"The Sopranos" Underside

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Apr 05, 2001 12:00 AM
I swore I'd shoot myself if I didn't write about it, "it" being "The Sopranos" Episode VI seen on Sunday, an exercise in voluptuous self-abasement. The experience (not new; I had seen most of Year One) was instructive for technical and artistic reasons; the program is justly acclaimed for its polish and ingenuity and for superlative acting. But it is most interesting in its confirmation of the psychological depravity of the viewing audience. They see it (we see it) because of its shock value as exhibitionistic entertainment, but the question arises, Does it tell us more about the awful human behavior, or about the disposition to transform depictions of it into rip-roaring entertainment? To explain what goes on, one has the difficulty of trying to explain what it's like to come across a murder being committed. It is without question exciting, as murders are. A visit to a Stockholm late-night club featuring consummated on-stage copulation is memorable, even if the evening ended with bachelor-party resolution not to do it again. In "The Sopranos" we get quick introduction into a strip club, which serves the hour as wallpaper, the camera constantly returning to a half-dozen listless women bare but for bikinis. Individually, they make appearances with staff members of the club, an appendage of Soprano capo Tony. In most of these sequences the girls are either giving sex or promising it or being intimidated or trying to intimidate. The language is uniformly obscene. A review of the series advises us that a cleaned-up-language take is simultaneously shot, the obscenities eliminated; this version no doubt for release to Army camps, whose personnel would be astonished to hear on the screen inter-gender vulgarities, language 18-year-old recruits would never hear used, or use themselves. We move to the courtship of Tony's daughter at Columbia University by a fellow student who very quickly beds her, except that they don't bother to use a bed. The only piety in the entire hour is the young man's dutiful, indeed semi-explicit emplacement of a condom (before the hour is over, he will leave her, pleading the burden of academic duties). From there we move to a dalliance of sorts by a younger member of the gang conspicuous mostly for his fearless swagger. Outdoors at the club he is enraged by an obscenity by a girl at his expense and in some detail hits and clubs her -- to death, we discover a few moments later when Tony comes on the scene. He is angered by his lieutenant and hits him hard enough to cause Tony's wrist to swell. A few moments after that, Tony is wearily lamenting in a word or two the transgression of his associate killer, who in beating up the girl mortally, committed an offense outside the limits of Soprano protocols, bringing to the viewing audience pleasure at the quick execution of justice by Tony, even if, for some reason, deprived by the producer of a nice visual of the execution. The wonder isn't that "The Sopranos" is so marvelously conceived and executed, but that it is so widely viewed and enjoyed without any hint of concern over the depravity it relies upon. A search of newspaper notices given to it on the opening of its third season (my search was not exhaustive, but not tailored) reveals not one question, let alone reproach, on the matter of the arrant exploitation of sex, exhibitionism, murder, sadism, cynicism and hypocrisy. "From the first sight of our burly, crusty anti-hero walking down his driveway in a white undershirt, boxer shorts and robe, you'll know ... Bada Bing! 'The Sopranos' is back!'" is one reviewer's comment. "... Nothing feels new after the first time" -- as the hangman said -- "but 'The Sopranos' retains its cutting edge and raw emotion along with its clever and ironic sense of humor." "It's easy to forget just how richly constructed and thoroughly textured this show is, and how its understanding of human dynamics" -- the practice of stealing, torturing and killing -- "is so full it's practically overwhelming." "... (It gives) Tony so much nuance and depth that it's hard to decide if he's fascinating, repulsive, or just another overworked schlub." (Yes, Himmler had the same problem.) Moreover, one learns that Web sites have got into the act, so that devotees can inquire about the Soprano family, the words they use; get details about the music, still images of "Sopranos" actors. Site contributions offer "details about 'Sopranos' filming locations, plot developments and other gossip." And we wonder about public indifference to crime and lechery and workaday infamy. COPYRIGHT 2001 UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE