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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Sopranos: 5 Casual Pieces

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/17/08 at 05:31 PM

At 10 episodes into the fourth season, I’m continuing through The Sopranos. I’m still impressed, fascinated, and baffled. It’s not clear to me what I think about this, as a critic, nor, in some cases, do I even understand my reaction to it as a viewer. Here are some miscellaneous observations and queries.

The Law as a Device

The law and its institutions, mostly the FBI and the court, is treated as part of the “furniture” of this world. It is not questioned nor is the criminality of these characters held in judgment against them. The law is simply something that conditions their actions and attitudes.

These people, some of them, are all but crazy.

By contrast, both The Wire and Deadwood use the law differently. In both of these shows the law itself is under scrutiny. In Deadwood the law struggles to differentiate itself from raw power relations on the frontier while in The Wire it is firmly entrenched and corrupt.

In all three shows ethics and morality are one thing, obedience to the law is another. The two are only tangentially related.

An Interesting Scene: Junior Sings

At the end of the final episode of season three Junior Soprano sings a lovely old song, originally written for Enrico Caruso. Everyone is gathered at a restaurant after the burial of Jackie Aprile, Jr., son of the mob boss who died in the first season. Most think he was shot for no good reason by low-life drug dealers; but a few know that he was executed, in effect, for being a loose canon. At this point that’s all secondary. Everyone’s gathered at the restaurant.

A guitarist is noodling away and Junior is singing along. People hear him and he’s asked to sing to the group. And so: he stands facing the group, makes a brief introduction, and begins singing. Just him and the guitar. He’s excellent. People are moved. You see tears rolling down cheeks, hear sighs. Junior’s really into it. But not Meadow, who’d been attracted to the deceased. She thinks it’s all a crock, and tosses bread at Junior. Finally, she leaves, pursued by Tony.

We return to the restaurant. Junior didn’t drop a beat. He’s still singing. Lovely. People are moved. The sound track changes. We continue to see Junior and the assembled mourners. But we hear, in succession, snippets from a variety of sentimental favorites. I don’t recognize any of them, but the sentimentality is obvious.

What’s going on is so obvious that I’m almost embarrassed to spell it out. But spelling out the obvious is part of the deal. Regardless of who knows what about the deceased, this is a communal event enacted by people who take such things very seriously. Junior’s singing is more than adequate to the task. It’s not simply that he’s one of the oldest there, and the (nominal) boss of the family, but he’s an excellent singer. It would be easy for the viewing audience to become drawn into the song, to share in the collective grief of the Soprano crime family. By putting the sentimental favorites on the sound track, Chase establishes an ironic distance from the event. We are not allowed to take it at face value. That’s not what we’re here for.

But just what are we here for?

What’s a Plot for?

Aristotle tells us that a well-formed drama must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Sopranos is all middle. To be sure, there is a first episode – for the whole series, for each season – and a last – for the whole series, for individual seasons. But they’re all middle.

Does that mean that The Sopranos is without form? I don’t think so. But how does that form function. For that matter, if The Sopranos can function without a beginning and an end, then why have beginnings and endings at all? The show is very much about character; those of the central players are contradictory and incoherent. What has this to do with plot?

These aren’t quite the right questions, but I don’t know how to formulate better ones.

Another Interesting Scene: Adriana Betrayed

Near the end of the second episode of the fourth season Adriana, Christopher’s fiancé, is taken to FBI headquarters where she finds out that the woman she knew as Danielle, and who had become her best friend, is an FBI agent. As Chris’s sexual interest in the agent had made it impossible for her to continued her undercover role, the FBI decided to make Adriana an offer she couldn’t refuse: Feed us information or we’ll indict you on a narcotics charge that could bring 25 years in prison. More likely, they suggested, Adriana and Chris would simply disappear once the indictment became public knowledge.

Adriana was not at all happy about this choice, rat on her friends or . . . It’s also clear that she was just as upset over being betrayed by a woman she had come to think of as her best friend. She had told Danielle, aka Agent Ciccerone, that she had had an abortion some time ago and probably would not be able to have children – something she’d not told anyone else. Adriana indicates her sense of betrayal two or three times during this meeting and at least once in a subsequent meeting.

Adrianna deals with this crisis by vomiting all over the table and the FBI agents.

The Big Question

The Sopranos has been declared to be one of the best three dramatic series in the history of television; The Wire and Deadwood are the other two. Just how good is that? As good as 19th century canonical European novels? That’s the interesting question.

But how would you argue it, either way? Simply pointing out that The Sopranos is popular culture and thus cannot, by definition, be that good – that is not much of an argument. After all, those novels were considered popular culture in their own time.

One obvious difficulty, of course, is comparing very different media, prose and television. The other problem is simply, what’s the comparison about? “Complexity” and “richness” are notions that crop up when talking about these matters; the good stuff is richer and more complex than the mediocre. But how does one explicate those terms so that they can be used in a robust comparative argument?


Comments

I’m three episodes from the end of the series and I’m not feeling inclined to rate it all that highly.  Yes, it is compelling drama just to watch; yes, it is well acted, well scripted, at a consistently high level of tension etc.  There are sharp comic edges and lots of smart moments.  But all this artistic effort seems to me ultimately misdirected, even squandered, on a show that offers no sustained moral complexity or richness, no profundity of thought or ideas--at least that I can discern at this point.  Over time the character development seems to me to have stagnated, the plotlines are (inevitably, perhaps, given the genre) repetitive, and what was initially, I thought, the show’s most interesting potential feature--using its gangland scenarios to inquire more broadly into the ethical or other commitments of American society more generally-- seems to have become at most perfunctory.  The therapy sessions, for instance, so clever at first, are largely routine and haven’t had any discernable effect (to be fair to the show, Tony has been pointing this out too--but with what larger significance?).  The main characters are all unforgivable sociopaths (I know, sociopaths have families and feelings too, and that’s where we were initially interested, but for me at least, this interest is just not sustainable unless the characters engage in real self-reflection and at least endeavours to change). Some of the most interesting problems are left unexplored; the characters are not forced to confront their own moral compromises often enough, or stringently enough.  (I thought they were doing better with this during the unfolding of the Adriana plot you discuss above, and the sequence of episodes in which Carmela finally decides she can live with Tony’s ill-gotten money was also one of the best in this respect.) Too often, the series goes for simple voyeurism, rather than critique: who will get shot up next? where will the blood spatters go? how horrific will the next scene be? this isn’t going to end well!  And the portrayal of women never offsets the limited, misogynistic attitudes of the main male characters--whose crude jokes (though certainly in character) get far too much air time, in my opinion, while the incessant stripper scenes are similarly gratuitous (enough already with the pole dancing!).  There’s a fine line between portraying this sexist environment and creating a sexist, objectifying spectacle that provides excuses and opportunities for misogyny in the viewers (for instance, I have seen men watching the show get a good laugh at some of those jokes) and I think the show consistently falls on the wrong side of this line.

I’m watching to the end, because I’ve come this far and it is, as I said, compelling drama--I’m curious, in that cheap “what will happen next” sort of way, and I’m often surprised, and sometimes amused--but I can’t see why anyone would watch the series again, because I don’t see enough complexity (to use your term) to draw me back again, or at least any that would make me willing to endure the cynicism, the horror and violence, and the sexism all over again.  I’ll have got what I came for, some entertainment, and that’s that.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/18/08 at 10:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But all this artistic effort seems to me ultimately misdirected, even squandered, on a show that offers no sustained moral complexity or richness, no profundity of thought or ideas--at least that I can discern at this point.

Let’s say that I’m, at best, ambivalent about “profundity of thought” in fiction as I’m not sure where the thinking is. As for moral richness, I certainly don’t see any tragic recognition coming along for anyone, certainly not Tony. That Carmella sequence you mention was good, especially her session with the shrink who wouldn’t accept blood money. But she accepts the reasoning of that other priest.

As for the sexist environment, I can certainly be tipped in your direction on this. The only quasi-relief I see so far is that odd episode about Johnny Sack and the crude comment Ralph made about her obesity. He seems genuinely to love her and not care about her obesity, for himself, though he clearly seems to believe it made him vulnerable to his mob associates. And we don’t see him with any mistresses or prostitutes. But, yes, it does seem rather to wallow in it.

By Bill Benzon on 05/18/08 at 11:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Aristotle tells us that a well-formed drama must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Sopranos is all middle. To be sure, there is a first episode – for the whole series, for each season – and a last – for the whole series, for individual seasons. But they’re all middle.

