Thursday, June 20, 2013

Not with a bang, but a blank screen

[Originally written for Herald on Sunday, in 2007 under pen-name Jonathan Bartley]
By Matt Nippert

            And so it ends: Not with a bang, but with a blank screen. In 1977 oddball American comic Andy Kaufman produced a television special that featured fake static, the joke being that millions of viewers would simultaneously get off the couch to try and fix their apparently malfunctioning television sets. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, seems to have tried the same gag, but his epic mob drama isn't a comedy. After six seasons the bloody New Jersey suburban soap opera was crying out for resolution, not a meta-joke punchline.
            Other shows, notably Sex and the City and Friends closed with neat, overly-wrapped endings. Long-serving characters were given the equivalent of gold watches, paired up and practically married off, and were last seen waltzing into a picture-perfect sunset. The Sopranos clan - bearish Tony, trophy Carmela, princess Meadow and whining A.J - were in the middle of ordering dinner when the screen faded to black.
            After 86 episodes and a run longer than the presidency of George Bush, is this it? For a television show known for intricate arcing plot lines, cutting-edge obscenity and a quality of acting usually only seen on the big screen, is an ending this abrupt just?
            Sure, the bungling Soprano clan had managed (finally!) to whack photosho shopped Don Phil Leotardo, but more questions were asked than answered. Did the perpetually-slouched Silvio recover from his gunshot-induced coma? Does Tony, waste management king, ever move into New York City with an eye on becoming the boss of bosses? Does the FBI man ever get over his bad curry from Karachi? And did A.J, ostensibly in his late teens, finally manage to outgrow infancy?
            Viewers are inevitably left with conflicting views about Tony given that he was, albeit loveable, a sociopath. In the very first episode, the bearlike suburban Don introduced himself to psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi: His name was Anthony Soprano and he had been depressed.

                Tony: The morning of the day I got sick, I been thinking. It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.
                Jennifer: Many Americans, I think, feel that way.
                Tony: I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lotta ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. Today, whadda we got?

            Through the entire series Tony and Jennifer sparred on the couch and discussed family and work and hinted at matters  much darker. He fretted about his family (both criminal and nuclear), was torn over his parents (his father was an idol, his mother a murderous harpy) and was afflicted with the same sort of aspirational middle class malaise suffered by most of those watching the show.
            When A.J. attempted suicide, Tony moaned over the cost of mental health care. When his defacto son Chris became a junkie, the Family agonised over rehab. The best elements of The Sopranos emphasised family drama over the blood-and-guts styling of Mafioso warfare. This was a serious Desperate Housewives, with peyote-fuelled orgies in Las Vegas with goomah taking the place of discrete affairs with the gardener, and gunfights instead of catfights.
            Petty crimes, petty tragedies and common complaints defined the series. Could anyone summon the moral courage to care for a increasingly senile, yet technically senior, Uncle Junior? Would nightmarish sister Janice finally throw off her narcissism? Would Chris, stalker of Ben Kingsley and dreamer of Hollywood, make it to the twelfth step? We’ll never know, because beneath Tony’s petty worries and likeable veneer lay a genuine sociopath – and David Chase seems little different.
            During the build-up to this weeks’ finale Tony’s mask of respectability family man was finally torn off. Chris, back on the coke, was suffocated by his enraged boss. When daughter Meadow was slighted by a drunken mobster, Tony went nuts and smashed in the guy’s teeth, throwing his closest associates and friends into a war that would see many long-serving characters killed.
            And at his birthday celebrations, Tony repaid the gift of an expensive new machine-gun from his associate Bobby with a drunken brawl – which the boss lost and sulked over. Later, in the penultimate episode, Bobby was gunned down shopping for model trains. The boss that triggered that chain of events leading to this murder, and others, was left clutching his birthday present, anxiously trying to fall asleep on the lam. Matte-black machine guns make strange security blankets.
            Melfi the psychiatrist, whose chin-wags with Tony were the catalyst for the entire series, showed more perception than the series creator, and acted for viewers, when she cast judgement and dumped her client. She realised her therapy sessions were allowing the mobster to hone fraudulent empathy, allowing a stone-cold killer to pretend he had an emotional quotient higher than a shark.
            Yet in Jaws, the monster got it in the end. In The Sopranos, despite stringing along the possibility that the FBI were assembling a case, rival families were angling for a hit, and even that his heart might give out, Tony lives to fight another day. Justice would see the series close out like The Godfather, with Tony in total control of the city after knocking off his rivals, or climax like Scarface with an all-in shootout leaving the protagonist, covered in blood and glory, dying the way he lived.
            And the hanging Sword of Damocles, in this case a pending trial, remains, frustratingly, dangling. Tony as jailbait? Tony as turncoat? The possibilities were mouth-watering, but – Fughedaboutit! – with this travesty of an ending we’ll never know. After the credits rolled, we’re left with the disturbing thought that, after that blank screen, life just plods along on for Tony and The Sopranos: This rough beast keeps slouching in New Jersey.

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