Friday, July 09, 2021

Watching The Sopranos

Frankie here. When I was thinking about my "brand" as a writer, I came up with the tagline that appears on my website -- "Every Crime Deserves Context."  I used that on the colorful "mystery writer" business cards that I ordered online a few years ago and intended to pass out at crime fiction conferences and other events where I was "wearing my fiction writer hat." 

I still have a large box of those business cards that I ended up not using. The problem was every time I started to exchange one with another writer or to give one to a reader with whom I was chatting, I found myself also reaching for the dull black and white business card provided by my university that identified me as a criminal justice professor and included my faculty contact information. The mystery writer business card seemed to provide only half of the information about who I am.

That brings me to The Sopranos. "How?" you ask. Well, let me explain. I may have mentioned -- I'm pretty sure I have -- that I'm working on a genre reference book that I was invited to write. I'm looking at nine gangster movies and The Sopranos, the "acclaimed" HBO drama. During June, I binge-watched the first five seasons of the show about New Jersey organized crime boss, Tony Soprano. I'm now watching the episodes from the sixth and last season. This has been a revelation for me because when the show was on in prime time, I didn't have HBO. Although one of my areas of research is crime and mass media/popular culture, I wasn't making enough money to be able to justify subscribing to a premium network. I caught episodes of The Sopranos only when I was staying in a hotel at a conference or visiting someone who had the cable network.

I bring The Sopranos up because watching the show reminds me that sometimes it feels like my tagline should be "A Lot of What I Know about Writing I Learned from TV." 

Yes, I read books. I have spent many of my happiest hours in libraries and in bookstores. The several times I have moved in my lifetime, the books filled many boxes. When I bought my small house I asked my contractor to build a room divider to separate living room from dining room and to provide floor-to-ceiling book shelves. I read every day of my life. But I've learned a heck of a lot about writing from television writers and the actors who can make binge-watching multiple episodes of a series a tutorial on character development and dramatic tension.

During my month of binge watching The Sopranos, I've been monitoring my reactions to the characters. The late James Gandolfini was a brilliant actor, and Tony Soprano's violent outbursts always leave me torn because I care about him. In Season 6, after almost dying, he is less volatile -- more thoughtful about ordering a hit on one of his own men who has violated the code that he is expected to live by. But that character may be killed in the next episode or two and his death will make melancholy. I know this because I was upset when another secondary character made his exit. He had a wife and children, and he wanted to move his family to Florida. He and his wife were in contact with a real estate agent, and like a couple on an episode of HGTV, they explained what they wanted and needed in their new home. This mob soldier had a strategy in mind. He would explain to Tony that he wanted to be allowed (breaking his vow of loyalty) to resign. Then he would wait and give Tony to think about it. So, he asked and he waited and he carried out the hit that Tony assigned him. But Tony -- after thinking about it -- still said it was "a no" on Florida. 

Now, this is the thing. I was ready for this to go badly. Ready for Tony to decide this soldier had to be taken out because he was no longer committed to his crime family. I was ready for Christopher or one of Tony's other trusted assassins to whack this character. Instead, the character sit in a hotel room looking at a photo of his children -- and then he took out his own gun and shot himself. Shortly after that, Tony went to visit his ailing Uncle Junior. He was out in the kitchen getting his uncle something eat, when Junior appeared in the doorway and shot Tony.

Now, it's true that Tony and his uncle had a complicated past. But I didn't see that one coming. Neither did Tony Soprano. And when he came out of his coma, he spent some time trying to dodge Dr. Melfi's questions about how he felt about being shot by his uncle. Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is Tony Soprano's therapist. She has her own therapist, with whom she shares her complicated feelings about helping a mobster given to panic attacks understand his emotions and function better. Her advice that he "act as if" when he confessed he was feeling more vulnerable after coming out of his coma and feared losing his men's respect led him to beat up his own young strapping bodyguard in front of his crew to make it clear that he was still tough enough to lead them. 

There is another secondary character that I've come to care about -- Vito, a captain in Tony's mob family who has been outed as gay by two mob soldiers who saw him when they were collecting their protection money in a New York City club. Vito was dressed in black leather and dancing with a man. They didn't believe his excuse that it was "a joke." Tony's daughter's boyfriend also had some information that he finally shared. Now, Vito has fled and is in New Hampshire. Tony is still resisting the pressure from his crew to respond to Vito's betrayal of their code of masculinity. But the situation is embarrassing and may have a negative impact on business. He may yet send soldiers to track Vito down and whack him. And I care. I want Vito to get away.

The question is how I can feel so much ambivalence about these characters and still care about their fates. Even though I find Tony's violence off-putting, I felt bad for him when his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco) put him out. Even though he had cheated on her, I believed he loved her. I wanted him back home with Carmela and Meadow, his daughter, and AJ, his son. I wanted them to be a happy family.

I'm going to miss these characters when the series ends for me with the last 10 episodes. I'm going to think about them. And I'm going to spend some time thinking about how the characters evolved and how I can use that in my own writing. 

Next up, binge watching The Wire.


Anna said...

Yes, we can learn so much from watching well-written TV shows with well-developed characters. But TV steals time from reading! What a dilemma!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Yes, it is, Anna, But I convinced my mother when I was a kid that I could read/do homework while watching television. Years later, I still try to do that.