This seems to me spot-on, as a description of the show, but also of the show’s appeal.  Writing narrative like this flatters the audience (no tedious “for-the-hard-of-thinking” plot-exposition or infodumping for us: we’re clever) and is, I think, aesthetically more elegant ... the beauty of inflections (and just after) and all that.  But it’s more than a random thing.  This middleness, or this suspension between beginning and end, is kind of the moral point of the Sopranos: the delineation of a world desperately trying to avoid (repress) origins—all the Freudian, psychoanalytic stuf—and trying to avoid conclusions: the consequences of their terrible actions, about which they’re all in denial.

By Adam Roberts on 05/18/08 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This middleness, or this suspension between beginning and end, is kind of the moral point of the Sopranos: the delineation of a world desperately trying to avoid (repress) origins—all the Freudian, psychoanalytic stuf—and trying to avoid conclusions: the consequences of their terrible actions, about which they’re all in denial.

Fair enough, but that’s also why the series seems to me not to get anywhere in particular, after six seasons--if everyone just stays in denial, then all we get is repetition--bad act, denial, bad act, denial.  Elegant?  Maybe. Flattering to the audience? I’m not so sure, because I think the show relies on our prurience as much as (maybe more than) any other quality--we have no further investment to make once we get the idea that the characters are not capable of (or deliberately resist) moral insight.  And the conclusions they are avoiding are hardly subtle, are they? So what “clever” thing are we doing in discerning their failures?

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/18/08 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And another thing . . . one of the recurring bits involves having the mobsters utter malapropisms. It was funny for awhile, but it’s beginning to get grating. I’m thinking particularly of the elaborate bit about “Quasimodo” predicting whatever - Nostradamus becomes Quasimodo via the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m wondering if we’re being asked to ridicule these people in a way that has little to do with satire or parody.

Are we being allowed/asked to feel superior to these people in a way that doesn’t yield any insight either into them or us? Are we being asked to use them as scapegoats for . . . whatever? In an episode of season four, the FBI folks are discussing Adriana’s desire to marry Chris. One of them observes, “Maybe Darwin was right. Nature really does weed out the nimrods.” Is that - ultimately - the shows attitude toward these mobsters and their wives?

This certainly wasn’t the case with the Godfather movies, or, for that matter, Goodfellas.

By Bill Benzon on 05/18/08 at 06:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m wondering if we’re being asked to ridicule these people in a way that has little to do with satire or parody.

Since The Sopranos is as much a family/workplace sitcom as it is a heavy HBO drama, it’s possible that you’re simply being asked to laugh at something funny. ‘Stylized’ you might say. Or, if you insist on reading into that fantastic exchange, you could call it an admirably succinct illustration of the mobsters’ embarrassingly thin relationship to their own cultural history and traditions - haunted by and obsessed with Catholic iconography, signs-n-symbols mysticism, pop culture, and their own plentiful class-based resentments (re: lack of education and so forth), but expert only in resentment. Hell, the show is in part a long indictment of the misuse of cultural memory as a storehouse for resentment, i.e. rationalization for malfeasance, in the particular Italian-Catholic form of ‘Mom fucked me up but good so what choice did I ever have?’ Flashback if you wish to Patrick Bateman’s self-justification in American Psycho: ‘Hey, I’m a child of divorce.’

As much as the show is a spoof on the characters’ vexed relationships to tradition - Tony’s Mob basically sucks in every way, it sucks to be those guys - it’s also a spoof on the audience’s expectations about gangster stories. The endless Goodfellas/Godfather riffing comes at the characters’ expense but also at the viewers’; there’s something pitiful about Sopranos fans’ lust for bloody onscreen death, and Chase (who came up writing detective shows on TV, after all) has no love for Americans’ mythology of violence. Hence (in part) its increasing arbitrariness and goofiness and viciousness all at once throughout the show’s run, culminating in a sick joke in the finale (won’t say who buys it though - it’s the gas station scene).

Adam Roberts’s description of the show’s ‘moral point’ is just about perfect. Probably i shoulda just quoted that and been done with it.

By waxbanks on 05/19/08 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One more thing:

For that matter, if The Sopranos can function without a beginning and an end, then why have beginnings and endings at all? The show is very much about character; those of the central players are contradictory and incoherent. What has this to do with plot?

The show does in fact have a clear beginning: Season One starts with Tony’s recognition of his psychic problems (his neuroses), intensifies with his children’s realization that their dad’s in the Mob, and (to my mind) springs forward from Carmela’s realization of her self-delusion about his fidelity. The arc of the show, as much as anything, is: now that we all see more or less what we are, how can we go back to what we pretended to be? One of the main tasks for the audience is to hope that Tony et al. figure out how to live with this knowledge - which, if they’re decent people, means changing their lives, rejoining the wider community.

The end of the show, then, is about the Sopranos establishing a totally unsatisfactory (to the viewer) equilibrium that’s nonetheless more or less satisfying to them. They have what they want (money, detente, one another - at least structurally), and if we don’t get what we want, it’s a shame we wanted something so ridiculous as transcendence from a bunch of low-rent gangsters. All these conventional comedy/drama plots change the characters’ situations but not their places in the universe, and they don’t really care. Which is gross, but only about as gross as thinking that we’re entitled to see other people (even fictional people) go through life changes we don’t generally have the guts to undertake ourselves. You still get a great deal of generic resolution - the war with New York does, after all, get very very terminally resolved - but the show’s trick is to remind us that it doesn’t particularly matter. That’s a very shapely story arc if you ask me.

By waxbanks on 05/19/08 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan--what did you think of the plot line with--I think Tracy was her name--his stripper girlfriend whose murder was probably the most unflinchingly violent thing in the series? (I read somewhere that Gandolfini was particularly upset by that episode.) Bringing this Meadow-aged pregnant woman off the pole, so to speak, and showing her need to be loved, her want of braces, and then her skull crushed for making a flip remark (or rather ‘laying hands’ on him, post-flippancy) about Ralphie’s manhood all allowed for a moment of moral clarity on Tony’s part: after acting out a bit in beating on Ralph, post skull-crushing, he realizes that Ralph’s earning potential is too great to sacrifice for displaced paternal retribution. (Only later, when Ralph seeks equine indemnity, does he go too far.)

Would this level of moral growth (rejection of the lex talionis in favor enlightened self-interest and the pragmatic spirit of American capitalism?) please John Gardner or Wayne Booth? No. The Wire, maybe.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 05/19/08 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll add to Adam Roberts’ remarks by saying that this “middleness” isn’t the show’s only way of flattering the audience.  The sort of critical analysis that asks what the show is trying to tell us is part of it, too.

Basically, the key to all recent popular culture can be found in Adam Warren’s miniseries in Gen13, “Grunge: The Movie”, in this case the scene where Grunge explains to his girlfriend that the sexually suggestive scenes of tied-up women that he plans to include in his movie will be all right because he’s doing it knowingly, and the audience knows that he’s doing it knowingly, and that therefore it’s a gesture towards meaning something rather than just being any plain old bondage scene.

In the case of The Sopranos, I haven’t yet seen anything that indicates that anything is happening beyond extended audience flattery of this kind.  All right, people like to watch gangster shows.  But they are vaguely uncomfortable with liking that kind of violence.  Fine then, continually give them the impression that they are watching art, damn it, with little cues for all sophistication levels.  The suppression of origins and effects has to work more strongly on the audience than on anyone else, because after all they have to forget that they are watching a gangster show on TV.  At the end, they have this pseudo moment of realization—“yes, nothing changes!”—and then they turn on another TV show.

By on 05/19/08 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I was appalled at that episode--and yet I kept watching the series, perhaps because, as Rich says above, there was enough in it to keep me thinking it was about violence (and thus art), not just violent.  But I became increasingly uncertain or uneasy, partly because over the series, too much of the violence seems done for the ‘cool’ factor, and we can only find it acceptable as entertainment if we disengage totally from these people as human (the gas station scene ‘waxbanks’ refers to is like that--yeesh). I realize that part of my problem here is one of genre, as well as personal taste.  I’m not a fan of gangster movies, for one thing (my husband made me watch all the Godfather movies, and that was more than enough of that).  It was the lure of ‘quality’ and the hope of irony that drew me into The Sopranos at first.  I guess the irony remains, including in the ways ‘waxbanks’ describes (our desire for something the characters don’t want or can’t achieve). But it seems a bit like “My Last Duchess” in 56 stanzas instead of 56 lines, each one recounting the mysterious death of yet another wife.  What begins as a revelation into character (and about violence and misogyny and control, which is why it seems a reasonable example to bring in!) would become something quite different, I think.

