The Sopranos Finale Now

Note: if you’ve never watched through The Sopranos, I’m gonna be majorly spoiling the ending here, as per the title of the article. So go do that then come back.

There were two creators who essentially put HBO on the map as a place to get things besides boxing matches, second run movies and softcore porn. They’re Garry Shandling and David Chase. Both brought wholly new things to the TV medium but couldn’t have come from more different perspectives on it. Shandling took TV seriously as a place to create deep intricate work long before anybody else did and he did so out of a reverence for the medium, even if that reverence seemed to curdle over time.

Chase created great TV in order to spite the medium. Chase was getting even for not being afforded the opportunity to work in film. Ironically, in doing so he set the stage for TV to rise in social prominence beyond the feature film. He showed where TV was actually a more dynamic medium that had distinct formal strengths feature film didn’t. And in the time since The Sopranos aired, I can’t think of a year where more interesting things were going on in the feature film world than on TV.

The Sopranos, for being the supposed original epicenter of “binge TV”, isn’t actually that bingeable. This is one of its strengths. It meanders. It’s savoring the freedom afforded by premium cable because that freedom wasn’t a given at the time. Even though there’s a decent amount of “action”, it moves more slowly than any major show in the US TV canon besides maybe the original run of Star Trek. The “grand themes” that arise feel natural because they arose, like the “grand themes” in any work, as a continuity in the preoccupations of its creator.

I don’t envy him and his writer’s room however when it came time to wrap things up.

There’s a certain joy that comes in seeing a grand plan executed with intent and intricacy. But at the same time, this can lead to a show that feels like examining the insides of a watch-you’re impressed by how many purposeful little things can harmoniously share a small space, but whatever emotional impact is going to be blunted by the image of the perfect distancing you from the impacts of the real. A loose end makes a world seem larger and more mysterious, a Chekhov’s gun reminds me I’m in a theater.

The Sopranos is not an intricately designed show, just an emotionally honest one. Like a therapy session, it confronts things because they’re unresolved. It doesn’t force resolution as an orgasm substitute. If something doesn’t seem to want to resolve, they just…don’t resolve it. Where’s the Czech guy in the woods at the end of the episode “Pine Barrens”? Who knows. Who cares.

This comfort with a lack of resolution led to what I’m here to talk about today-the finale. It’s probably the most iconic TV finale ever aired. But it’s confusing. It doesn’t give you what you’ve been trained to want from an ending, and seems ambivalent about the idea of endings in general.

I’ll try to summarize it here. After a bloody turf war that seems poised to bring down the Soprano crime organization, we cut ahead to some unspecified time in the future. We watch the Soprano family members gather to meet in a cheesy diner. This takes quite a while. We’re watching Meadow attempt to park her car for longer than I’ve seen anyone park a car on TV without it crashing into something or exploding. Once they’re in the restaurant, an interior set we’ve never seen before, Tony tells us the onion rings there are great. “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey comes on. In perhaps the single most Godardian moment ever shown on US TV, Steve Perry sings “Don’t stop–” and the show stops. Literally. There’s just black leader and silence.

Many people watching at home reported thinking their TV had died. Most presumed the ending was a bluff or a petering out-an admission that tying the whole thing up in a neat little bow was in fact impossible. Maybe it was.

I don’t think it was though. I think if we analyze the Sopranos ending the way we’d analyze a European art movie from the 70s, it all comes together pretty neatly for something as sprawling and filled with nooks and crannies as The Sopranos.

As Stan mentioned in his piece on the show, the primary conflict/theme is inter-generational differences. Tony can’t escape the overbearing shadow of his mother and father, his children can’t escape the fact their prosperous childhood was built on blood money. The thing that allows them all to continue on as they have forever is simultaneously what keeps them from breaking through to some sort of happiness.

In the final season we are repeatedly faced with changes of the guard; things moving forward regardless of characters’ wishes. In some sense, overcoming trauma is an act of positive forgetting. You don’t have memories, you clutch them. At a certain point that little voice in your head that sounds like Marie Kondo is telling you to let them go. But this isn’t as easy as it might seem; your identity is often tied up in your resentments. Sometimes you need a push.

