Let me tell you something. Nowadays everyone’s got to go to shrinks, and counsellors, and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type?
– Tony Soprano
I’ve been looking for a new tip-top TV show to get into. There are reasons for this. My mother suggested I watch Homeland. She told me it was very good. I watched the first series and left it there. It started very well but became ridiculous. I liked the idea of an American marine becoming a Muslim while in captivity and then working against his own side when he finally gets free, but as series one continued the writers lost their bottle. Brody’s motivation was “revealed” to be the death of the young son of his captor in a – you guessed it – American bombing raid. His distress at the boy’s death, natural enough of course, is meant to have been enough for him to take a suicide mission designed to kill half the US administration while they’re hiding in a bunker from a sniper whose fire is calculated to drive them there in the first place. In addition – and even more ridiculous – is the idea he’d leave his own child fatherless for such a reason. There’re two problems with Homeland’s premise: one is the motivation they give Brody, the second is the motivation the writers took the trouble to avoid giving him: religious motivation. I told my mother that I’d stopped watching it because it was ridiculous for these reasons. This is not to say the show is poorly made because it’s not: the acting is outstanding and the money has been spent; actually, it’s not even badly written, but the ridiculous, cowardly premise ruins the whole thing for me. Remember, Homeland is fiction, but it’s not a fantasy story – it’s a realist drama and Brody’s “motivation” isn’t realistic.
Then I tried two shows which are structured and written in exactly the same way. House and Lie to Me. Hugh Laurie became famous playing Dr. House and I hear the show was a huge success with many series being made. He’s a guy who finds the cures for puzzling medical conditions. Tim Roth is Cal Lightman, founder of the Lightman Group. Dr. Lightman is a psychologist and deception expert who finds out who’s lying or hiding something when odd or puzzling criminal cases are too baffling for the FBI or police or his corporate clients. Both chaps have a regular team of subordinates who become routinely frustrated and bemused (but always impressed come the end of the episode) by their unorthodox boss.
Gregory House is supposed to be “grumpy” or “cantankerous” but I can’t see it at all. There’s no spite under the sarcasm: his worst put-downs are in the words but not the delivery. He’s far too nice. I thought this was a problem with Laurie’s accent, but it’s not. His accent is irritatingly good. He uses the same US accent that Kenneth Branagh used in Dead Again. It’s that accent which requires the words to gargle about in the back of the throat for a moment before being offered. The sound which covers the search for words is the British “erm” or “um” which in American is pronounced “arm” with a wet, gargling “R” sound. I assume this technique is meant to make the speaker sound realistic because even the sound of him searching for words has an American accent. Excellent technique, granted, but it irritates me for some reason.
Cal Lightman doesn’t have this problem because while the show is set in Washington, the character is English. Lie to Me is (loosely) based on the work of Paul Ekman, the psychologist who developed the Facial Action Coding System and is a genuine expert in spotting hidden emotions. There’s nothing to distinguish between the shows in terms of structure: there is the expert, his team, the main case and one or two sub-plot cases per episode. The difference is Tim Roth’s performance as compared to Hugh Laurie’s. He plays Lightman like an educated football hooligan: the idea he might “kick off” any moment is always there. Roth shifts about on his feet when stationary and talking to a suspect quite a lot; he drops his shoulders and tilts his head in that English “what did you just say?” type way, like he’s looking for an excuse to give you a smack. Although both shows are made in that drama-by-numbers-network-gloss style, Roth’s performance pushes Lie to Me above the level of House and I’ve no idea why it ran only for only three seasons.
I tried Breaking Bad at the suggestion of a woman from my office. The premise sounded good fun: a chemistry teacher, diagnosed with lung cancer decides to make and sell crystal meth to raise funds for his family after his death. I “sweated” the whole thing on Netflix over two weeks. Walter White is a superb character and is played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston whose low-key portrayal is set against many other excellent characters. There’s Jesse “biatch” Pinkman; the insane, psychopathic Tuco; the icy yet somehow charming Gus Fring; his enforcer, the world-weary “seen-it-all” Mike (one of the best characters in the show); the deranged (and frighteningly calm) Todd Alquist and the hilarious shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman. It’s a show where the characters are not just names, the characters actually have character. As good as Breaking Bad is I can’t believe many fans of the show were happy with the ending.
I tried The Americans but managed only a few episodes because the idea of KGB agents roaming about America wearing false facial fuzz and breaking every rule of tradecraft was too much to bear.