Jonathan, is the realization you describe Tony coming to in that episode really “moral growth”?  Well, I suppose it is, if you don’t mean by that anything like “becoming a better person” (in all the conventional senses of “better") rather than simply growing into your own code and accepting any means as acceptable routes to your self-identified ends.

Also, by your last remark, do you mean that The Wire offers moral growth of the other kind? Or at least a more multifaceted confrontation with the problem (which is really what I wanted from The Sopranos, more than some idealistic “transcendence")?  (I’m wondering because I’ve been thinking of watching The Wire in part because of the extremely high praise it has received here and elsewhere, but I’m hesitating now.  It sounds at least as if it offers a more complicated analysis of moral and social circumstances, and maybe spends less time displaying women’s degradation...?)

“Waxbanks,” I’m not sure what is “gross” about “thinking that we’re entitled to see other people (even fictional people) go through life changes we don’t generally have the guts to undertake ourselves” (though I’m not sure that’s really what I wanted from the series).  One possible use of fiction, of course, is precisely to show us possibilities: must it only mirror our failures?  (And that’s setting aside the assumed identification between “ourselves” and a group of sociopathic gangsters.) There was a vigorous debate about this as far back as Dickens and Thackeray, with Thackeray’s critics lamenting his refusal to show any vision of how things ought to be, and Dickens’s critics mocking his optimistic stories of self-transformation or virtue in unlikely places.... At any rate, if we aren’t going to get any further along than “nothing really changes and it doesn’t really matter” (which seems to sum up the story arc you propose), then at least 5 seasons are either taking advantage of our naive hope for some good to come of all this or pandering to our prurient interest in violence and pole dancing--or both, I suppose.

I fear I’m sounding more school-marmish than I really feel about the series.  I guess my point is that it seemed capable of going deeper than it did into the problems it had set up, and that in my judgment, it let itself be too much like the world it was portraying (unnecessarily violent, violently misogynistic, cynical, consumerist, etc.).  How much of a difference does it make to be a woman watching this show, I wonder?  Almost all the commenters here--and in all Valve threads--are men, as far as I can tell.  Do you ever cringe watching Sex and the City because you feel men are being objectified (which they often are)?  Do you helplessly make silent comparisons between your charms and those of the men those shameless women lust after?  And if so, does any of this affect your ability to find the show funny? (Do you even watch Sex and the City? Is all serious TV that kind that focuses on manly things like guns and strippers?  Hmmm...that’s a subject for another post, I suppose!)

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/19/08 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting set of comments. I feel a bit like I did in my undergraduate years, pretty much believing the last thing I read or heard (in lecture) about a given text.

Rohan, The Wire really is quite different from The Sopranos. There’s nothing comparable to the Bada Bing, “good guys” are foregrounded as often as “bad guys,” there are a couple of cases of obvious personal and moral growth, and it takes a real look a complex social circumstances and institutions. Your last question is a good one. My version: Is there no romantic comedy in this class of excellence? I’ve not seen Sex and the City - no cable, haven’t gotten around to the DVDs.

More later.

By Bill Benzon on 05/19/08 at 06:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was joking about Tony’s moral growth and perhaps also trying to indicate that the tendency of its stuntedness was an indicator of some type of social commentary that might add, as they say, value to the show. AJ, in the final season, may be the only character who begins to improve himself in the way you’re describing. (I think that his failure in this regard is interesting thing to consider in light of the various theories that try to tie together the most prominent hanging thread with the conclusion.)

Appeals to prurience can be aesthetically interesting. (I’m thinking, because I mentioned Gardner, of several scenarios from Gravity’s Rainbow.) Most often, of course, they are not. And in this regard, I think the workmanlike craftsmanship typical of the mid-season episodes is preferable to the overreaching of the Chase-directed or -written finales and openers. The justificatory pretentiousness of those is its undoing.

Bill is entirely right about The Wire having much more of what you’re looking for. As for Sex and the City, its offensiveness lies in not being prurient enough. It’s particularly insidious lifestyle porn.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 05/19/08 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve watched most of Sex and the City, in scattered re-runs.  It’s honest about what it is.  I never “helplessly [made] silent comparisons” because all the men involved, as well as the women, are non-intellectual enough so that I could never really imagine being compared to or involved with them.  (Buffy was the one that I felt bad in comparison to, since I knew that I never had been and never would be able to produce even somewhat witty one-liners with my friends like that.  Plus, as a freelance librarian, the one I had to make silent, unflattering self-comparisons to was Giles.)

“Is there no romantic comedy in this class of excellence?” Begs the question, doesn’t it?  Back when leftism was just a little more reflexively accepted as the standard for all thinking people, there used to be a standard trope for movie reviews.  This would be the review that brought out the hidden leftist meaning in any movie that the reviewer liked.  The last round of it that I remember seeing was for Children of Men, which couldn’t just be a good religious-themed movie, but also had to be about, well, whatever the writer was most hopeful about politically.

At its worst this can become a strange form of derangement in which narcissism fills the hole where aesthetic criticism used to be.  Is The Sopranos in a “class of excellence”, rather than merely being a good, recent TV show that five years from now will be mostly forgotten in favor of the next good, recent TV show?  Who knows?  I haven’t seen any criticism that really makes a case that it is.  But in the absence of aesthetic criticism, liking the movie tells others about oneself, so one can’t merely say that it’s good popular culture.  One has to say that it’s special, one of a new class of TV show that’s better than any TV show ever before.

By on 05/19/08 at 07:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, who’s talking intellectual comparisons? which was sort of my point, namely that lots of material in The Sopranos (and everywhere else in pop culture, of course) focuses on women’s bodies no matter what their aspirations to being intellectual.  Those are the inevitable terms of comparison, no matter how you imagine yourself--or that’s the message sent again and again.

Jonathan: Not to hijack Bill’s Sopranos thread, but I think your comment that S&tC is “insidious lifestyle porn” is partly true ($500 shoes? yeesh again...and being arch about it doesn’t always work, just as being sort of ironic doesn’t always save The Sopranos--there was an episode called “A Woman’s Right To Shoes,” for instance...).  But (also like The Sopranos) it can be very smart about some of the things it chose to be about--sexual politics, for instance, or people’s pretense that America is a classless society, about romantic challenges for independent women, or the way economically successful women may challenge some men’s ideas about masculinity.  And by the end of the series, I thought it moved beyond its forms of indecent prurience (OK, not altogether) to present a fantasy far more potent, for some demographics anyway, than the sexual ones --one that had little, in the end, to do with men and everything to do with women being themselves, being strong and independent, and being friends…

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/19/08 at 08:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In an earlier Sopranos thread Adam mentioned that he thought the first two seasons, with Tony’s mother, were the most successful. Perhaps so. Certainly what I thought was most interesting was the interaction between Tony’s actions, his mother’s actions (and his attitude toward them), his therapy, and flashbacks to his childhood. The social texture of the show seemed unusually rich with innuendo and indirection. And the whole thing seemed very well crafted. Taken together this seemed to me a rich way of telling the story of a person, richer than most I’ve seen on TV or in the movies. 

It also has the effect of allowing us to see things about Tony’s behavior that he didn’t see himself. But what do we get out of this? Titillation or insight? That seems to be the question.

One might also ask what that combination of factors gains from Tony being a mob boss. Certainly it gets some “juice” from the fact that mob bosses are unlikely candidates for psychotherapy. But they could have chosen a politician or business executive to a similar effect. Another effect, however, is to force a lot of secrecy that is otherwise unnecessary. One might try arguing that this secrecy, on the social level, mirrors the intrapsychic secrecy (the unconscious) on the individual level. I’m not sure that’s what, in fact, is going on in this series as I’ve not tried to think it through.

Rich - I find your comments rather obscure. FWIW, the interpretive move you’re attributing to leftests is just a special case of the move some critics began attributing to all critics back in the 60s: The universal truths that critics found in (the canonical) texts were simply projections of their own values and desires - aesthetic, political, philosophical, psychological, what have you - onto the text. That’s when people turned to continental philosophy for tools to think about the critical process. Over the course of a couple of decades that interest in critical theory gave rise to Theory. As far as I know, those issues haven’t been resolved, though many seem to have grown tired of Theory.

Nor do I know what to make of your opposition between “aesthetic criticism” and “narcicism.”