In the case of Tony Soprano, the memory of his trauma is one and the same as his identity and personal code; in spite of his performances of power, he is entirely a product of his environment. As it is for many of us, his “big other” in Lacanian terms, the invisible imagined voice pestering him about what is and isn’t acceptable, are his dead father and mother. They’re the memory of the old country, heritage, the extent to which we are disallowed from self-invention from the outset.

Artie the chef, Tony’s comic foil, is allowed to come to actual peace with this-the last time we see him, even with his bandaged hand, he seems fine and is perusing the book of recipes he inherited. He’s allowed to take from the old world while living in the new one.

When Tony’s mother dies, Tony’s resentment is passed to his sister and Uncle Junior. When times get lean, Tony realizes on some level his commitment to the old ways is holding him back. When Tony sees Uncle Junior has lost all his memories and doesn’t remember who Tony even is, Tony suddenly feels fine selling the old egg store to Jambha Juice. Seeing Uncle Junior has gone completely senile is Tony cutting his ties to the past, killing Christopher is him cutting ties to its continuance-the past’s future if you will. And the meetings with Jambha Juice underscore just how little relevance the way of life we’ve followed throughout the entire series had. A new set of kingpins, with vastly more money and the power to just take more money legally, will make the Italian mob irrelevant. The new lieutenants and capos are lawyers and executives. The new world will reign regardless of what Tony does. The criminal syndicates to beat now aren’t a bunch of elderly Italian guys in New Jersey, but the politicians waging an illegal war in Iraq-the irony of AJ being gung ho to join the military. He’d still be killing people so crooks could collect money, he’d just be doing it outside the family, for an organization that values snitches.

Throughout the show, we see all the horrific ways the sausage gets made so that this family can sit in average-ness at a generic diner. The mob family is no longer around, only the immediate nuclear family. The cycle of horror will continue, but the way of life of the old country is dead.

Maybe on some level Tony even realizes that if his kids succeed in the way he wants them to, the old country will be lost anyway. Meadow’s taking about as whitebread a third generation immigrant path as you can take in the finale. They were Italians but they’re Italian-Americans now.

Might as well enjoy some onion rings…

 

 

 

 

Oz: The Actual Prison is Your TV

One of my favorite TV series of all time is the short lived Canadian sitcom Twitch City. The show follows the life of a man named Curtis, who literally never leaves his apartment and watches TV all day. We’re confronted with the infinity mirror of us sitting on a couch watching TV where a guy on a couch watches TV of another guy on a couch watching TV in the starkest terms imaginable.

In one of my favorite moments in the series, Curtis discusses an episode of Gilligan’s Island. I’ve never actually seen the Gilligan episode, but apparently it involves a very fake looking octopus monster attacking the cast. Curtis points out that the thing trapping them all on the island isn’t the fake looking monster. The reason they’re acting afraid of the monster isn’t the monster. The thing trapping them on the island is us. They act afraid for our benefit. So long as we keep watching, Gilligan can’t leave the island.

And so it is with jumping the shark. Shark jumping can be accounted for in many ways-a change of writing staff, a budget cut, etc. But what we’re ultimately looking at are fictional things a la Meseeks that have passed the point of wanting to please us, have no meaning to their existence, and want to disappear but can’t because we won’t let them.

No show ever jumped the shark as dramatically as Oz, which started out as one of the best and boldest things ever shown on TV and ends with the worst series finale I’ve ever seen after 2 1/2 seasons of the worst scripted TV I’ve ever seen.

But let’s talk about the good stuff first.

Oz is noteworthy for many many reasons. It was the first hour long scripted drama that HBO ever aired and the first show to truly push the outer limits of what was allowed on premium cable vis a vis violence and sexual content. It was one of the only shows on TV at the time that spent a lot of time considering LGBTQ and black issues. It presented the most harshly critical indictment of US society seen on TV up to that point. Episodes have bizarre meandering structures uninhibited by advertisement-induced act breaks. All the innovations present in 90s cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Street are explored in a new sandbox without rules. No Oz means no Sopranos, no Wire, no Deadwood, basically TV in the 00s is an entirely different beast without Oz.

