care whether someone lives or not.
There’s another important variable in the equation. For me the gruesome violence is usually just palatable enough because I know they’re fictional dramas. After watching The Wire, I can reason, “That teen drug runner didn’t really die at the hands of the other teen drug runner, because they’re acting.” LIke when watching a play or reading a novel, it helps to know it’s imaginary. In Breaking Bad the innocent kid on the bike in the New Mexico dessert didn’t really die. He’s probably a popular eighth grader somewhere in SoCal.
Could the time I’ve spent with the Mount Rushmore of television criminals have a deleterious effect on my normal, law-abiding self? That’s doubtful because the Good Wife makes me take a powerful antidote to these intense crime dramas every Sunday night. Downton Abbey.
Postscript—Watch this 60 Minutes segment (13:40) on Wolfgang Beltracchi (13:40). Beltracchi, as evidenced by the final exchange which begins at 13:28, has Mount Rushmore criminal potential.
Watching television comes with obvious opportunity costs. You’re (usually) not burning calories, getting to know real live human begins better, or (usually) learning much.
Despite those downsides, I agree with a lot of critics that the quality of television content has never been higher. Especially with Netflix and other similar portals, there are a lot of good shows—past and present—to choose among.
And, let’s not forget, a particularly excellent one just wrapped—21) 30 Rock.
The digital video recorder has transformed my viewing experience by making commercials obsolete. Thursday night I tried watching the start of the NBA finals, but the major network showed about fifteen to twenty minutes of commercials right before the tip. It was brutal. So I channel surfed until the game started. I often record sports events and then begin watching them an hour or so later without commercials, without timeouts, without incessant video replays, and even without inconsequential action (like huddles, lining up putts, even walking the ball up the court). When timed perfectly, I finish the tape just as the event is ending in real time. Mad skills.
The rewind feature of the modern DVR is also sups cool. I was floored by Julia Dale‘s rendition of the National Anthem before game 1 of the NBA finals last Thursday night. “Come here and watch this,” I yelled to peeps in the kitchen. Then rewound it for a second viewing. My second favorite performance of the Anthem after Marvin Gaye’s which I was lucky enough to experience live.
Of course there are ways television could be improved. If people stopped watching “reality” shows and the cable “news” circus, they’d go away. More aggravating to me, is some shows gratuitous use of the “f” word and penchant for glorifying drinking.
I’ve been a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus since she first started shoving Jerry in the chest on Seinfeld, so recently I gave her Home Box Office series Veep a whirl, in which she plays the Vice President of the U.S. Let’s just say the cute, spunky, chest shoving Elaine of Seinfeld is long gone. In her place is an insecure, foulmouthed, unlikable character. I don’t think of swearing in terms of moral failure. Ever since teaching high school, I’ve been unfazed by profanity. But I don’t like it when it’s forced and exaggerated. I counted 38 “f-bombs” in two consecutive 25 minute episodes. I find it hard to believe that Joe Biden and his staff use the f-word in semi-public nearly once per minute (Rahm Emmanuel maybe).
When a wise guy on Soprano’s or a Jonathan Franzen character lets it rip it adds to the story’s believability, but when the first female vice president or her staffers swear every minute (f-bombs plus more run of the mill profanities), things fall apart. HBO suits must think their success is the result of their characters saying things that characters on the major networks cannot. But it’s not. It’s based upon interesting story lines and strong character development that gritty language sometimes contributes to. Note to HBO, the swearing is an authentic and artistic means to an end, not an end itself.
Then there’s Zooey Deschanel’s show, New Girl, which takes moral irresponsibility to new levels. Like Veep it’s a clever, even funny show, with amusing characters who play their parts well. It’s target audience is probably my 18 and 21 year old daughters. The characters are 30, but in a Seinfeld-like manner, are stuck in a perpetual sex and drinking college-like vortex. In the hands of the shows writers and producers, drinking heavily is both fun and funny. I challenge you to identify one entire 22 minute episode of New Girls that that doesn’t glorify excessive drinking and/or random premarital sex. It’s a shame that responsibility and moderation do not attract as many eyeballs.
I’m halfway through Netflix’s first original television series, an eight episode series titled “Lilyhammer” that takes place in Lillehammer, Norway. Episodes are 45 minutes long or about 20k on the bike trainer. It’s solid and hopefully a positive sign of things to come from Netflix. Here’s their brief description.
After he testifies against a Mafia boss, ex-gangster Frank Tagliano enters the witness protection program and asks to be sent to Norway. Despite the peaceful surroundings, it’s not long before Frank strays from the straight and narrow.
I dig it and I’m awarding it an “A-“. Full-disclosure, I lived near Lillehammer for a few months five years ago and have fond memories of a ski weekend there, a memorable dinner party, and a school visit where I was the guest teacher. I’m smitten by the setting so adjust your grade at home accordingly. The scenes of the train station, the white farm houses against the snow, the shops in town, the countryside, the ski jump, the Birkebeiner cross country ski race all take me back to that time.
Besides the distinctive and extraordinarily beautiful setting which makes it worthwhile alone, the show works because of the wonderfully authentic and quirky Norwegian cast. Incompetent cops are played out in American television comedies, but their Norwegian counterparts are good for a new and steady stream of cross-cultural laughs. It’s well written, moves at a nice pace, thoughtfully explores cross-cultural differences, and is decently acted.
I deducted half a grade because Steven Van Zandt, of Soprano fame, is too much of a caricature of an American mobster. He could and should be much more nuanced and subtle. Related to this, it will be interesting to see whether Netflix has learned the lesson of the Sopranos. Somehow, despite Tony Soprano’s incredibly flawed nature, he was likable. He could have a guy whacked, or whack him himself, and cheat on his wife. Then when he walked into the kitchen you’d cheer the fact that his favorite pasta was ready and waiting. An unsolvable television mystery.
Four espisodes in, Frank Tagliano or Johnny Henrikssen, isn’t as likable as Tony. I’m not sure whether he has the necessary charisma and charm to compensate for his buffoonery. Also, his romantic relationship with a much younger woman fails the believability test.
Despite those flaws, I’m looking forward to the next four episodes.