The Sopranos

When I interviewed Mark Frost about Twin Peaks (1990–1) as part of the research for my book The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood, he discussed with pride the show’s cinematic qualities, contrasting its skilful frame compositions and editing with the usual flat, pedestrian television image. He likened that aspect of the show to Wiseguy (1987–1990), a series about gangsters, which Frost admired for its cinematic qualities. Frost felt that he was part of a group of practitioners raising the bar for television, which for him meant pushing it to be more like film. Frost believed, as I heard him, that film is the standard to which television should aspire, and illustrated his point by referring to a sequence in Twin Peaks in which the camera pushed forward to an extreme close-up of a revolving roulette wheel that dissolved into the eye of series protagonist Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). It was a spectacular effect, and one difficult to achieve in serial television because of the pressures of the production schedule. He was justly proud. However, as a critic, scholar, and sometime toiler in the television vineyards, I wonder if such cinematic production values are the primary benchmark for televisuality, a term that I use here to indicate the aesthetic capability of television. I rather think that televisuality may be discussed in terms of the unprecedented ability of television to produce virtually endless visual, serial narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, and that the hallmark of great television is its ability to probe and extend this capacity.

As an aesthetic issue, the relationship between narrative and the image is many thousands of years old, yet entirely current. Cave paintings, Egyptian tomb art, Western fine art, and the mass media arts of cinema, the comic book, and television all subtextually debate this question. And certainly television, like all its predecessors, can be assessed not only in terms of how stories can (or can’t) be told in pictures, but the quality of the images. But screen narratives that flow have added to the discussion of light, space, colour, and line the additional dimensions of editing, sound, and time; and television has pushed the discussion in still another direction by adding the quality of seriality, which makes it possible to postpone narrative closure almost indefinitely, the soap opera Guiding Light holding the current record of approximately 68 years. (This involves some cheating, since the first 15 years or so were on the radio, but 53 years of continuous narrative ain’t bad either.) Inevitably, television’s serialising capability conjoins with the discussion of television’s image quality and aural and visual editing further possible discussions of the aesthetics of narrative digression and of multi-plot, episodic and picaresque narratives.

To narrow this portmanteau question down to discussion size, I will focus here on some of the issues television opens up concerning the aesthetics of a specific genre that has its roots firmly in the movies. The Sopranos (1999–) a series created by David Chase about the life of gangsters in the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, is an eminently worthwhile case in point. This captivating series has extremely high production values, and, yes, they often reach the level of cinematic artistry, but I intend to argue that its impressive use of the television medium should also be understood in other terms.

The Sopranos is a television series about gangsters that refers, in more than one way, to American cinematic gangster traditions. On one level, the series contains multiple conscious and explicit allusions to James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and the Godfather trilogy. Among other references, Tony Soprano (James Gandofini), the psychologically troubled boss of Northern New Jersey’s organised crime, watches scenes of Tommy Powers (James Cagney) with his mother in The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) in the episode in which his own mother dies. Similarly, when Christopher Multisanti (Michael Imperioli), Tony’s nephew, kills a young member of an Eastern European crime mob, the camera cuts to closeups of actors associated with important film gangsters – Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson – and of Dean Martin, who is a film presence frequently linked to the real world of organised crime. Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), one of Tony’s soldiers, repeatedly parodies lines from the Godfather trilogy. Moreover, a number of the actors constitute allusions in themselves, having appeared in important gangster films of the last two decades: most resonant are the images of Lorraine Bracco, who plays Tony’s psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi, and Michael Imperioli, both of whom appeared in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990).