My interest in Oz is primarily due to this transitional status. The premium scripted cable drama didn’t really come into its own until a year or two later with The Sopranos, so there are many points in Oz that stand as fascinating roads not taken-what 00s TV could’ve become in some alternate universe.

Foremost among these is the strangely stage-like monologing to the camera that bookends each episode. Prisoner Augustus Hill, confined to a wheelchair, talks about something that seems random but integrates itself into the themes of a given episode. These work, but its hard to imagine them becoming a trope of prestige TV at large even though Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions often serve a similar function on The Sopranos. But even that trope was largely discarded, and the number of scenes of people talking to therapists even in shows that ostensibly about mental health are minimal. For example, Bojack Horseman is almost entirely about depression, but the only two times we see an actual therapy session are both just winking jokes about The Sopranos.

But back to Oz. Oz is an incredibly difficult show to talk about I guess because it does sit between so many contradictions and transitional points. It’s stagey where the future of prestige TV was overwhelmingly cinematic, it’s good for a while then its terrible, it makes bolder political points than any of the shows that followed it but often does so artlessly.

While the initial draw is its place in the HBO canon, the show it most reminds me of is Degrassi. Like Degrassi, the show thrives when showing long term changes in personality and character. Like Degrassi, it takes place in an institution where a wide cross section of society interacts directly because they have no choice but to be there. Like Degrassi, it loves controversial subjects-it goes there. Like Degrassi, the protagonist is a building, not a person. Like Degrassi, the cast shifts in and out all the time and there’s no person you can presume is a permanent cast member.

It’s what I guess you could call “an institution show”. While many many shows take place in institutions, few of them are so fully confined to them. In Oz, this is exaggerated to the point that we never see the prisoners do any kind of outdoor recreation-it was a conscious choice at the outset. While Degrassi was never structured to have a star or primary protagonist, it didn’t start placing 95% of the action in the high school until later on. However, like Oz leaving the prison, when Degrassi leaves the high school it suffers a drop in quality (the college storylines in season 5-6 of Degrassi: TNG are godawful.) Unlike Degrassi, which peaked early but has generally been very good in spurts for ~40 years now, when Oz jumps the shark in the middle of season 4, it never comes back.

Unlike somewhat more balanced shows that came later, pretty much everyone is awful except for the prison psychologist(played by the miraculously ageless EGOT-er Rita Moreno, who’s 88 now and still regularly doing TV.) At a certain point, the lack of a foil mixed with the showrunner’s stunned disbelief HBO would let him show (insert literally anything that ever happened on Oz here) create a perfect storm of awfulness. By the end, the characters may as well all be named Itchy or Scratchy-they exist in a pointless cycle of stabbing and/or maiming each other, but with soap opera elements Itchy and Scratchy smartly avoided.

I don’t really blame writer/creator Tom Fontana (who wrote every single episode, a rarity for US TV) for that. He was handed a blank slate, and for 4 years his boundary pushing yielded results. He made a lot of the mistakes first, at least in this context. And they can be kinda fascinating for that reason-a mistake can carry a certain fascination in its freshness. Bad is bad, but most shows don’t give us one year of great TV, much less four.

The characters show a less than hopeful view of US society. Sex-addicted, well meaning but ineffectual warden Tim McManus is both sympathetic (for the most part) but also an indictment of incremental reform, of running an inherently rotten system in a slightly more humane way. The enormous and imposing Simon Adebisi is pure ambition with seemingly nothing under it-he takes what he wants; he seems to have no god beyond his own sensory desires. Political activist Kareem Said, the only prisoner where we’re never given a flashback to the crime he committed, exists as a foil to McManus-like McManus, he sees the way to make change as being through the inside, unlike McManus he’s not stuck in a sea of bureaucracy and can’t be distracted whatever female guards the prison hires. Said is as close as we get to an outright admirable character.