By Bill Benzon on 05/20/08 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m tempted to just leave it at that, but I’ll try again.  There used to be a whole vocabulary of aesthetic criticism.  Then the ideological belief became widely held that aesthetics was simply a projection of the critic’s values and desires onto the text.  There was also a push towards scientism, devaluing any sort of criticism that wasn’t descriptive.  The combination of these leaves us with essentially no remaining ability to do aesthetic criticism.  The market fills a need for encouraging sales by hiring reviewers to tell people “this was good” or “this wasn’t good”.  But at a more advanced level, intellectuals no longer know how to talk about it. 

So, too often, it becomes narcissistic; the critic likes the work, knows that there is a presumption that this says something about them as a person, and therefore looks for admirable reasons why people should like the work because this will say good things about them as a person.

And an attempt to get away from narcissism by going purely descriptive isn’t much better.  This particular post, for instance, starts at Ground Zero.  “Complexity” is no measure of aesthetic worth.  You could analyze any lengthy pop culture work—I remember a previous discussion about Sailor Moon, say—and trace numerous complex connections between characters, themes, and so on.  But complexity in the service of unsubtle repetition, or of kitsch enforcement of particular emotional response, is aesthetically worthless.  Qualities like subtlety, vision, wholeness, originality of expression, evocation of complex emotional response in the viewer—they will never be able to be reduced to some measure of complexity of the artwork.

By on 05/20/08 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Complexity” is no measure of aesthetic worth.

Not true.

It seems to me that you’re using ‘complexity’ (especially when you talk about laughable pap like Sailor Moon) to mean ‘complication’ or ‘iteration’ or just ‘elaboration.’ In a complex work the network of connections and implications and interweavings produces a moral/critical meaning that couldn’t be arrived at without the network. In a merely complicated work (e.g. Lost or The X-Files) the network, the structure, is its own reward. The events depicted in a complicated work are mechanically related but they don’t deepen one another - they enable one another at the level of event. Their relation, you might say, is only additive: once you’ve experienced one episode you proceed without increase of weight to the next, and the past essentially disappears behind the story. ‘Complexity’ (and I’m really glad Dr. Shalizi’s not here to asswhip me over what I’m quite knowingly doing to this term) in this case should include something like ‘lingering presence’ - so that diagnosis of narrative ‘gamestate’ gets harder as time goes on, meanings become multiplied, and so forth. A complex system, in narrative terms, is time-dependent in a way plain ol’ complication isn’t.

[You could also take a more straightforward definition: complexity is the size (by some metric) of the smallest possible representation of a system. Tony Soprano doesn’t reduce to ‘show-bible character synopsis + a series of events’; Mulder and Scully do. Lucy Ricardo did. The one is a different thing from the others.]

I’m waving my hands here but hopefully I’m at least waving at the right thing. Ocean’s 11 is a complicated movie but not a complex one; 2001 is by no means complicated but it’s surely complex; The Wire is both complicated and complex, though its characters are really more the former than the latter, while its institutional relationships are both; The Sopranos isn’t actually that complicated, Steven Johnson’s handwaving in ‘Everything Bad Is Good For You’ notwithstanding, but it is complex, both in the sense that its ultimate meaning is difficult to resolve, and in that the more we learn about Tony, the more intricate, ambivalent emotional response he triggers, the more different lights we can see him in, the more meanings each of his actions and words could hold.

I don’t think The Sopranos ‘unsubtly repeats’ its messages; I think its messages are in part about unsubtle repetition, same as the finale of The Wire said complex things about what appears, on the surface, to be a simple cyclical hopeless pattern (the young generation simply becomes the old, etc.).

[Sidebar: even when ‘complex’ characters on pulpy shows (e.g. Lost) seem to have multiple motivations, their aesthetic poverty is revealed by the fact that characters ultimately, invariably give in to a single motivation and become it. When a story has as its overwhelming pattern that its characters slip toward well-defined roles, there’s something missing from that story. I would call it ‘complexity,’ but then who wants to niggle about terminology when it’s so gorgeous outside?]

By waxbanks on 05/20/08 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"It seems to me that you’re using ‘complexity’ (especially when you talk about laughable pap like Sailor Moon) to mean ‘complication’ or ‘iteration’ or just ‘elaboration.’ In a complex work the network of connections and implications and interweavings produces a moral/critical meaning that couldn’t be arrived at without the network.”

I’m not saying that complexity, in your sense of the word, is aesthetically bad.  But in terms of works having aesthetic value, it’s both insufficient and not required.  There are complex works in which meanings are multiplied past the point at which they can come together for the reader or viewer in any aesthetically useful way.  And there are ostensibly simple works—Aram Saroyan’s one-word poem “lighght”, say—that are aesthetically powerful.

You could get around this by saying that a complex piece in which the complexity doesn’t work aesthetically is not really complex.  Or a simple piece that brings up complex associations is not really simple.  But then you’re, in effect, redefining the word “complex” tautologically to mean “having aesthetic value” rather than making it anything about the artwork as such.

By on 05/20/08 at 01:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This particular post, for instance, starts at Ground Zero.

Let me say a little about the ground zero I’ve got in mind. Until the 20th century, all narrative took one of three forms: oral story telling, dramatic enactment (with or without music), and written story telling. Hence the high art canon consisted of written narratives and scripts for plays (or scores and librettos for operas). Those traditions have continued into the twentieth century.

But the twentieth century also saw the creation of new media, movies and TV, and both of these are used to present fictional narratives. So, we might ask whether or not these media have produced any narratives of a quality comparable to those written (and staged) narratives of the high art canon. In this post I’ve offered The Sopranos as a specific example to consider.

One very simple way to go about this is to observe that popular culture, more or less by definition, doesn’t produce aesthetically satisfying works, just entertainments. TV is given over to popular culture. The Sopranos is a TV program. Therefore, The Sopranos cannot, in the prinple of the thing, fill the bill. It is not art and does not merit the kind of commentary that art merits.

As far as I can tell, Rich, that’s your position. You’ve asserted that you’ve not read any criticism that makes the case the The Sopranos is anything more than just a good TV show. OK. Your judgement about that criticism (and the show itself) may well be correct. But you’ve not made an argument. You’re just making an assertion that follows from the categorization of the show as pop culture.

And when you evoke “qualities like subtlety, vision, wholeness, originality of expression, evocation of complex emotional response in the viewer” as the terms of aesthetic judgement - is that what you are doing? - it’s not obvious to me that The Sopranos is a failure. Nor, for that matter, is it obvious to me that it’s successful, the terms themselves are so vague.

Is The Sopranos in roughly the same aesthetic ballpark as canonical 19th century novels? I don’t know; that’s why I asked the question. I want to think about it.

By Bill Benzon on 05/20/08 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But you’ve not made an argument. You’re just making an assertion that follows from the categorization of the show as pop culture.”

No, I’m not saying that pop culture is automatically disqualified from having aesthetic value.  There are lots of canonical counterexamples—Dickens, for instance.  Nor have I made an argument about the particular case of The Sopranos, other than to express a general skepticism about criticism that hails new works as the greatest ever in their genre.  (Sure, that will be true some of the time.  But usually not.) Mostly I’m saying that I haven’t seen what I consider to be an aesthetically grounded argument for the the greatness of this and similar TV shows.  One may exist somewhere, of course.

“Nor, for that matter, is it obvious to me that it’s successful, the terms themselves are so vague.”

That’s scientism.  Yes, art is going to be described in terms that are necessarily vague.  Incisive critics can still make arguments about the aesthetic value of a work, using those terms.  The attempt to get rid of vagueness leaves you with essentially nothing except the most basic descriptive criticism.  In this case, sure, you’ve posed a question.  You want to think about it.  Do you have any path towards reaching even a vague, provisional answer?  I don’t think that you do.

By on 05/20/08 at 04:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Rich, I’ve got a general framework, but it’s a little to complex for blogging so I just stated the issue in a general way to stimulate conversation. This article by David Hays sets out the basic framework. In this post I make the argument with respect to music and, in particular, explicitly argue why certain forms of jazz have a sophistication and complexity in the same ballpark as European classical music. And here I make the argument about narrative.

By Bill Benzon on 05/20/08 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bo Bizzoll asks: “Is The Sopranos in roughly the same aesthetic ballpark as canonical 19th century novels? I don’t know; that’s why I asked the question. I want to think about it.”

I’ve been thinking about this too.  There’s a kind of instant canon under discussion in lots of places at the moment (in discussion in the academy and related fora I mean): the three really significant TV fictional texts are Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and everybody’s talking about them.  But why that canon?  Why not (say) Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Doctor Who?  Aren’t we simply reinscribing the Wells/James War dynamic into a new medium?

By Adam Roberts on 05/21/08 at 03:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Pfft! Everyone knows that Buffy is the greatest TV show ever!

More on this debate tomorrow…

By on 05/21/08 at 05:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’m not very familiar with the shows you mention, so I can’t comment on them in a worthwhile way. In any event, the discussion that interests me is new-medium-enmired-in-popular-culture vs. high-art-canon-of-ancient-and-venerable-medium.

By Bill Benzon on 05/21/08 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Actually, Rich, I’ve got a general framework,[...]”

With all due respect, I think that your general framework, as set out in the Hays article, a step back to the late 19th or early 20th century.  It’s scientism in the service of mysticism, that mysticism in the service of an ideal of unflagging historical development—Teihard de Chardin material.

Quoting from Hays:

“Rank 3 produced science, rational bureaucracy, the industrial revolution; all beyond the capacity of Rank 2 thought.

Rank 3 also produced Victorian morality [Endnote 9] and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (Sloan Wilson, 1955), equally beyond Rank 2. The changes are so broad and deep as to defy summary; think of the new conception of government embodied in the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen .

[...]

The everyday behavior of the average person in a country managed (in significant part) by Rank 3 thinkers seems to me on the whole morally superior to what is found in countries managed by Rank 2 thinkers.

[...]

For Rank 3, it is possible to recognize that each quadrant of the cerebral cortex has its own genetically determined goal. The system of thought at this rank can sort out cortical modes with enough precision to permit each of these goals to manifest itself. In Rank 2, the goals were less distinctly visible; in Rank 4, the goal structure of the cortex may someday be seen far more clearly.”

Do I really need to dig in to why this is nonsense?  It’s certainly not any kind of science.  And the association of types of societal structures with individual cognitive developmental ranks is, frankly, creepy.

By on 05/21/08 at 10:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

the three really significant TV fictional texts are Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire

Also not true - this is a young man’s view of American television (and promulgated by the TV-fashion press, unfortunately)! The HBO shows seem to be of a different kind from the others: commercial-free, largely unrestricted in terms of violence/profanity/sex/provocative themes, made on huge budgets, and so forth. They’re also simply better, line to line and in structural terms, than anything else we’ve got going. (Many network shows are ‘cleaner,’ tighter - but none are as deep.) But the recent canon is of course much bigger than that.

Adam, anyone who tells you these are the ‘three significant texts’ is speaking out of his/her ass (though Galactica, Lost, and the Time Lord just aren’t on the level of those three). But there are reasons for this exceptionalism: taken as a whole the HBO texts do signify a turn toward more BBC-structured shows (shorter runs, even greater writer/director control, no commercials, etc.) - FOX just announced that they’ll cut the commercial load for two new shows (by JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon) in half this season…

...still, in terms of broad impact, I suspect none of the Big Three on HBO will have the wide-ranging influence of The X-Files, My So-Called Life, the pseudodocumentary single-camera comedies (Office, Arrested Development, etc.), those risible short-attention-span ‘adult’ comedies on The Cartoon Network, or the grotesquerie of ‘reality’ TV. The HBO shows came at a moment where there was (1) a ton of money to be spent, (2) a handful of truly gifted writers looking for deals to get away from network strictures, and (3) no widespread user-generated online video culture yet. When The Sopranos debuted, it was generously praised as ‘not like the rest of TV,’ when in fact it bore a very very strong TV-comedy/drama pedigree. It’s always been treated ahistorically. Anyhow: there is a TV canon, much of it far from ‘respectable,’ and if the hipsters^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hacademics haven’t caught up on their viewing, that’s not TV’s problem.

Yikes, this was scattered. Short version: there are a good deal more than three significant recent shows and everyone with sense knows this.

By waxbanks on 05/21/08 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The HBO shows seem to be of a different kind from the others: commercial-free, largely unrestricted in terms of violence/profanity/sex/provocative themes, made on huge budgets, and so forth. They’re also simply better, line to line and in structural terms, than anything else we’ve got going.”

There are two contrasting ways of making a general artistic advance.  One of them is a more or less individually brilliant artwork that is then imitated.  The other is an advance in technology—broadly taken to include social change in what is permissable, and changes of large magnitude in spending on artistic production—that enables new forms to be created.  The “HBO show” seems to me to be of the second type.

Sure, some people will say that the latest HBO show is the greatest TV show ever.  When silent movies became “talkies”, I’m sure that some people said that each new movie with sound was the greatest movie ever.  And sure, as technicians start to learn the new form, the early ones will get better and better on average.

But so what?  What does The Sopranos say, other that gangster sociopaths who never develop provide a convenient excuse for guilt-free gangster watching ("Wow, look, dude, they never develop.  It’s, like, the human condition.  I really learned something from that show.") It’s a development of technical mastery, in that the expanded budget, lacks of restrictions, and so on were not wasted in making a bigger-budget TV show that conformed to the conventions as they previously existed.  In that sense it’s good.  But a canonical, lasting artwork?  Maybe, but I doubt it.

By on 05/21/08 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for taking a look, Rich.

By Bill Benzon on 05/21/08 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich sez:

But so what?  What does The Sopranos say, other that gangster sociopaths who never develop provide a convenient excuse for guilt-free gangster watching ("Wow, look, dude, they never develop.  It’s, like, the human condition.  I really learned something from that show.") It’s a development of technical mastery, in that the expanded budget, lacks of restrictions, and so on were not wasted in making a bigger-budget TV show that conformed to the conventions as they previously existed.  In that sense it’s good.  But a canonical, lasting artwork?  Maybe, but I doubt it.

There’s a couple of ways to respond to this. The first is that The Sopranos is not a great technical leap forward anyhow - its scene structure resembles that of other good modern TV; its episodic structure comes from soap operas; its main character is practically a TV type drawn on Ralph Kramden and Archie Bunker (indeed Tony and Archie are very closely related characters). I should’ve been clearer before: The Sopranos does not differ in kind from the TV that’s gone before. The Wire does, but not its gangster-melodrama forerunner.

That said: I think you’re probably making a claim just for the sake of argument here. If you’ve seen the show, I’m sure you don’t think that its only message is ‘no one ever changes.’ Among other things, The Sopranos is an uncommonly frank show about the way spouses delude one another, and (much worse) enable one another’s self-delusions consciously and otherwise (has any onscreen marriage had the depth of Tony and Carmela’s, ever?); it’s an unusually rough satire of the devaluation of the ‘Italian’ in Italian-American culture; it’s a meditation on gangster stories’ place in American imaginations, but it’s also about the death of work and the way a small family business responds to various social pressures, without and within. (See also Season Two of The Wire for more on this theme, with an equally central but less well-developed ethnic-tensions angle.) I don’t even think it’s correct to say that no one on the show changes; it’s more accurate to say that the Soprano families contort and betray themselves constantly in order to keep from having to change, refusing to see that they sacrifice their dignity and identity by doing so. Tony does, after all, learn a lot in therapy, and it helps him to understand his relationships with friends/family/coworkers - but unlike most network TV characters, forbidden from knowing too much about themselves so as to maintain an episodic premise, Tony visibly works to escape his own painful understanding. We don’t get the TV conceits of convenient forgetfulness and the weekly deus ex machina; the writers’ most potent tool is the priest’s simple message to Carmela (paraphrased), ‘You can’t say you haven’t been told.’

So one way of asking whether the best TV shows are canonical art is to say: do they reveal moral complexity like the best art in other media (yes), and do they show us things that other media can’t? In the case of serial TV, yes: time, boredom, copresence, systemic phenomena, mere visual evolution...and these things feed into the themes above.

By waxbanks on 05/21/08 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Waxbanks, You’re right about the pedigree of The Sopranos. I like the Kramden/Bunker connection; Tony certainly has Archie’s ethnic insularity. On scene structure, FWIW, you also find that type of scene structure in multi-plot Renaissance drama, though not so quick. I’m wondering if its indebtedness to extant tropes is one reason it was more popular than The Wire.

By Bill Benzon on 05/21/08 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does this place always crash on me right when I go to post a comment? In case it didn’t get through before:

the priest’s simple message to Carmela (paraphrased), ‘You can’t say you haven’t been told.’