On another level, the series contains some of the cinematic qualities, unannounced, of previous gangster masterpieces. Many of the scenes in which Tony’s mob congregates in the back room of the Bada Bing, a topless “joint”, are lit to resemble Renaissance paintings, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, with the men picked out by light from unseen sources against a black, impenetrable background. The absurd detail with which White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949) records how the mother of protagonist Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is tracked by the FBI is alluded to in the first episode of the second season, “Mr. Ruggiero’s Neighborhood”. In what might be seen by aficionados as a hilarious parody, we are made privy to the almost interminable details of the FBI’s moment by moment deployment of technology in an effort to gather incriminating information about Tony and his crew, in tandem with an undercover sting. Indeed, White Heat is also referenced in the connection with one of the most innovative narrative aspects of the series: Tony’s relationship with a female psychiatrist. Much as Cody Jarrett has debilitating migraines, Tony has debilitating panic attacks, and in each case the pathology is related to the gangster’s mother.

Yet the allusions to The Godfather‘s cinematography and to White Heat‘s script are atmospheric, imitative, only skin deep – too superficial to justify celebration of the evolution of televisuality by those who want TV to be more like cinema. More integral to The Sopranos is the stunning array of complex frame compositions that continue cinematic traditions in another way. The series’ main title sequence achieves a level of true cinematic brilliance unparalleled in American television, with a captivating range of textures, camera angles, and editing rhythms accompanied by a sound design that distils Tony’s zeitgeist: the driving energy of the mobster, his angst, violence and comical crudeness. Showing the New York/New Jersey corridor in flashes through a speeding car, reflected in Tony’s hubcaps and his rear view mirror, juxtaposed with shots of his very phallically imposing cigar through the car’s front and side windows, the images jostled by the vibrations of a car in motion as Tony drives home, the sequence is a highly dramatic evocation of Tony’s world and his relationship to it. The ordering of the images makes Tony’s climactic physical arrival at his capacious and stately (if somewhat banal) home a metaphor for his social arrival at a level of affluence that sets him apart from the chaotic working world through which he has just driven.

The Sopranos

This noisy, flowing main title montage collides sharply with the first scene of the series, a series of silent, static images that show Tony in the waiting room of psychiatrist Dr Melfi. The opening shot depicts the dynamic Tony in perturbed stillness framed between the legs of a statue, which we immediately learn is the body of a nude woman. The frame’s provocative symmetries and asymmetries, with Tony slightly off centre and barely moving, are not only elegant but evocative of his situation as the series begins. This initiates an artful series of juxtapositions of movement and stasis, balance and imbalance that continue throughout the episode. Perhaps the most singular of these is a high angle shot of Tony lying motionless and supine on a slab as he is readied to take an MRI, juxtaposed with eye-level shots of his still, corpse-like body heading into a tunnel of light, evocative of the death that constantly looms on the edge of his consciousness because of his life choices.

This first episode also contains visual phrases that became part of a pattern of refrains throughout the series. One example is an aerial nighttime shot of Tony’s house in a pool of amber light ringed by a sinister, thickly wooded darkness, underneath a sky made a shade or two brighter than the midnight hue because of the reflection of the house’s illumination. (Intentionally or otherwise, this image derives from Frost and Lynch’s experimentation with visual refrains in Twin Peaks.) Similarly, The Sopranos is threaded with the imagery of the neon-lit Bada-Bing roadhouse topless “joint”, with its nearly naked, well-endowed women gyrating around poles, and its mobsters appearing from the darkness into narrowly defined rings of light. When David Chase decided that television production could not allow for such painstaking work indefinitely, the production team left off creating singular cinematic visuals, and relied increasingly on the refrains to sustain a visual texture of high cinematic quality.

However, there are moments in the second, third, and even fourth seasons in which cinematic artistry remains apparent. My favorite episode, “Employee of the Month”, the fourth episode of the third season, includes the controversial rape of Dr Melfi which is extraordinarily accomplished in its framing and editing, as are the sequences depicting Melfi’s dream after the rape and an unprecedented therapy session between Melfi and Tony at the end of the episode. The dream sequence has the lushness that subconscious terrains afford the filmmaker, with its drenching reds, its apparitions of bars, its wide-angle close-ups, and a couple of extreme close-ups of the pieces of uncooked macaroni that Melfi, with dream logic, uses as money in a very prominent, very red Coca Cola machine. The image subtly juxtaposes the beige tone of the pasta against the remarkably similar colour of Caucasian flesh.