If it ended after the 8th episode of season 4, Oz would’ve been just the slightest step below the HBO trinity (Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos) in the TV canon. Its inherent structural deficiencies would’ve been less noticeable. But since they are, I’m just gonna end here with my number one complaint:

Whenever we see the correctional officers at their perch looking down on the prisoners, we see rows upon rows of Sony Trinitron monitors for a CCTV surveillance system. We see picture on these TVs. Yet somehow, somebody gets murdered almost every episode, sometimes multiple people, and there’s never any video evidence or suggestion video evidence might exist.

Maybe the Trinitrons represent us?

 

Hollywoo Babylon: Bojack Horseman and the End of TV’s Golden Age

One of the few silver linings of the otherwise atrocious situation we all have found ourselves in is that I was able to watch Netflix’s Bojack Horseman from beginning to end over two months rather than 6 years. Watching it as it came out, I appreciated the show but I don’t think the full scale of what was accomplished there came into relief until now.

During this article, when I write BH I’m talking about the show, when I write out Bojack Horseman I’m talking specifically about the character.

This review is gonna contain a lot of spoilers, and the show is very much worth watching. So if you haven’t seen it, go watch it and come back. The article will still be here.

Anyway, BH’s bizarre mixture of tones and techniques made for a confusing show at the outset. We have the tropes of the dark male anti-hero with a terrible childhood of Mad Men or The Sopranos (Breaking Bad’s largest formal innovation honestly was probably its complete lack of interest in Walter White’s childhood). There’s a long-suffering female character, Princess Caroline, whose relationship to the protagonist veers uncomfortably between relating to the protagonist like a lover or their mother. The protagonist then does bad things and we’re expected to explore perhaps our favorite conflict as a culture-how do we deal with people who we find personally likeable who do bad things, especially when that person is us?

But while engaging the tropes of the live action anti-hero TV drama, we’re also thrust into a brightly colored world filled with an enormous volume of background gags a la The Simpsons. We have things that begin to suggest parody or meta-criticism. The opening sequence, an animation of Bojack falling from a great height into his pool, is obviously supposed to evoke the opening of Mad Men while also evoking the opening of Sunset Boulevard. Yet at the same time, we’re looking at a cartoon horse, and, already being very familiar with the Mad Men opening, it feels somewhat ridiculous. Bojack’s sidekick Todd, voiced by the man who played Walter White’s sidekick Jesse on Breaking Bad, makes the initial impression of being a sort of riff on Jesse. Other examples of tonally diffused pastiche abound. By bringing all these self-aware elements into the tent, the show is very much a reckoning with the latest golden age of TV, what it actually all meant, and what that golden age has wrought.

The merger of animation absurdism with dark psychological realism seems like it shouldn’t work because on paper because the functional mechanisms of each would seem to clash. We take the darkness of the psychology of TV drama somewhat seriously because of the grounded tone of the programs right? Absurdist humor in that context would seem to suggest a lack of respect for the struggles of the characters and their trauma right?

This problem has tripped up many comedic and dramatic shows that have attempted to go into serious or dark territory-as a writer you don’t want to give the sense of disliking your characters especially when the audience is supposed to find them relatable. At best you need to leave them ambiguous, or as in the case of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, implicate and then scold the viewer for their relating to the protagonist. But then you have a different problem: scolding in a power fantasy tends to just underline the powerlessness of the person doing the scolding and powerful qualities of the transgressor. Both of those shows could be very funny, but the humor wasn’t an expected occurrence and as such is consumed by the viewer as gravy in between weightier things. We relate to the characters of Tony Soprano and Walter White in certain ways, but we’re never given much ambiguity as to whether they’re bad people or not-they’re both very much terrible people.

