MARTHA THOMASES: Gangster of Love
This may come as something of a shock, but tomorrow night is the last episode of The Sopranos.
Now, I’m not the world’s most dedicated fan. I came late to the party, not tuning in regularly until the second season. I tend to be suspicious of critical darlings, afraid they might be uplifting and good for me, or depressing and bleak. However, in this case, my husband and my son were both enthusiastic, I recognized the name of creator David Chase from The Rockford Files, and so, one night, I didn’t get out of my chair when the distinctive theme song came on.
It would be nice if I could say that I was hooked on the brilliant acting, the profound scripts, even the incredibly realistic portrait of middle-class values in New Jersey. That would be a lie. I tuned in to watch Michael Imperioli, because I thought he was really cute.
Over the years, though, I got sucked in. Watching these characters week in and week out (not counting the breaks that lasted over a year) helped me to identify with them. No, I’m not part of organized crime, but I, too, tend to offer my loved ones food when they come to tell me about their problems. I’m not a hired killer, but I’ve been angry enough to want to take someone out to the woods and leave them there.
Serial fiction, like soap opera, comics and Harry Potter books, are especially good at enmeshing the audience with the cast of characters. What The Sopranos has done so well with the form is to take people who are evil, who kill and steal, and make them so mundanely human.
When I read a Superman comic every week, I feel like I’m spending time with a friend I’ve known since I was five years old. He’s in the media in a major media market, probably knows a bunch of the same people I know. Bruce Wayne has a penthouse in midtown, and is a big part of the city’s party circuit, a beat I’ve covered. The Legion of Super-Heroes is like a big dorm, and I lived in dormitories through high school and college.
So, even extremely unrealistic comic book characters present no challenge to me. I can bond with them no matter how inane nor how two-dimensional the writing. Even though they have super-powers (or at least super-human self-discipline), I can find things in common that make it possible for me to relate to them.
But Tony Soprano? He lives in (gasp!) New Jersey! He works in a strip club. Both of those things put me off, even before we get to the guns and the beatings. Carmella wears a lot of make-up, has lunch with her lady friends a lot, and seems to care about jewelry. These are not qualities common to my friends or me. How do I relate?
I like ducks. I like ducks a ridiculous amount. It’s one of my favorite things to see when I go to Walt Disney World, or my parents place in Florida. I will watch them for minutes on end, making quacking noises that embarrass other members of my family, who pretend not to know me.
Tony Soprano also likes ducks.
My son, although the most brilliant person on the planet as well as the most lovable, had some problems in high school. This incredibly rare phenomenon (probably no one else ever experienced this in the entire history of the modern education system), and my worries about him, gave me something to share with Carmella.
From there, I was in. I could suspend my disbelief enough to make the leap and imagine myself in their situations. I could delight in the bloody beatings of those who crossed Tony’s path. I could complain that not enough characters were getting whacked.
And now, with hours to go before the last episode, I know I’m going to miss seeing these people I’ve grown to care about. The actors, writers and directors have shown me they are human beings, with human feelings, who love their families and have hopes and dreams. They are also sociopaths who kill without any hint of remorse, who value money and comfort over almost else. They would seem to embody evil as I understand it, and yet I can see myself in them.
That’s what good television can do. My thanks to David Chase for going there.
Writer and creator of Marvel Comics’ Dakota North and contributor to their Epic Illustrated, Martha Thomases also has toiled for such publishers as DC Comics and NBM before becoming Media Queen of ComicMix.com.