In some ways, however, the minimalism of the rape and therapy scenes are even more impressive. The rape is set in a cinderblock circular staircase leading to a garage; the scene is made up of a preliminary sequence in the empty, isolated staircase when the rapist, Jesus Rossi (Mario Polit) first sees Melfi by chance, a second sequence in the garage when he initiates the attack, and the climactic sequence in the staircase to which he drags her to rape her. The spartan, windowless setting, devoid of colour or softness, alien in its inorganic materials to human flesh emphasises the mechanical brutality of Rossi’s act. The harsh lighting, and the absence of any sound other than Melfi’s furiously anguished screams and Rossi’s gutteral threats, compounds the effect. The rape is shot primarily through the black, horizontal bars of the staircase, creating a cagelike effect echoed in Melfi’s later dream. The supreme achievement of the composition is to dehumanise the act as few media-portrayed rape scenes do. The aesthetics of the sequence convey the essence of rape as anger and hatred, leaving not a shred of romanticised intensity for old stereotypes to cling to.

The minimalism of the final therapy session of the episode also uses space artfully. But in this case, it is not the space of the breakdown of human decency, but rather the prescribed distance between therapist and patient. The scene begins by alternating “bust” shots of the two principals in a way associated with conventional television production – take him, take her – but this pattern breaks down when Melfi’s post-rape anxiety dissolves her customary poise and Tony ventures into the taboo space between them to comfort her. This transition from the discrete spaces represented by the close-up to a potential invasion of Melfi’s space threatened by the wide shot, brings with it another threat. Police bungling has made it impossible for Rossi to be prosecuted by the law, and Tony now looms as a potential avenger for Melfi. Will she become dependent on him?

Thus, a movement as banal as a few steps between two chairs creates a shock that threatens for a moment to destabilise the only relationship Tony has that is not one of reliance on his brutality and violence for money, protection or both. The balance of Melfi’s power is re-established by a similarly minimalist yet perhaps even more powerful visual strategy. Leaning against his massive shoulders briefly, Melfi collects herself sufficiently to shoo Tony back to his chair. The juxtaposition of “bust” shots resumes, as Tony asks Melfi if she wants to ask him anything. Suddenly the camera plunges in for an extreme close up of Melfi’s silent face contracted in thought, which is followed by another “bust” shot of a puzzled Tony. The sequence is completed when we return to a “bust” shot of a completely composed Melfi, who quietly responds, “No”, a decision that becomes irrevocably final as the screen goes to black.

The brilliant visualisation of the story in “Employee of the Month”, is moving and perhaps cinematic as well, particularly the dream sequence. Yet I am going to suggest that the final therapy session of the episode is most notable for the ways that it moves past cinematic aesthetics toward a unique television aesthetic. This sequence is qualitatively and aesthetically unlike the cinematic framing of the first season, or the cinematic framing of the dream sequence. It uses the flat, pat formula of juxtaposition editing that is typical of television, but raises it to a new level of psychological truth. A study of how this series uses formula television editing sequences with a unique energy and beauty would extend our understanding of the distinct qualities of the television medium.

The Sopranos

However, more significant still is the way this visual use of space is supercharged by its place in the serial structure of the The Sopranos. It gains much of its power as part of a pentimento of similar images of that space over a period of three years of serial narrative. The force of Melfi’s refusal to submit to Tony’s criminal power emerges from layers of images of the inviolability of the space and Tony’s previous attempts to violate it – when he tried to move on Melfi sexually and when he attacked her for making him face some home truths about his mother. In each case, Melfi restored her power in the scene. When she once again reasserts herself in the final moments of “Employee of the Month”, Melfi’s refusal is made more profound and complexly moving because of a peculiarly televisual form of narrative that is based on the time and repetition involved in serial drama.

