Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Why is Everyone Afraid of Him? He Looks Like Jackie Gleason

When I was a kid and rode the bus down Rugby Boulevard and then on downtown to see a cowboy double feature, I never worried about timing my arrival so that I showed up at the start of the program. I would arrive in the middle of one of the movies and follow the plot as best I could. This was not a problem. I knew who the hero was and almost certainly who the villains were, and if I did not quite understand the nuances of the plot it was probably because there were no nuances to understand.

Indeed -- and this was the intriguing part that, at the time, I lacked the perspective to be intrigued by -- coming into the middle of the movie always made my experience of it more nuanced that it would otherwise have been. What's going on? The hero has a buddy. Might he have another dimension? Buddy-as-Judas or buddy-as-weakling or buddy-as-sacrifice, by which I mean not until he gets shot down like a dog in the street, preferably from behind, does the hero really get mad. The earlier in the movie you arrive the easier it is to know what the relationships are. Or you may see that there are no relationships, that the movie will progress in irrational jumps, so you turn off certain parts of your analytical apparatus . My point is that when you are dropped into a movie or TV show in the middle, there is confusion but there is also possibility.

So one thing I like to do even today is drop into a movie on TV, preferably one I know nothing about, and try to piece together what is happening and why. I become co-creator, as it were, at least for a little while. A related pleasure is the belated discovery of hit TV shows. There isn't the same delicious ignorance -- though given the fact we don't have kids and don't watch Entertainment Tonight we are pretty ignorant of whole swaths of popular culture -- but there are still some surprises when you come aboard late. We did it with the Simpsons, which I knew, from glimpses, that I would enjoy. But I wanted to limit just how much TV I watched -- for practical logistical reasons, not from some high cultural principle -- so I waited for the moment I had the time to invest in the diversion. This was about 10 years into the run. By then the show was long since syndicated. You could see two different Simpsons every day in this market, so I caught up fast.

Same thing with Seinfeld. It wasn't until the fourth season that my wife coaxed me into watching. It takes maybe two episodes to pick up the basic relationships there, but because of recurring characters and references to past episodes some of the action has an elusive telegraphic quality that, if you are a newcomer, gives it the momentary flash of ambiguity that suggests more "art" than was originally intended. (Also, by the fourth season, Seinfeld had a polish and confidence that really wasn't there at first. The earlier episodes, before things were sorted out, bring more pleasure when seen out of chronology. It's TV as archeology.)

All this is leading up to the fact I have just discovered the Sopranos. My wife is a screamer. Even the mildest surprise in a movie or on TV will make her cry out. I don't mean fanged beasts leaping out and tearing off heads. I mean someone in a sitcom jumping out of the closet. She is ready to be startled. Violent surprises are even worse because she hates violence of any kind. She is appalled. She buries her head in her hands and moans. Right away I knew enough about the Sopranos to understand it was not something we should watch together. I decided not to watch at all. Given the limited number of episodes and the fact it was on cable, following it would clearly take more effort -- more planning -- than I wanted to invest.

Oh. Sometimes we subscribe to HBO, sometimes we don't. There will be a special offer to lure me back, and then the price goes back up and I go, "Sex and the City, ewwwwww," and we cancel.

This December HBO had another sweet offer -- and as it happened they were rerunning the most recent season of the Sopranos, two or three different episodes a night. I had a little cold or something, so I watched an episode -- too lazy to turn it off, I guess. And then I watched another. Hmm. Looks like I covered a whole season. That Tony. He's got some trouble there.

In early January, HBO rolled out its "On Demand" feature. Anytime I wanted I could watch The Sopranos episodes 36 through 41-- any time -- and last week they added three or four more episodes. And now I am a Sopranos guy. I don't quite know if Tony's character is describing an arc or if he's stuck. He's loyal to family right up to the moment he has to kill you. Is he learning? Is he slipping? This therapy thing? Is it being satirized or endorsed? Did Carmela do the nasty with Furio? I'm guessing not, and it's fun to guess. Guys that were around in 2002 aren't there anymore. Dead? Witness protection? A lot of history is obviously there, and coming in in the middle, I am guessing, deciphering, extrapolating.

I'm not confused or frustrated by the gaps. I'm titillated and intrigued, roused to speculation.

It's Shakespeare at home, isn't it? I have become increasingly concerned about how it will all end. Tony kills Christopher? Christopher betrays Tony? One of those has to happen if it's Shakespeare at home. Or maybe it's just Eugene O'Neill at home -- late O'Neill -- and everyone will end up sitting there in the dark in wretched resignation. I do not think it will be a bloodbath. I think it really is that nuanced. Probably all kinds of foreshadowing are back there in the early episodes. Probably your Soprano veterans are two steps ahead in every new episode, calling out the dialogue and saying, "Oh, he's dead" before anyone has even pulled a gun.

I am absorbed by it. My mind jumps forward to what may be and then steps back and wonders what was. At some point when I can no longer stand it I will rent or borrow the early episodes. But at the moment my "blanks" -- the empty spaces in my knowledge that I am coloring using my own crayon -- are too delicious to fill in, not quite yet.


mackdoggy said...

The HBO show to watch is The Wire. Set in Baltimore, it's denser and (to my mind) better written than the Sopranos. Great view of cops and criminals. Seasons one & two are on DVD.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I've watched a couple of episodes and should have been thrilled, given my supposed delight in landing in the middle and relishing the confusion. There were cops and bad guys, and it seemed that some of the cops must also be bad guys. Maybe some of the bad guys were good guys, too? That wasn't clear. The Sopranos really is a domestic drama, middle-class life with something extra -- this is the way we would all like to handle our work life if we could get away with it. The Wire seems grittier but also more escapist, as is anything that the middle-class watches dealing with underclass violence. I know the smart critics like it. I may give it a try on MackDoggy's recommendation so that he will treat me as a man of respect.