Ken Tucker says a rival TV exec's jabs at the HBO hit reveal how badly he's missing the point

By Ken Tucker
Updated May 16, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The Sopranos: Barry Wetcher
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In defense of ”The Sopranos”’ violence

First came the news that NBC chairman Robert Wright had sent out a tape of HBO’s ”The Sopranos” to many of his company’s executives, asking them to watch it (it’s the episode that culminates in Joe Pantoliano’s character beating and killing his young stripper girlfriend) and soliciting their opinions about what the popularity, the buzz behind this kind of cable programming meant for broadcast television.

Then last week, the New York Daily News reported that the man who embodies Tony Soprano, actor James Gandolfini, thinks the series will only last another year and that he wants to ”get away from the violence a little bit, because it is starting to bother me personally.” I’m not here to whine about the possibility of Gandolfini hastening the demise of ”The Sopranos”; I have no idea what it must be like to perform, or be around many of the violent scenes an actor must experience in filming ”The Sopranos.” One cannot expect that an actor who brings so much subtle emotion to a character like Tony would not also experience a subtle array of emotions about the role itself.

Wright’s gesture, however — along with that of the politicians and organized groups who’ve criticized ”The Sopranos” for the way it depicts Italian Americans — is, however, the latest variation on people who wouldn’t recognize art if a Picasso fell and hit them on the head. It is the degree to which ”The Sopranos” is so skillfully able to disturb and unsettle us — to jolt us out of the TV habit of assuming that every main character in a weekly series must, at bottom, be a ”good person” — that contributes to its artistic achievement.

Wright’s letter accompanying his internal ”Sopranos” mailing noted that NBC would not air such a show ”because of the violence, language, and nudity,” and mused over what ”The Sopranos” implied about what America wants to see. Let me speculate on the subtext of that question: I think what he was really asking his colleagues was, in effect, ”How much of this controversial stuff can we inject into our dramas to attract eyeballs and advertising bucks without having Sen. Joe Lieberman and the FCC calling for our heads?”

Instead of such worried jealousy, Wright and NBC ought to realize that, while it’s certainly a novel jolt to witness the depravity and vengefulness that some people visit upon others (I believe this is what generations past called ”catharsis”) and it’s titillating to see a few naked women in the Bada Bing! strip club, people don’t talk more excitedly about ”The Sopranos” on Monday morning than they do about, say, NBC’s average Sunday night movie, simply because their basest instincts are tickled.

They — we — are turned on by the rare complexity of ”The Sopranos”’ drama, by the fact that, for the all too few weeks it’s on, we can watch an entertainment that’s every bit as good as any film we’d pay to see in a theater, right in our own living room. THAT’s the kind of programming NBC and all the other networks ought to be figuring out how to present; not coming up with their own, watered down gangster drama ”Sopranos” rip off, but something of quality that will do all the things ”The Sopranos” does: entertain, surprise, and enrich the popular culture. Hell, Mr. Wright: Bob Dylan might even throw you a song for the soundtrack for such a show, if you ever came up with one as good as the one ”Sopranos” creator David Chase has.

The season finale of ”The Sopranos” airs May 20 at 9 p.m. Will you be watching?

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The Sopranos

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