From my memory, that was the psychoanalyst’s line (not the main one, but the one that Carmela goes to see), and that was significant precisely for the way it inverted the standard conceptions of the respective relationships between psychoanalysis and morality and the church and morality. The priest had been feeding Carmela a moral relativist line when she approached him asking for advice about whether to leave Tony. The psychoanalyst, by contrast, was the one who said (paraphrasing), “Your husband’s a vicious evil killer. Now you can’t say you were never told”.

Now, I find that scene and many others to have “something to say”. I think that there are a great many moments in the Sopranos that could be discussed in terms of their commentary on any number of contemporary institutions or in terms of their questioning of established concepts of morality and economics (etc.), in addition to much of what waxbanks has said. Judging from this thread, however, it seems that the Leavisites (or Leavisite nostalgics) still reign in the aesthetic criticism departments, such that all cultural forms (certainly all narrative forms) must be assessed in terms of “character” and “character development”, in order to determine their “moral meaning” via reflection on the work as a whole. It’s as if film studies (nevermind Theory and cultural studies) never happened!

To that extent, Bill’s question about “whether or not these media have produced any narratives of a quality comparable to those written (and staged) narratives of the high art canon” is both pertinent but wrongly formed. The answer will always be “no” if the question of the aesthetic qualities or effectiveness of media texts is put in that form, since the question privileges aesthetic ideals that are appropriate (for want of a better word) to the form and possibilities of written narrative. How can you speak about (hence hope for) ongoing character development over four or five or six or more seasons of television? What kind of an aesthetic criticism is it that does not (cannot) take into account the nature of the medium and therefore the medium-specific constraints on aesthetic possibility? Would you condemn Ulysses for failing to be a powerful sermon?

Television — certainly television narrative — is, by and large, episodic. Sure, much television narrative has a serial form, too, and thus an ongoing narrative. And sure, it’s possible, and probably even worthwhile, to reflect on the aesthetic effects or achievements of a given series at the level of series. But to treat that as the primary (worse still, as the sole) level at which the aesthetics of television should be assessed is just more of that projection of aesthetic values that’s been roundly criticised.

I think Rich is kind of right when he says that between the shortcomings of aesthetic projection and pure description we might find the space for something like aesthetic criticism. I think he’s wrong when he says that intellectuals no longer know how to talk about it. Maybe diasporic Leavisites who yearn for the days when English was their home no longer know how to talk about it, but there are plenty of other critics and forms of criticism who do. To be sure, those critics are probably unlikely to be sympathetic to programs of canon creation, but they will have plenty to say about the aesthetic possibilities of different forms and different media and about the aesthetic achievements of given media texts.

If you’re gonna do this right, you need to start thinking about the aesthetic possibilities immanent both to the medium and to the history of that medium’s deployment for aesthetic production.

By on 05/22/08 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You hardly need to appeal to bugbear Leavis to establish that novels and the HBO serial are of a different kidney.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 05/22/08 at 03:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob,

I think I understand most of what you are objecting to about this thread, but I stumbled over this:

How can you speak about (hence hope for) ongoing character development over four or five or six or more seasons of television?

I would have thought that this long arc of time is precisely what could raise the expectation of character development, at least (even, especially) in a show that seems as character-driven as The Sopranos.

I guess I also wouldn’t see the development of other forms of criticism as having ruled discussions of “moral meaning” out of line.  Again, The Sopranos is a show that seems to invite just such considerations, by the whole set-up of a gangster in therapy.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/22/08 at 08:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I can only agree with Rohan above.  Saying that “Tony visibly works to escape his own painful understanding. We don’t get the TV conceits of convenient forgetfulness and the weekly deus ex machina”, as waxbanks did, is a reasonable argument that something aesthetically valuable is going on with this show.  Saying that TV is naturally episodic and that people can’t hope for character development over 4 to 6 seasons of TV is only making my point.  Sure, different media have different aesthetic standards, but an ongoing TV series is not a movie, which can be carried forward on spectacle alone. 

But even for movies what you’re talking about is not really being sympathetic to aesthetic needs of different media, it’s just excusing a stereotype—one which writers are quite conscious of as an absurdly limiting factor.  Take, for instance, the scene in Northern Exposure where Ed tells a visiting agent about his idea for a movie.  When Ed says that the main character could start out as a shaman but not be one by the end of the movie, the agent angrily bursts out “Who is this guy?”, clearly offended that Ed would dare to have a character change during a movie in such a way that audiences couldn’t fit him into an unchanging mold.  The agent gets eaten by wolves later, as a bit of wishful thinking.

And also, as per Rohan above, I’m not focussing on questions of moral meaning because I think that’s what all art criticism should be about.  I’m focussing on that because in this particular work, the series-long preoccupation is whether change is really possible.  My contention is that this preoccupation is not really an ongoing aesthetic focus, it’s a way to preserve the potboiler.  As waxbanks says, Tony visibly struggles not to change, and this allows the watcher to feel that they are watching more than a typical TV show with typical conventions.  But I’d say that without doing anything with that, it can just become flattery of the viewer that allows the convention to persist with merely a slightly more sophisticated justification.

By on 05/22/08 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m all in favor of a criticism that’s sensitive to the properties and capabilities of the medium. Similarly, we need to recognize that various critical methods are suited for different purposes. As far as I can tell, most literary criticism is oriented toward meaning. Even the New Criticism, with its insistence that poems should be, not mean, was better with the meaning than the being.

Now, for example, consider drama. Literary critics genrally treat dramas as texts; performance is a tertiary concern - though a number of journalists are tasked with evaluating actual performance. In a bad performance, King Lear is a story about an old man who asks a stupid question and, in consequence, has two daughters turn on him and the third dies. Not a very promising scenario. But in a good performance, it’s still a story about an old man who asks a stupid question and, in consequence, has two daughters turn on him while the third dies. But, it takes the top of your head off, strikes you peacefully dumb, and keeps you huming for a day or three. The text is the same, the meanings too, but the experience, the being is different.

We don’t have any critical methodology that says much about the difference between those two performances and the effects they have. Whatever the combination of evaluation, interpretion, and description, our critical methodologies are oriented toward meaning. We can point to the differences between those performances, but we can’t elucidate them.

Somewhere up above I entertained Adam Roberts’ judgument that the first two seasons of The Sopranos hold together pretty well, but after that, things begin to unravel and we run new variations on what’s gone before. I’m still entertaining that judgment. Yet, the final episode of season 4, where Carmella finally kicks Tony out of the house, blindsided me with moments that took my breath away. Was there anything new here? Not that I can think of. But it was still powerful.

I can’t say that I much care that Carmella takes him back in the next season, that she wasn’t able to change deeply enough to leave him, irrevocably. I do care that we don’t have a critical methodology that gives us tools for thinking about such performances. And not just the performances, but the physical presentation of the film, the cinematography, art direction, editing, sound track. All of it. Because all of it matters.

By Bill Benzon on 05/22/08 at 11:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Quick follow up.

Bill: yes. Yes to it all, although it’s not quite true to say that we don’t have the critical methodologies you seek. It’s just that you won’t find much sign of them in most of what passes for literary criticism.

By on 05/23/08 at 02:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I would have thought that this long arc of time is precisely what could raise the expectation of character development, at least (even, especially) in a show that seems as character-driven as The Sopranos.”

Yes, it certainly could. It merely doesn’t, and really who expects such fundamental change/development in the show? (Or any TV show?) It’s The Sopranos, after all, not The Liberationists. Such shows - all shows? - establish a brand, and explore it. They are developed for that purpose, and are not approved to do anything else, fundamentally. Why that is might be useful to pursue, though it seems to me that pursuing what is produced is more telling.

By Tony Christini on 05/23/08 at 09:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, you left out the part about how television is a ‘barren wasteland’ and we’re all victims of a manufactured consent. Why stop when you’re on a roll?

Bill:

Yet, the final episode of season 4, where Carmella finally kicks Tony out of the house, blindsided me with moments that took my breath away. Was there anything new here? Not that I can think of. But it was still powerful.

New in what sense? I had seen many onscreen (and real!) arguments in which contradictory claims, blame, and oneupmanship led to an awful outcome that could (whether or not it should) have been avoided; before ‘Whitecaps’ I had never known art to spend so much time and narrative energy establishing the complicity and complex intentions of a married couple on the verge of explosion. You ever see realistic fictional squabbling where you were in a position to make such a fine-grained judgment about the squabblers? I’m also unaccustomed to seeing that much fighting, variously pursued and enabled - usually it’s one-and-out, no? Any art that raises the bar for realistic portrayals of relationships’ (often inevitable) ends is important.

