So, to review: Still no HBO in my home.
But you can’t avoid it. Everyone’s talking about what’s on HBO. It seems the best shows are there. Not only can you swear and have sex on HBO, it seems you can also have well developed characters, deal with real-life issues, and oh, have great casts as well. And because subscribers pay a shit-load of money for it, content is not sacrificed to the censorship of advertisers.
Once again, Netflix and the DVD player have saved me. But sometimes, the wait for seasons to be released means that media critics and average people are discussing things that have happened while you’re still a season or two behind. Am I bitterly referring to that New York Times article about a certain important development in season 5 of Six Feet Under while I was still waiting for season 4 to be released on DVD? What do you think?
Now, while waiting for the aforementioned 5th and final season of Six Feet Under to become available, I have gotten hooked on The Sopranos. Oh, I looked on from the sidelines for years as everyone and his uncle cheered Tony Soprano and his family. “Big deal,” I thought. Not that I don’t love a good gangster story. I’m a huge Scorsese fan. Turns out I was just a playa hater.
But now I am hooked. Season one is under my belt, and we would have started season two yesterday, but for the broken DVD that came out of the Netflix sleeve.
Why do I love it so?
Reason #1: James Gandolfini
It’s astonishing to watch this big lunk of a man express such subtle emotion and such depth. Of course it helps that he has great writing and story development to work with (see #2). His body and his face convey so much – I could just watch him forever.
Reason #2: Challenging traditional depictions of masculinity
OK, I admit I’m pushing it here. Yes, The Sopranos does depict a subculture that is thoroughly a Boys Club, and is inherently sexist. Tony and Co. routinely hang out in Silvio’s strip club, Badda Bing, where the topless dancers are literally backdrops to the action around them. Tony has a mistress, comes on to his therapist, and visits call girls. In one episode, Tony’s Uncle Junior, the Boss – in name only – of the New Jersey families has his authority challenged when gossip spreads that he orally pleasures his lady friend. Evidently licking pussy means that you are one.
Despite all this, and more, the masculinity of The Sopranos differs greatly from that normally depicted in American pop culture. One aspect of this is the Mediterranean culture that allows men to show affection for each other: to hug, kiss, and express their love and loyalty genuinely to each other with no specter of being accused of homosexuality. (Having seen only one season, I do not know if homophobia becomes an issue later in the series.) We also see Tony cry more than once in a way that tells me he’s taken Rosey Greer’s song “It’s Alright to Cry” to heart. Finally, to depict a mob boss as having panic attacks and needing psychiatric help challenges our notions of male power, laying bare the consequences of a culture that tells men that they must always be strong and “suck it up.” In therapy, we see Tony struggle honestly with issues about his family. Particularly touching is a scene where he talks of wanting his son to be proud of him, yet wanting his son to have other options in his life.
Reason #3: Beyond Stereotypes
Rudy Giuliani accused The Sopranos of giving Italian Americans a bad name. I would contend, however, that the show in fact opens up possibilities of representation, rather than restricting them to stereotypes. In fact, many secondary Italian characters in the show wrestle precisely with the notion of stereotypes. Some echo the former New York Mayor, wanting nothing to do with Tony because he “gives us a bad name.” Others fancy themselves superior to Tony, yet are like giddy children around him, treating him as an object of fascination. In another scene, Christopher, not yet a “made man,” has an encounter with a “gangsta” rapper that puts him face to face with the appropriation of his culture.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about The Sopranos as I watch more seasons (no spoilers, please!) But for now, I eagerly await the next disc.
Thank you, HBO.