Depending on how the TV industry deals with COVID-19, we could be looking at the end of TV’s second golden age. If this is the case, then BH is the epilogue to this period; one could say the golden age of TV began with the debut of The Simpsons and it may have ended with the BH finale. And even if we do get another show that’s as good, I’m not sure any other show could summarize, reflect, and move forward from that period as brilliantly as BH. The world building of The Simpsons meets the dark psychology of the anti-hero drama; the cultural optimism of the 90s is put in relief with the US decline of the 2010s; the innocuous but wholesome values we all told ourselves we held weren’t held very deeply or adopted with much consideration. The promise of a utopia made out of domestic boredom with slight hiccups, the bill of goods sold by the 80s and 90s family sitcom, turns out to be a barely functional repression of the id. When Bojack sees his fictional daughter for the first time, he goes on a bender and has wildly inappropriate sexual relations with her. We escape into boredom but long to get in trouble. Generally we lack the resources to get into too much trouble. But Bojack Horseman doesn’t.

The interior of the domestic home is probably the most potent and evocative symbol in the TV medium. This is the case for a number of reasons, primarily because it is while situated in the home that TV most resembles a wavy and distorted Narcissus mirror of the physical conditions where we consume TV. Technical limitations led to most early TV being relegated to one or two backdrops, one of which was almost always a recreated kitchen or living room on a studio set. This living room or kitchen is generally far more clean, orderly, and unchanging than the living rooms and kitchens of our actual homes. This living room is missing a wall because it exists to be observed. No one actually lives there.

In BH we have two primary “house” locations that constitute the world of Bojack-#1 we have the place elsewhere that was never actually real, can easily be projected onto, and ergo is the place most favored by Bojack, namely the Horsin’ Around set. #2 we have Bojack’s actual home. To further bring this contrast home, the majority of instances where we see the Horsin’ Around set, we’re also treated to reverse shots of a drugged up Bojack sitting alone in his giant mansion.

Bojack’s own house is extremely symbolic. We have the shelter of the house itself, the pool (which, if we experience the water shortage issues I think we’re going to, is going to look more and more potent as a sign of hedonistic self-indulgence) and then a giant cliff looking out into the stars the show uses to represent the void. We’re given few symbolic markers of death throughout the show but numerous symbolic markers of nothingness. The nothingness is the scary part of both life and death. Death is not going to provide the narrative closure and catharsis we want from this narrative.

Whenever we’re shown the inside of any other house besides Mr Peanutbutter’s, its usually to explore some aspect of Bojack’s desire both to self-destruct and to return to the domestic simplicity of childhood he never got to experience. This is most notable in the storyline where Bojack goes to New Mexico and stays with the family of an old friend for months. He gets some taste of what a functional family feels like. But ultimately its not his family. He doesn’t really have a family. He can’t handle the cognitive dissonance of knowing he finally got what he wanted but its on loan. He self-destructs yet again and leaves because he wants to have control over the heartbreak of his inevitably having to leave anyway.

That this self-sabotage takes the form of trying to have sex with the mother and then the daughter suggests heavy Freudian overtones-that Bojack’s healing from his abusive mother, at least in Bojack’s mind, needs to take the form of both radical acceptance he’s never going to get and violation of society’s norms and rules as revenge for his perception society abandoned him. Or, as he tends to put it, “nobody cares about me.” In a nihilistic rejection of society comes a profound sense of loneliness and lack but also brief feelings of incredible yet fleeting power; you’re alone but you can do what you want in brief moments because in your own eyes the social contract has been voided. There’s never an actual sense of ease, but brief surges of feeling powerful by violating social codes give a fleeting and illusory sense of control. When, as in the case of Bojack, there is no normal to return to, no equilibrium to reach, this can be a tempting proposition.

If we zoom out and take a macro view, Bojack’s self-indulgent excess in the face of extravagant wealth and good fortune can be seen as a metaphor for the decline of the US generally. The collective we were on top of the world for a long time. Many of us were granted material comforts that in prior centuries would’ve only been given to kings. Yet we continue to squander what’s left of this windfall in self-destructive posturing, and feel miserable doing so. We can’t replace the things we never got from other people with objects. And I think that narrative has played itself out enough where we don’t genuinely believe it anymore. But we don’t have an alternative thing to replace them with, so we keep trying to make the objects do it like a cargo cult. If the US is truly the greatest country on Earth, then why is our most substantial domestic product escapism?