I don’t want to spoil Season Five, but the question of whether Tony and Carmela’s subsequent relationship was ‘realistically’ portrayed is another matter, I think. But then the show was tonally quite different in its last few seasons, compared to its more compact earlier ones; Chase was less patient with his audience and his characters as time went on. I guess that’s for later though.

By waxbanks on 05/23/08 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You ever see realistic fictional squabbling where you were in a position to make such a fine-grained judgment about the squabblers?

And not just Tony and Carmella. It’s all over the show. Yes, it’s important.

By Bill Benzon on 05/23/08 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Tony, you left out the part about how television is a ‘barren wasteland’ and we’re all victims of a manufactured consent. Why stop when you’re on a roll?”

Walter, as you know, I didn’t say that about TV. It isn’t true, obviously. I even own one. With cable. My wife, four year old son and I even watched most episodes of American Idol this year. First time and maybe last but come on what have you got to match American Idol? In any event, if you wish to put those or any other words in my mouth, the line has long sinced formed, providing you with plenty of company.

By Tony Christini on 05/23/08 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, there’s something like a Sopranos style soap opera going on in town here at WVU. Word has it that the President will resign either today or next Friday. But we’ll see. Plenty of details here: http://hippiekiller.wordpress.com/2008/05/14/hundreds-of-wvu-faculty-demand-garrisons-resignation/

By Tony Christini on 05/23/08 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This place eats more of my comments than anywhere else. This one was composed before Bill’s was up and posted seconds after:

Rohan and Rich, thanks for picking up on my point about character development in serial television. As I wrote it, I knew it would sound counter-intuitive, precisely for the reason that you give.

I should preface what follows with the confession that I find discussion of character, regardless of the aesthetic form, rather tedious and so part of my earlier ire can be attributed to that. I think there’s so much more that can be done in terms of aesthetic criticism, even in relation to “character-driven” work. But the big problem for me concerns that way that the discussion thus far — waxbanks’ remark about “TV conceits” aside — has largely ignored the question of the constraints of the medium and of the form with regard to the possibilities of characterisation.

There are a few issues here. One has to do with the relationship between the process of narration and the temporality of diegetic events. Between narrative fiction, stage drama and serial TV is a massive difference in the relationship between the timeframe of “reading” (or narration) and the diegetic timeframe in which the narrated events would unfold, if reconstructed chronologically. There’s also a significant difference in terms of how each form can handle movement backward and forward through (diegetic) time. For both narrative fiction and stage drama the conventionalised timeframe of reading is short in scale: anywhere from an hour or two to, maybe, a week or two. Sure, sometimes someone takes a month or a year or more to read a book, but that pace of reading is sort of at odds with the pace of the narration. Moreover, that break in reading doesn’t correspond to a break in narration. For serial TV, on the other hand, the pace of reading (and the pace of narration) is measured within a much longer timeframe — over years for original broadcast viewing, but over weeks at least, and probably a couple of months, for DVD viewing.

This presents significant challenges with regard to conforming to the established (i.e. as narrative fiction and staged drama have defined them) ideals and conventions of narrative aesthetics. By and large, the way the industry has sought to deal with this structural facet of drawn-out narration — and keep in mind here that DVD box-set distribution is still a relatively new way of shaping the pace of viewing — is to have the time of the narration mirror the time of the diegetic events. The “tense” if you like is largely the present perfect (continuing), with minimal use of flashback and flashforward, such that seven years of narration covers seven years of action, more or less. (24 and Lost are obvious exceptions here, which is what makes them interesting in different ways.)

Because of their specific temporality of narration, I would suggest, narrative fiction and stage drama are able to depict “character development” via a limited number of discrete moments, which can all be written (and read) in view of a definite end to the narration (open-ended narrative fiction notwithstanding). Serial TV, on the other hand, is open-ended in the sense that it is often produced without a definite sense of when it will end. It doesn’t matter whether the “creator” of the show has definite plans for only three or four seasons. The industry doesn’t give a crap about what the creator wants; it only cares about how much money it makes. So Deadwood becomes three seasons instead of four and Firefly is axed after just one season, while Lost becomes six seasons instead of the intended three. (And, btw, anyone who hopes to pursue an aesthetic criticism of television that is anything other than Leavisite had best lose any squeamishness about factoring in commercial constraints when thinking about aesthetic possibilities).

Then, of course, there’s the fact that serial TV, by virtue of the nature of the industry and the established rhythms of broadcast television, is episodic. And episodes aren’t like chapters in a book, or acts in a play. They have to have a certain degree of unity all of their own. Something has to happen and something has to be resolved in each episode, which, of course, is an ideal opportunity to pursue “character development” via a discrete event. But — what? — every episode becomes an exercise in character development? If that were the ideal you’d run half a dozen episodes before the show would become another show entirely. Moreover, the hybrid episodic-serial form in conjunction with the present perfect continuing “tense” — not to mention the economics of set design, etc., which favour repeated use of the same locations — make continuity the natural order of television. Against that background continuity, though, the “episode”, as the space in which the novel and the disruptive must take place, becomes the more appropriate unit of aesthetic production.

Let’s just say that I can’t imagine how you would do character development in the context of producing an ongoing, effectively open-ended, episodic, ever-present narrative. At least, I don’t know how you could do it in a way that would measure up well against the ideals of character development we’ve inherited from narrative fiction and stage drama. I think waxbanks’ point about the “TV conceits of convenient forgetfulness”, etc. underscores the extent to which such ideals are less than satisfactory for the purposes of TV criticism. On the one hand, it looks like character development especially suits serial TV since the latter can narrate events that occur across a long arc of time. But, on the other hand, techniques and ideals of characterisation drawn from narrative fiction depend upon the implicit constraints of that form in order to be intelligible as such. Take the character of Al Swearengen from Deadwood, who appears to change dramatically over the course of the first season, and certainly beyond. But is this “character development”? Or is it not rather another kind of “TV conceit” — i.e. of forgetfulness in the face of a performance so entertaining that an audience wants to like the character, with the result that the character is made likeable (worth keeping in mind that scripting and shooting of episodes mostly occurs only a few episodes in advance, leaving plenty of scope for response to audience and critical feedback)?

It should go without saying that there are exceptions to just about everything I’ve said so far. But that’s kind of the point: aesthetic criticism can only be pursued against the background of an understanding of the regularities of a given form.

Three points, then: first, I would say that while it is, of course, always possible to assess serial TV in terms of the apparent totality of the entire series, it seems far more appropriate to assess the aesthetics of serial TV in terms of the episode (against the background of the series arc or not). Second, I would say that the search for aesthetic meaning in the development of the main characters — especially in character-driven drama — is misguided, in that what is significant in a given episode is what is novel to the episode; or if one is going to search for aesthetic meaning in the actions, etc., of the characters or in the nature of the situation, it makes more sense to reflect on those characters and that situation qua continuity rather than transformation. So Deadwood is “about” the brutality and lawlessness of the free market, rather than about how X character struggles with and either overcomes or succumbs to his/her tragic flaw. Third, given all the pressures that make standardisation, continuity, etc., imperative, the aesthetic achievements of TV should largely be measured in terms of innovation, especially innovation at the level of form. So, “Hush” (ep. 10, Season IV of Buffy) remains one of the most remarkable achievements in recent television history; similarly, and following waxbanks, the Sopranos‘ refusal to settle for (or into) those TV conceits constitutes a significant achievement in terms of expanding the possibilities of TV characterisation.

Apologies for the overly long post. I really should’ve been working on a job application, whilst writing this.... which means I’ll have to save the point about “moral criticism” for another time.

By on 05/25/08 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, that comes across much longer than it needed to be. So shorter version of the first half of the post: it’s precisely because written narrative and staged drama (and film, too, for that matter) don’t unfold over a long period of time (i.e. in terms of the time taken to narrate, rather than the duration in which the events unfold), that character development is possible. That character development requires a long arc of time is a complete illusion: it may (but may not) require along arc of time in terms of the “life” of the character, but even if that character lives for a thousand years, the duration of narration/reading will never amount to more than a few days, and often only a few hours.

In other words, character development requires very particular reading conditions, and these conditions do not match the reading conditions of serial TV. DVD box-setting may well change those conditions, but at the moment TV drama production is still shaped primarily by the rhythms of broadcasting.

By on 05/25/08 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"(And, btw, anyone who hopes to pursue an aesthetic criticism of television that is anything other than Leavisite had best lose any squeamishness about factoring in commercial constraints when thinking about aesthetic possibilities).”