Seriality is rooted in the economic production conditions of television. Single shows cannot generate the income or solid economic base for a station or network that is possible from regularly scheduled productions. This and the ability of the audience to tune in with ease to an ongoing story accounts for the dominance of serial narrative of varying length in television. The financial logistics of the medium give permission for new ways of storytelling. Unlike movie narrative, the continuous television story cannot be completely structured in advance, or at least not for very long. Thus television production conditions built into the serial melodrama or comedy the element of the aleatory both prized and dreaded by the creative communities of both film and television for its potential for unpredictable energy and originality and for the strain it places on production schedules. Oddly, television, despite its factory-like production mechanisms, surpasses film in receptivity to chance in its productions. The longer a series continues, the greater impact this peculiarly televisual ingredient will exert. Time and flow in the life of a television series leave room for the ravages and blessings caused by changes in the lives and desires of the members of the creative community of the show, the vicissitudes of public taste, and the sudden appearance of new ideas and personnel. But, most of all, and more than can ever be true of the characters in a film as the script is developing, the characters in a television series take on a life of their own, season by season revolving to reveal what has been under the surface of their original identities and relationships.

What this has meant for The Sopranos is twofold: its general movement, from season to season, toward the picaresque and its more specific generic alteration of the traditional narrative tropes of the gangster movie into a televisual form of gangster narrative. The movement toward the picaresque becomes obvious if we compare the first season with the subsequent seasons. The first season is structured like a protracted movie: almost all of the elements in the first episode are developed through the season and work their way to some kind of climax. Tony’s panic attacks and his visits to Dr Melfi figure prominently in all the episodes and move from confusion toward insight, as Tony’s attempt to seduce Melfi gives way to respect for the enterprise they are embarked on together. The thread of Tony’s tortuous love/hate relationships with his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), who nurses chronic dissatisfactions, and Uncle Junior (Dominc Chianese), who battles Tony for leadership in Northern New Jersey, runs through the season and develops in conventional dramatic form. The conflicts among these three are introduced in the first episode and move toward an explosive moment in the last two episodes when the two take on a contract on Tony’s life and deal with the fact that it fails. Tony’s infidelity to wife Carmela (Edie Falco) threads through the season as the “B Plot”, the emotional line that works with the action driven “A Plots.” However, there are multiple plots balanced with Tony’s central action and emotional arcs; in particular, storylines centered on Tony’s nephew, Christopher Multisanti and Uncle Junior rival Tony’s narrative at times in emphasis and importance.

As the seasons move along, narrative construction becomes increasingly episodic. No longer do the opening season episodes contain all the elements that will be developed as the season unfolds, and, although Tony commands the center of the narrative flow, no longer are his travails so emphatically dominant in the narrative arcs. Among others in Tony’s world, Dr Melfi, Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro), his daughter Meadow (Jaime Lynn Siegler), his wife Carmela, Christopher, Junior, his friend Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia), and a few of his soldiers, notably Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and Ralph Cifaretto (Joey Pantaliano), regularly break out in their own extended arcs. In the fourth most recent season, even one of the FBI agents seems to be developing a story of her own, which may blossom in the fifth season to come.

The extent to which the centre shifted in The Sopranos as it moved into its fourth season has changed the tradition of the American gangster genre, which historically tended to be tightly focused on its protagonist to the extent that historically gangster movies have featured only the slenderest of subplots, and never a multi-plot structure that equates anyone else’s emotional or action lines as equivalent to his. The resulting effect is that seriality in television incorporates into mass culture the experimental modern narrative techniques that bring relativity to bear on a subject. We increasingly see Tony from a variety of perspectives, each of which has a truth equal to his, granting the viewer a prismatic, inconclusive view of all the characters. American mass culture has been profoundly hostile to ambiguity and nuanced ethical perspectives, but these are the essence of televisuality by virtue of what serial television does to narrative structure. Television, when permitted to operate along the grain of its narrative tendencies builds the nuances and ambiguity of relativity into the narrative. As the gangster genre has been among the most controversial of all genres in American media history, this break on the stranglehold of positivist morality is of enormous significance.

