The odor from the stinkbomb that Colby Cosh lobbed at The Sopranos has wafted hither. T.S. Eliot notoriously remarked that the only method of the critic is to be very intelligent. This doesn’t help the writer much, but it saves the reader all kinds of time, allowing him to skip, say, the critical efforts of Brian Williams, the noted newsreader. Williams, to be fair, is terrifically game about the whole business, and one must admire him, in the way Dr. Johnson admired a woman preaching.
By the same standard, we are obliged to treat Colby’s comments seriously:
I haven’t seen very many episodes of The Sopranos over the years — only just enough to know that it was a derivative show universally praised for its originality, and an amazingly slackly-written show universally praised for its tight writing.
David Chase is supposed to have had the whole thing pretty well sketched out in his godlike genius brain right from the get-go, and if you can believe that while fumbling with the loose ends of two dozen plot threads, you’ll believe it was incredibly inventive to have a mob boss living in a New Jersey suburban neighbourhood in the guise of a waste-management executive. (Did the producers ever just go ahead and actually put a “DARK UNDERBELLY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM LOCATED HERE–NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY” sign on the front lawn of Casa Soprano?)
Here Colby has forgotten the second, implied part of Eliot’s injunction: to be very intelligent while practicing criticism. Yes, the big theme of the show is unmissable, like many big themes. Their size makes them relatively easy to spot. Let’s try a few. Emma: people must discover their happiness for themselves. Lost Illusions: success and merit are weakly correlated. The Brothers Karamazov: Christianity or moral chaos, the choice is yours. The Man Without Qualities: I, Robert Musil, am the cleverest man in the world.
Two of these are obvious. Two are false. Yet the books are all very much worth reading. Such merit as they have must lie elsewhere.
The Sopranos‘s big theme markedly resembles that of The Great Gatsby, though I for one am thankful to be spared a shot of James Gandolfini floating face-down in his swimming pool. Yet anyone who leveled the “no flash photography” charge at Fitzgerald would be missing the point. You read The Great Gatsby for the beautiful shirts and the voice full of money, the cufflinks of Meyer Wolfsheim and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Jordan Baker cheating at golf and young Jimmy Gatz studying electricity from 7:15 to 8:15 every morning.
Details from The Sopranos adhere to your consciousness in the same way. A witness is gung-ho to testify in a murder case, until he finds out the perp is Tony Soprano. In the scene in which he changes his mind, the book he’s reading is Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Tony’s dreadful mother dies, and his dreadful sister conducts the wake by going around the room and insisting that each guest dredge up a pleasant memory. In the very top of the frame Uncle Junior enters the room, has no idea what’s going on except that he wants nothing to do with it, and bolts up the stairs. Or in the last season, we have Junior again, now confined to an asylum for the criminally insane, running a poker game for imaginary stakes in a parody of his mob life, itself a parody of legitimate business. Yet to Junior and his young MIT-educated Chinese underling, life in the asylum is the only life there is, and the parody gradually grows earnest. None of these bits advance the main plot threads in the slightest. You watch the show, in short, for what John Crowe Ransom used to call “texture.”
“Slackly written” is an epithet, and you can’t win a wrestling match with an epithet. Certainly for many episodes, and a couple entire seasons, like Five and Six, “slack” is a charitable term. Eighty hours of television, even some of the best television that has ever been, will have its slow spots. In this The Sopranos resembles every epic work of art ever produced by man. You don’t want to read the theory of history with which Tolstoy concludes War and Peace or Victor Hugo’s hymn to the sewers of Paris in Les Miserables either, believe me.
The Sopranos went on too long because most of its characters were not intelligent enough to trace story arcs — more like lazy circles. Christopher goes on drugs, goes off drugs, goes on drugs again, goes off the road while on drugs. Carmela threatens to leave Tony, doesn’t, finally does, returns, threatens to leave again, sticks this time. A.J. does stupid shit, grows older, does really stupid shit. Everyone ends up as he began, or dead. This is what makes it inferior to Deadwood and The Wire. And this is the criticism that Colby might have made and did not, because to make it requires watching more episodes than “not very many.”