I’m going to pick on this parenthetical because I think that it encapsulates what I think is wrong about this argument.  “Factoring in commercial constraints” is certainly something that you have to do when creating art.  But for aesthetic criticism?  No.  You’re talking about descriptive or historicist criticism.  If I’m looking at a statue, I might say something like “That doesn’t work aesthetically because multiple joinings to the base work against the impression of lightness attempted by the rest of the piece” and you could explain why the statue had to be built that way because of the limitations of its material.  But so what?  That’s an explanation, not an invalidation of aesthetic judgement.

If your theory about why TV can’t do character development is true, then TV can never produce great art.  That’s too bad, but no one guaranteed that every medium was capable of producing great art.  Maybe people who want to produce great art should do something else.

That said, is your theory true?  I don’t particularly think so.  There’s another medium that is episodic, of uncertain total length, takes a long time to read because the episodes come out periodically if for no other reason, etc.: comics.  People used to say that comics simply couldn’t do certain things that were outside the normal conventions of superhero comics.  And as more innovative creators came along, those turned out to be conventions, not immutable meta-laws that held across media.  I just don’t see the evidence that serial TV is incapable rather than unwilling.

By on 05/26/08 at 12:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, but as you at least imply in the long post, a writer could conceive of a complete change, aesthetically rendered, that occurs over an 8 year, very long TV viewing span. That’s just as easy to conceive of as a major change within a half hour read. The problem in getting the long-of-duration change on TV is that “TV drama production is still shaped primarily by the rhythms of broadcasting,” as you note. And those “rhythms” are largely the essential proven products of any franchise. No matter if it’s a McDonalds, or Wendy’s, or Subway, or episode of a series, viewers are hooked by their expectation of the franchise/series’ essential standardized goods. I think those ESGs are what much of the discussion here at the Valve has recently focused on.

Whether a character changes/"develops" or not is no necessary sign of aesthetic or normative achievement; either change or stasis or any mix of the two can be effective, depending upon the portrayal. But whether or not a reader/viewer’s perception of a particular character (or general perception in relation to a particular character) continues to expand is crucial. Both great “development” or near stasis can be portrayed aesthetically over both very short and very long durations of reading/viewing, but to maximize profit, the corporate TV model is that of delivering the essential standardized good on a regular basis - at best in a relatively novel way each time, or as mere novelty or worse. Problem is, change/”development” doesn’t go easily with standardization within any given show.

We expect far less of sandwiches, fries, and colas than we do of actual humans beings, worlds, and stories, so episodes have to be somehow rendered both standard and novel, as you note (or served as sexed up, gunned up, joked up, or otherwise charged up or trivia glossed dope). Character is always a huge part of this challenge, always a huge part of form and finding form. And while you make a good point that character “development” isn’t the end all be all of TV shows and scarcely can be, given corporate constraints (the characters always have to “realize” that the institutions cannot be changed, otherwise the next logical steps would be concrete ones toward liberatory revolution, or at least substantial reform), the fact remains that the characters do continue to need to be challenged, for readers to bear with them by having their perceptions or knowledge grow, and in that sense expand, however circumscribed such expansion ultimately is. If you reach the point of no more expansion, then you’ve likely got a problem. The actor who played Frank Burns in MASH said he left the show basically because the character had been played out; the feeling seemed to be about all that could be done had been done. I don’t know if the Burns character ever developed much but it was frequently challenged in new ways to new effect, including effect on and of character. Character is part of form, as is all content, so this could be called still “innovation at the level of form”. In the Burns case, the problem (perceived at least) was solved by simply replacing his character with a new and different character, Winchester, who also did not change beyond a circumscribed arc but was often newly challenged, and thus expanding in our knowledge of it/him. MASH was innovative otherwise of course, as with other shows. There was a dream sequence episode, there were the pseudo-documentary episodes. Dramatic changes in setting and theme, and in circumstance and fact. The early episodes had generally more of a comedic edge, I think it’s said, while the latter episodes went with more drama. So, you know, if you’ve got some basic set up that is revealing and working, you want to, need to challenge more or less continuously more or less everything: character, medium, style, focus - all variety of all aspects of content and technique. Challenge for the crucial sake of keeping it/getting it novel, without destroying the essential standardized product.

MASH ran from 1972 until 1983, I think, a dramedy of the Korean war, ostensibly about all war, but particularly about the US war against Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. So it ran from the end of the US slaughtering of Indochinese well through and into the US supported slaughtering in Chile (the other 9/11, in 1973), in East Timor, in El Salvador, in Guatemala and elsewhere. The TV show didn’t have the flexibility of a novelist in simply ending a novel set in Vietnam and then writing one set in Central America, where the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the 1980s raged, some of the worst killing having occurred already in the early 1980s, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980) soon after he asked President Carter to stop arming the state military aggressors and death squads. So “the cracks were showing” in MASH by the early 80s, according to the MASH actors and writers, probably for a lot of reasons, but mainly I would guess because the plot or context had been played out, in relation to the world. MASH, whatever its worth, really was mainly about an Indochina kind of war that had been replaced by a different kind of war – relatively covert, relatively low tech, though still with massive killing. The MASH setup was no longer near enough on point. Had it been so, I assume the characters could have been continuously thoroughly explored (within corporate TV constraints), then thoroughly replaced, which is something of what we’re seeing now with the seemingly endless cycle of Iraq war movies (the fiction ones, let alone nonfiction).

Just as “realistic” novelists could move on from their realistic setting or characters by simply ending one novel and beginning a new and different one, “realistic” TV shows apparently replace one another in this manner. It’s more difficult to endlessly extend a popular show, to not change too much. It’s more difficult to go long and deep. Either lack of “development” or wholesale development in a show might signal artistic achievement (as in a novel – Middlemarch, Les Misérables), rather than its opposite. On the other hand, chewing more than one bites off is I think that fair famous remark of tedium, and in my view it applies to too much of what are known as the major moderns, at least. Corporate TV too, corporate productions generally, bite off too little, as they must, are forced too. (Just a coincidence that “modernism” came in with the rising might of corporations?) No surprise then that TV Inc. chews way more than it bites off, a repetition typically working against progress, as opposed to a repetition, a necessary and vital repetition, that facilitates change. Corporate TV may be highly accomplished in many ways, and not infrequently is, but the limits are deplorable and should be scrutinized and challenged where possible.

Whether or not a “realistic” show set in a single city would eventually “use up” or play out the city, a step into the fantastic could be a way to use more, play more, go further, and also contribute to leading cities forward. The corporate-state has chosen to spend more than half its money destroying other lands and peoples instead of funding such useful, exciting endeavors. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

By Tony Christini on 05/26/08 at 01:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If I’m looking at a statue, I might say something like “That doesn’t work aesthetically because multiple joinings to the base work against the impression of lightness attempted by the rest of the piece” and you could explain why the statue had to be built that way because of the limitations of its material.  But so what?  That’s an explanation, not an invalidation of aesthetic judgement

Funny, though, that you chose to couch your critique of the statue in terms of the impression of lightness and not in terms of the lack of character development. My counter point, which is a reiteration of the above point, is that the aesthetic ideals that inform aesthetic criticism emerge against the background of what can and what regularly does get done with the form.

What’s missing from this debate is an explicit debate over the philosophy of art, and Rich, you and I are definitely operating from quite different positions in that regard. If I could go back and rewrite the above, it would be simply to say that TV doesn’t do character development well. But it can produce other aesthetic achievements or effects remarkably well. While character and character development may constitute one measure of aesthetic success, they do not constitute the only measure. My point in the end is the simple one that the ideal of character and character development are likewise conventions (of literary criticism) and not immutable meta-laws that hold across all media and all forms of aesthetic criticism.

I completely take your point about comics and concede that it is indeed possible to do something like character development in long-form serial drama. But I still don’t think that such an achievement would amount to “the best” that could be done with TV. I’m not even convinced that it would very likely get broadcast (and I’m even less convinced that it would likely be financed). That’s fine if you believe that a work of art that no one’s ever seen is still a work of art, but I’m not one of those believers. To my mind, talking about the aesthetics of television in such a way as to ignore the fact that one of the things that TV can do very well is broadcast it to large audiences is to miss something pretty significant about the medium. Same goes for many other elements of TV that are not properly considered by forms of aesthetic criticism that take the literary ideal as their starting point.

Tony, thanks for that. I really like the way you shift the focus from character development to challenging character. There’s perhaps more to be said on this, but right now I got a class to teach…

By on 05/26/08 at 03:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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