herman melville, moby dick, nathaniel hawthorne, scarlet letter, the godfather, The Sopranos, the wire
These masterpiece TV shows are in their sustained high quality more like novels (those lofty things!) than television programs (low vulgar trash). As far as American art is concerned, The Sopranos is like Melville’s Moby Dick whereas The Wire is like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Sorry, but The Sopranos is superior to the Wire. Both are equally taut and economic in storytelling, the character complexity and dialogue is comparable too. But The Sopranos beats The Wire because its ambition to reveal the inner workings of a single person’s mind is greater than the accomplishment of The Wire, which is to demonstrate the inner workings of society. Even if both succeed equally in their goal, ultimately a single mind is more complex than society. But this difference in function or purpose also accounts for the narrative flexibility in The Sopranos as well as the dark comedy that runs through its core, something which The Wire’s societal message forbids.
The writing in The Sopranos’ narrative veers and changes more because its object isn’t pedagogical like The Wire. The Wire must instruct and demonstrate how life really is, and though it does this with incredible artistry it is a burden they’re chained to. The dream sequences of The Sopranos are an obvious illustration of this ability to move laterally in a storyline and not straight ahead, but there are others. The story isn’t linear in The Sopranos for the simple reason that people’s minds don’t work in straight-ahead fashion, and at heart the show is about a single mind—Tony’s. The Wire is a wonderfully dense web of things happening on one external plane, the observable world. They can’t devote an episode to a single character, much less what a single character is dreaming of, or of what subconscious motivations make him act out. These things are implied in The Wire, but this is done through backstory—McNulty’s family and drinking problems impact his policing, but this is still observable, and it’s shown. The real action of The Sopranos happens on an invisible level. When we see Tony act it’s in response to the drives that even though they’re discussed very explicitly (literally, in therapy) are still only hinted at because the subject itself, the human mind, precludes us from full knowledge. This is reinforced as his therapist comes to doubt her own work toward the show’s end.
The Sopranos object doesn’t just make it deeper or more intellectual, but its mode grants the writers the usage of a darkly comical tone that The Wire’s format can’t access. It allows them great fun! It’s taken for granted that the members of “this thing we have” (the Mafia) have made a deal with the devil and redemption for them is impossible. The entire show is governed by what is essentially the law of comedy, where by definition the hero is never in danger; if a house falls on him, he simply stands up in the rubble, brushes his shoulder off and walks away. The Godfather II (and the gangsters in Sopranos reference these movies all the time) begins with a targeted hit on Michael in his family’s home. Family is the most sacred thing in this Mafia, and Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather novel and screenplay, called the Godfather a story not just about the Mafia but about family. Violence in the family home is the symbol of the greatest threat possible to the Corleone’s (compounded since Fredo, his brother, inadvertently caused it). This is subverted in the Sopranos to be dark comedy: though he’s surrounded by no shortage of people who want to kill him, the only ones who seriously threaten Tony are his mother and his uncle. His mother puts a hit on him and his uncle shoots him in the stomach, almost fatally.
By contrast, The Wire’s writing can’t engage in such dark, detached humour because their object demands an explicitly attached view of life as it is. Don’t get me wrong, there is humour, but it’s at the level of dialogue or embedded in the situation. The Sopranos writers invert conventional mob movies by making the drama not just about hits or robberies but ordinary conflicts, like family and sex, but also by doing its opposite, darkly and jokingly depicting ordinary people (not just Mafioso) suffering the violence of stone cold gangsters. In an example that cracks me up, Paulie and Chris get into a tiff over an expensive bill from a restaurant in the parking lot just after eating, and just then their unfortunate waiter approaches them with their paid bill to ask if they forgot to leave a tip. His kids are going through school, he explains, and Chris left only a $16 tip on a $1200 meal. The waiter gets lippy so, naturally, Chris hits him in the head with a brick. He begins convulsing, so Paulie shoots him then, for good measure, retrieves the $1200. This establishes that they’re cold-blooded gangsters and every mob show or movie would end here, but, emblematic of Soprano’s rich and dark comedy, the next day Chris and Paulie come to a sweet and heartfelt understanding over the phone. “Besides,” Paulie says, “somebody could have gotten hurt.”
Death in The Wire has attached to it all the consequences and implications death has in real life. The cops might make jokes about it because they’re numbed to it, but only because real experienced cops would too. Also, the bodies don’t disappear in this show like they do in The Sopranos. the Baltimore cops have to deal with the bodies because death matters in their world and in the world of the show. In The Sopranos, it’s just a joke. The waiter’s body never gets addressed in the show again. Better to kill a waiter than make a passing joke about Johnny Sack’s wife.
But nothing demonstrates the contrasting approach to each show’s writing more than their final episodes. The Sopranos finale was hated by people who didn’t understand the real point of the show. Those who wanted closure on the observable level of the everyday were upset when they got none. They wanted to imagine the characters living out their lives beyond the show’s finale. But the show itself is a dream, and there is no life after. Whether Tony is literally killed by some bum hit man is irrelevant. His life is only the show, and it expires when the show does. Anyway, he signed a deal with the devil before the first episode. When Chris gets initiated into the Soprano clan, Tony tells him, “once you’re in, there’s no way out.” Same goes for him. Whether he dies in a restaurant or keeps living his life of death is irrelevant. If the show itself isn’t art for art’s sake, it never set out to make an explicit value statement. There’s a Nabokov novel called The Defence where at the very end the protagonist is in mid-flight on his way to sure death. We’re tempted to believe he dies, but he doesn’t. Mark Lilly’s essay Nabokov: Homo Ludens describes how The Defence ends in precisely the same way I think the Sopranos does. Nabokov intentionally doesn’t depict the landing—his character “forever tumbles to a death that he will never reach.” We are not meant to imagine life beyond the book. He’s suspended. Same with Tony.
The line between reality, dream and death is constantly blurred. All throughout The Sopranos, images from Tony’s dreams pop into his real world (the toy fish that sings “take me to the river”), while real life images in turn intrude on his dreams (a real fish in the ice that begins talking to him after he kills his best friend, throwing him overboard “with the fishes”). The line between reality and dream world was always very fluid, constantly mingling. It’s instructive that while the tension of the climactic scene is building up and we’re meant to wonder whether or not Tony will die, the writers choose to show Meadow frantically failing to parallel park outside the restaurant where the action supposedly is. This is more dark humour, but it also reinforces how the real subject isn’t life or death. Will Meadow ever park successfully? It matters as much as whether Tony lives.
The Wire needs to end in opposite fashion because it has a point to make outside the show itself: it functions as social commentary, so as a systematic cross-section of society it must neatly wrap up every single storyline. By the end, they’ve touched on society’s primary institutions: school, unions, gangs, police, family, courts, and news. Each storyline from each institution has a counterpart, a mirror image, which completes society’s cycle. An exhaustive list is unnecessary, but here’s a brief sampling: a hack young journalist wins a Pulitzer for what we and he know is an elaborate, conscious lie; Bubbles the crack head finds redemption and gets wonderfully, mercifully clean; Omar is killed by some little runt who shoots him in the back, but his reputation, street-cred founded on genuine toughness, was such that the hood refuses to believe he was killed by anything but a posse’s gunfire, and his name and deeds live forever. Here are the mirror images, inversions of their counterparts listed above: the young honest journalist, the fraud’s peer in age, gets demoted and sent elsewhere specifically for describing how he lied; Prez’s young earnest student who tries so hard to escape the ghetto gets tragically addicted to crack, replacing Bubbles; Marlo, Omar’s mirror (their names are even composed of nearly identical letters) is rich and safely alive, but, unlike Omar, the street literally doesn’t even recognize his face or his name because he had people work the streets for him, and in a world where reputation is everything he is a nobody—he does live, but his name is worthless.
Watching these programs has restored my faith in television programming, which will probably last until I watch Breaking Bad. These shows are both masterful, but the takeaway is that The Sopranos is of a very different type. When satirizing one of those idiotic guide to the creative process books for writers that gave the imbecilic advice to “be able to summarize the structure and purpose of a book in a sentence of ten words or less,” Mordecai Richler imagined what this author might say to Herman Melville: “Herm, you’ve got a lot going for you here, especially for fish nuts and armchair adventure freaks, but we’ve got to think of promos in this office. So I want you to tell me in ten words or less, why Ahab just has to hook the big one.” Moby Dick isn’t a fishing adventure like The Sopranos isn’t about gangsters. It’s about the deeper undercurrents that defy a ten word explanation. But The Wire is about “all society.” The tone and narrative structure is accordingly different. Unchained to any purpose outside itself, The Sopranos can move in any direction it wants. Tangents, side trips, dream sequences are welcome. The Wire does incredible things within its confines, but it’s very limited, albeit deliberately and elaborately so. You’re free to like either show, but I do decidedly prefer Melville and Sopranos over Hawthorne and The Wire.
My next piece will either compare these two novels or dissect Duck Dynasty, which is an aggressive rebuttal to the bankrupt values and pseudo-spirituality of bourgeois capitalism, even if it’s an American reality TV show about entrepreneurial millionaires, though they do have huge redneck beards. Maybe TV isn’t so bad?