Jun 18, 2007

The Sopranos

For years I have been saying that the best drama writing is on television. Last week marked the end of the finest drama in TV history, The Sopranos. The talk has been all about how the last show ended. But the final scene was a miniature of the entire series. It was an anti-conclusion, just as the show was an anti-drama.

The Sopranos was great for all kinds of reasons. But those reasons are all aspects of a single technique: the grafting of genre with everyday reality. In structure terms, this is combining myth with drama. Genre is highly prescribed, with set story beats and audience expectations to match. Everyday reality grounds the genre, reverses the expectations, flattens the melodramatic moments of genre so the form actually hits harder.

Usually we see this technique in individual moments of a story. In The Godfather, after they assassinate the driver (filmed in extreme long shot), Clemenza says, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." Then, at the end of the film, all the killers are calmly and professionally preparing to do their job, which just happens to be mass murder. In Pulp Fiction, two men discuss McDonald's vs. Burger King before we find out they are hit men who commit the most grisly murder.

What made The Sopranos different was that the entire TV series was built on this technique. Here's the premise: a ruthless mob boss has problems with his mother, his wife and his kids and sees a psychiatrist. A writer for the show recently said, "The mob genre is the bait and switch for this show." The mob genre let them write about "kings and queens at court," while the everyday reality showed the king frustrated by a wife and kids he can't control. He could slap his son around but he couldn't keep him from being a screw-up.

The TV medium, still so terribly under-rated, allowed the show's creator, David Chase, to extend this technique across the breadth of a Dickensian novel. A lesser writer would have taken pains to remind the audience who all these characters were. But Chase held to the technique. "I said, 'I'm going to tell stories without all this exposition.' It's what I'd seen in foreign films. Someone says something, or something happens, but it's not commented on-there's no arrows that point to it." Using his fundamental technique, he produced a highly structured, multi-character American epic that was grounded in hundreds of everyday moments.

So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.

But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That's the life he has sown.

Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.