I had a go at The Following in which Kevin Bacon plays a former FBI agent trying to round up the weird, cultish followers of a serial killer he put away. This show is annoying. First, the loon is played by James Purefoy which irritates because he’s British and the evil guy having a British accent is now a cliché in US films and TV. Second because Purefoy has a smug, oily look smeared over his face which might not come from his acting. The Following is another example of a drama-by-numbers-network-gloss type show.
And, again on my mother’s recommendation, I managed series one to three of Dexter – a truly weird show which doesn’t know if it’s a comedy or a horror. The premise of Dexter is as daft as Homeland. Okay, the poor little lamb saw some horrid things while in a freight container, and, okay, he was a small chap at the time so you could forgive his growing up a little odd. But that’s the problem. The flashback scenes with Dexter and his pops discussing his lack of “empathy” and “feeling” and what not are ridiculous. A person is not born with what Dexter was meant to have lost. Dexter treats Dexter’s “condition” as a physical, unchangeable reality – like having one leg or one arm. That he’s an iceman in his teens is actually daft considering his adoptive father’s kindness. But one has to be slightly kinder about Dexter than Brody from Homeland because Dexter isn’t quite as realist as Homeland is meant to be.
Dexter is interesting for the question upon which the show is based: why do we like what he does? He only kills the bad guys and this is popular enough for someone to write the cheques for eight series even though he tortures and mutilates humans. This is a show which reflects back to the viewer a serious problem with the human animal. Read your Stanley Milgram. This can be unsettling because the comedy in the show disarms us somewhat.
I tried Nurse Jackie for two series before getting bored but I’m going back for more. She is what I’d call a bad good-guy – the opposite of Dexter who is a good bad-guy. That’s she’s a bad good-guy doesn’t make her necessarily likeable. Jackie is a drug addict who cheats on her husband with the pharmacist who illegally supplies the drugs for her back pain. The pharmacist doesn’t know she’s married – indeed only one of her colleagues does because she ditches her wedding ring prior to showing up for work. Only her trusted best friend, Dr. O’Hara, has any clue about her domestic set-up and knows also she’s seeing the pharmacist. Jackie seems an amoral, lying, cheating junkie but her character is also caring, worried for others aware of her own dishonesty. There are similarities between Jackie Peyton and Dexter Morgan and Gregory House and Cal Lightman: they are all flawed but brilliant or flawed but caring; unconventional in their approach to work, have a healthy disrespect for the “rules” and find themselves “on thin ice” rather a lot. They are variations on the same (or similar) theme.
I had some hope for Mad Men and lasted about three episodes. It looks beautiful but it wasn’t interesting enough quickly enough to hook me. I should probably re visit Mad Men and give it another chance; this is one show where I’m sure I’m not being fair.
The problem with these shows – and others I haven’t mentioned – is, as good as some of them are on their own terms, I watched all of them after watching the show I consider to be the greatest television show: The Sopranos.
It is seventy one hours of television spread over eighty-six episodes across six series.
Any show could be as well acted, many of those I’ve mentioned are. All are well written and have budgets large enough to match the requirements of the script, but none of them – none of them – can touch The Sopranos.
The premise is a simple one: the pilot episode begins with Tony Soprano having his first therapy session with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a psychiatrist recommended by Soprano’s family doctor. He tells her about his “panic attack” and the loss of consciousness which followed. It is during this session, via voice-over and flashback, we learn that Tony’s business isn’t in the mainstream and his day starts by hitting a debtor with his nephew’s car outside the man’s office and punching him right in the exposed bone to make a point. This first encounter between Melfi and Soprano is beautiful. He’s tells her him and the guy “went for coffee” while we get to see what really happened. She stops and reminds him the doctor who referred him to her is also his next-door neighbour, and does he get her point? By the second episode Tony’s problems are subtly laid bare for all to see. Consider this plain exchange between Tony and his mother:
Livia: “I phoned your house. Some operator answered the phone. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.”
Tony: “Ma, how many times I gotta tell ya? That’s not an operator. That’s an answering machine.”
This is early in the episode and occurs just after Tony is irritated by a staff member struggling to work the new phones. It doesn’t sound important because there’s a small fire in Livia’s house and this seems more important. We easily forget this exchange and Tony’s dialogue because of what follows.
However, toward the end of the episode, Tony walks out on Melfi again, irritated by what she’s suggesting. Tony is unhappy because his mother won’t speak to him after he moves her to an expensive nursing home.