Tony has been unleashed by the televisuality of the series narrative structure from the old Production Code Administration pressures, which stipulated that a film must never permit the audience to sympathise with or admire a character with questionable or negative morals. Though the historic gangster masterpieces covertly subverted this guideline, they were impeded in their ability to portray the gangster in all his complexity. Al Capone, like Tony Soprano, was a family man, as well as a ruthless crime lord. But from the ’30s to the ’70s, out of all the films that piggybacked on his life, not one was able to explore this paradox. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) finally broke the old restraints, but did not have enough time to dig deeply enough into the enigma, not even in its two sequels. However, The Sopranos, with its extended, serialised televisual form, is able to represent the full range of shifts in the problematic figure of Tony Soprano. Warmly sharing a nighttime snack with his son AJ (Robert Eiler) one moment, he pumps bullets into a young gangster wannabe hardly older than his son the next. Enraged by the murder of a young topless dancer by Ralph Cifaretto one moment, he comes close to killing Gloria (Annabella Sciorra), a young paramour who threatens to call his wife about their affair. It is, of course, equally ironic that in the fourth season he kills Ralph to punish his psychotic Capo for being a murderer. Almost completely lacking in introspection about the ethical incongruities of a family man leading a life of crime, he shows immense insight into interpersonal relationships and enormous sensitivity to emotional changes in those around him. Those who want an unequivocal condemnation of “bad men” are appalled, but those who prize reality are breathless with respect. The seriality of The Sopranos thus confronts its audience with an uncompromisingly tough view of the problem of law and crime in the United States, and possibly, by extension, in many other countries as well.

The Sopranos

It is this same seriality that flattens the traditional plot conflict in the genre to a quotidian shape. Because of its extension into time, the series does not require that all gangster conflicts rise toward an explosive, decisive climax. Though many gang encounters in the series are finite and decisive – one lives, one dies – many misfire, and some contracts are rescinded. And much time is spent in the kind of familiar negotiation in which no progress is made because of the perversity of human nature. This results in a subversion of the virtual idealisation in the cinema of the gangster as a dark gutter deity. Not that the gangster is completely domesticated, but he no longer seems such an invincible force; these Northern Jersey men are ordinary, often bumbling mortals with warped ideas about problem-solving business practices, a perspective almost unheard of in the movies. Thus represented, Tony and his crew become fertile means of exploring the thresholds between ordinary straight citizens and mobsters, helping us to probe the question of what it means to go too far in a society that so emphatically encourages individual initiative, competition and a take-charge masculinity. One of the most remarkable of these “Aha!” moments appears in the relatively cinematically structured first season when Tony yields to the prompting of his psychiatrist and the urging of his non-gangster friend, Artie, and lets the police take over the prosecution of his daughter’s soccer coach who has been revealed as a child molester: he cancels the contract he has put out on the coach’s life. Brilliantly, the result of Tony’s decision is not pride in a triumph over himself which he can report as progress in a therapy session, but an uncharacteristic orgy of drinking, carried to the point where he arrives home staggering and falls down on his livingroom floor in a stupor before the insightful eyes of his wife and daughter. They only exchange glances, never saying a word, but this scene plays off the glimpses we have had of him with Carmela and Meadow throughout the series, and the many conversations with Melfi about Tony’s need for control, and will resonate further in scenes to come. Of course, Tony always resumes control in the next episode, and his lapses are not always referred to by the women who observe him, as would be dictated by the much more unified film structure. And that is the televisuality of which I speak. These hanging threads produce a thoroughly indeterminate look at the gangster’s brutality conveyed through the multitude of prisms constructed by a televisual use of narrative, available to the movies only when it imitates television at its peak of achievement.

About The Author

Martha P. Nochimson is the author of five books, including The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch. For 26 years a Professor of film at New York University and Mercy College, she is now an Associate Editor for Cineaste.