Bojack is beloved by millions but feels unloved. Bojack has all the possessions you could ever want but all he feels is lack. In earlier anti-hero shows, there was, amidst all the moral posturing, hints you could potentially have it all. Tony Soprano is never really happy, but he can indulge in food, sex, and recreational consumerism as much as he wants. Walter White was gonna die anyway, but before he goes he gets to live out his Scarface fantasy and redeem himself by killing Nazis. On the sitcom side, the most superficially similar show to Bojack ever made, You’re the Worst, featured a finale where the friend Jimmy has abused goes out of his way to make sure Jimmy’s happy, and depression magically cures itself and love conquers all with some technical differences from the standard issue fantasy. There are moments of reckoning, but a fear that too harsh a reckoning will alienate the audience. TV wants us to know it personally but not so much as it wants to be liked.

Genuine happiness in the midst of rampant self-indulgence is impossible, yet our culture’s go-to self medication for feeling unhappy is rampant self-indulgence. And at the height of US imperialism abroad, this was almost taken as a sign of pride-we’re unhappy, we work too much, but we have cooler stuff than everywhere else and the reassurance that, through privilege, things will generally be fine even if we aren’t happy. In some cases, misery and stress are seen as points of pride, signs that one is on the level. A stressed out person with a nice house is seen as admirable, a relaxed person on the verge of homelessness is seen as a leech.

The split final season of BH is the first TV anti-hero reckoning that has come since the US finally accepted it was in decline and it shows. A once arrogantly proud and powerful creature has run out of options; he looks forward at us with his back to the stars and the void. He’s still here, but the idea of himself is dead without any promise of rebirth, the rituals he used to comfort himself and assert control have lost whatever potency they had. His self-indulgence didn’t lead to excitement or adventure-it didn’t make life at least heightened if unpleasant. It just scared away the people who cared about him and ruined him financially. The prior anti-hero reckonings meet their own meta-reckoning.

Season 6B of BH also extends the exploration of the social values hidden in tropes back to the 1930s with an extended riff on the first ever romantic comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. In this movie, as in many 30s screwball comedies, a fast talking but extremely charismatic rogue is presented to a woman who’s engaged to a guy who’s nice enough but boring. In season 6B of BH we’re introduced to two reporter characters who are absurd caricatures of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. They act out riffs on various scenes from the film. Meanwhile, we’re given two romantic resolutions that stand as direct criticisms of the It Happened One Night values.

When Diane meets literal Chicago Bull and future husband Guy, I don’t think any viewers would say he’s actually that interesting or compelling. Honestly he’s kinda boring. But he’s stable and supportive. And Diane only escapes her cycle of self destructive behavior by realizing the thing that’s less exciting is better for her, and that she has to reject the thing hurting her (Bojack) even if she probably loves and understands Bojack more than she does Guy. To further underline this point, Bojack’s agent Princess Caroline, who begins the series in an extremely unfulfilling romantic relationship with Bojack, ends the series by marrying the least Bojack-like character on the series, Jonah.She begins the series thinking her only value is as a caregiver but eventually, like Diane, realizes it not an awful thing she needs someone to take care of her too.

A thing they tell you in therapy that isn’t discussed much outside therapy is that dysfunction is very compelling and exciting. Often moreso than the alternative. You know its bad for you but you feel almost bodily compelled to stay like when you accidentally touch electrical current. Your brain releases strong chemicals like adrenaline and conditions your supply on getting hooked into repetitions of the dysfunction. But like electrical current, there’s a lot pain and a large price to pay if you can’t pry yourself away.

The fact that our cultural golden age of TV production was so obsessed with redeeming or at least empathizing with awfulness and violence while exalting entertainment value as a moral value in and of itself was telling. And in denying Bojack the dramatic catharsis of death, thereby damning him to continuing to live with his mess, BH both stands as an all-time high water mark of the anti-hero genre and delivers its eulogy.