Melfi: “Can you admit to yourself that, yes, you’re sad, but you’re very angry and full of rage.”
Tony: “I’m sad!”
Melfi: “It’s hard to admit that you might have feelings of hatred toward your own mother, isn’t it?”
Tony: “You’re out of your tree.”
Melfi: “Listen to me carefully. Of course you love her. What I’m trying to say is own the anger instead of displacing it. Otherwise, it defines your life.”
The next (and final) scene of the episode is in the strip club where poor Georgie is back on the phone while Tony is sat at the bar, just watching. He’s still struggling to work the device and is talking to Tony in relaxed way down the bar:
Georgie: “Shit. A– what do you call it?– a menu. “Press two if you know your party’s extension.” Is that an operator or an answering machine? Let’s see. Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? “Press zero.” Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello – ”
He doesn’t get to finish because Tony loses his temper and smacks the telephone receiver a couple of times into Georgie’s head. It’s easy to think Tony’s patience vaporised after the last time Georgie failed to work the phone properly. It didn’t. He’s reacting to something Georgie said which reminds him of the frustration he feels with his mother, and Georgie’s head takes the place of Livia’s. Tony, as Melfi just warned him against, is “displacing” his anger.
This scene then closes with the girls in the strip club looking on for a moment, then – and this might be part of the problem – those darn ladies begin their bewitching dance again and we can ponder Melfi’s warning “It defines your life” as the screen fades slowly to black. It’s a wonderful visual suggestion about a man’s relationship with women; the power they have and the dysfunctional relationship he has with his mother.
That is the keystone to the show: Tony’s rage at his mother is displaced and his life (and career) is built on that displaced anger. It’s the character’s tragedy: an exceptional person, a leader of men, follows his father into the business, yet his success in the business, that he makes it all the way to boss, is thanks to his mother not loving him. His success is built on sadness. The ironies and the tragedies in The Sopranos run very deep indeed.
What marks the show out from others is the writing. Many shows are written well – some superbly – but I can think of no show written like The Sopranos. The show was written, or came to be, at any rate, in the same way a composer will write melodies for vocalists. Composers will write for the person’s voice and The Sopranos was written, that is the dialogue and the characters’ personalities, were written for the face of the actor who was playing whatever character.
I realised this after watching Boardwalk Empire and deciding there was “something” wrong with it. Steve Buscemi starred in Boardwalk Empire and also, briefly, in The Sopranos. His face didn’t fit the Boardwalk character, I thought; his face was too friendly, too comedic. It was these very traits which marked –out the character he played in The Sopranos. In that show his character – a professional gangster – was always goofing about, doing impressions and comedy voices and cracking jokes; in Boardwalk he was serious but I couldn’t take him seriously. He wasn’t scary. I was sure that not a word of Buscemi’s Sopranos character was written before he was cast; yet his role in Boardwalk seemed not to be “tailor-written” as it were. It took a long time to find what I was looking for. Vanity Fair did a retrospective piece on The Sopranos and the writing-for-the-face technique was mentioned. I saw this online and decided to congratulate myself for having some sensitivity to the writing and the acting. But I thought this was odd given that Boardwalk Empire was created by Terence Winter, the man who wrote over two-dozen episodes of The Sopranos.
Another aspect of the writing aspect worth noting is the merging of Tony Soprano’s two lives: the family man and the gangster. In series one an entire episode, College, was dedicated to showing the problems caused by “crossover.” By the final season the writers had condensed this into a fine art. In one episode, Tony discusses how to get a rival killed: who to use, the tactics and so on, then tells his mob subordinates in the next sentence he has to go to get “some tyres for Carmela’s car”: an example of the abnormal and normal in his life being shown through terse dialogue. With the dialogue there is one technique used in The Sopranos I haven’t noticed anywhere else.
The writers often would have characters repeating another character’s dialogue. For instance: Tony might say to Christopher, ‘Think about the big picture” when demanding he stop robbing a construction site because there is more money to be made long-term, and Christopher then, later in the episode, repeats the same line to his girlfriend about another matter. This simple technique shows the characters are actually listening, not just repeating robotic, plot-driving words. It makes them vulnerable and therefore more realistic. Such a simple thing has a huge impact and I’m amazed more writers don’t do it.
There is always talk about this ‘classic’ novel or that ‘classic’ film and sometimes with justification; The Sopranos should be spoken about in ‘classic’ terms because it is televised literature.