Sunday, June 14, 2009
The first season of The Sopranos not only emerged as a surprising critical and commercial success, it became ground zero to HBO's explosion of high-quality programs that only just now seem to have dried up. And as much as Buffy and -- to go back even further -- Twin Peaks popularized the idea of serialized arcs over standalone plots in television, The Sopranos proved that television could be as cinematic and ambitious as film if it really explored a story. It was the kind of unpredictable hit that set up lofty expectations and incredible pressure for a follow-up, a suddenly the writers, who just assumed they'd get the one season and no more, now had to scramble to build upon their world.
Unfortunately, the second season suffers from a noticeable sophomore slump. Don't let that dissuade you, however; it is no means mediocre T.V., nor is it even an unworthy continuation of these characters. It's just a bit of a slip backwards into some distracting asides and more standalone episodes.
At the end of the first season, Tony Soprano managed to thwart his uncle and mother's attempts to whack him, and he got the satisfaction of the Feds raiding Uncle Junior and his mother having a stroke from the stress of knowing that her son was onto her. It was a bizarrely happy ending in that sense, offering us the complete-yet-open ending that is the hallmark of a series that doesn't know if it's coming back (see: Dollhouse season 1 finale).
Season 2 picks up a few months after the events of the finale: Dr. Melfi, now known as Tony's therapist by other members of the DiMeo crime family, has gone into hiding at her client's urging. As a result, Tony now self-medicates, but the lack of pressure from his uncle and mother ensures a calmer Tony with or without anti-depressants. Then Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero re-emerges after a months-long absence.
Last season, Tony's cop informant, the late Vin Makazian, mentioned that Pussy was an informant for the FBI, and the gangster sent Paulie to see if this was true. But he disappeared just when the mob was about to concretely confirm or deny that he was a rat. Tony questions Pussy about his whereabouts and even pats him down, but ultimately welcomes his old friend back with open arms. Soon, however, we learn that Sal is indeed an informant, setting up the main conflict of the season.
Also adding some stress back into Tony's life is the return of his sister Janice, a neo-hippie who left the family 20 years ago to find herself and of course wound up in Seattle. She doesn't know about the bad blood between Tony and Livia, but she does know about her mother's health troubles and wants to do her part. Janice might easily have been a one-note character, but she quickly becomes one of the standout people in this little world, and we see her transform over the course of the season from the hippie we meet into a Mafia woman through and through.
Her return coincides with the release of Riche Aprile, the late Jackie Aprile's brother, after 10 years in prison. Richie is impulsive, greedy, vain and, above all, ruthlessly violent. One of the first things he does is beat up an old partner who owes him some money, leaving him a paraplegic. Richie used to date Janice in high school, and the two rekindle their relationship, much to Tony's chagrin. Tony knows that Richie's demeanor is simply too unbalanced, and that his actions will warrant even more attention from the authorities, even on his "legitimate" businesses.
While all of this is enough to fill a 13-episode season, Chase and the other writers naturally tackle these three lines all at once to create a more immersive experience as opposed to tackling each arc separately, but none of these lines is big enough to stretch out over the entire season without repetition. We learn that Pussy is a rat early on, which takes out a lot of the potential mystery and significantly reduces the amount of time you can make his story interesting. We know that a rat is doomed no matter how much some gangsters might love him, so really all you can do is count down the days until he gets caught.
Richie's relationship with Janice is constantly evolving and interesting, but his actions quickly get stuck into a pattern of swindling someone out of money, beating that person, getting reprimanded by Tony, plotting to kill Tony for the outrage of being told what to do, repeat. He's proof that sadists, while perhaps the most fun role for an actor, must be well-written; otherwise they're just two-dimensional bores.
The fact that these stories make up the meat of the seasonal arc and not simply subplots leaves a lot of free time, which the writers fill with subplots, some distracting, others fascinating. Christopher cleans himself up and has a go at screenwriting. In the excellent "D-Girl," he shops his Mafia-based script around Hollywood and even swings an on-set visit with Jon Favreau, in the best self-dramatization of a celebrity you'll find outside of a pure comedy. Chris also shacks up with an executive responsible for getting scripts greenlit, only for her and Favreau to ultimately mine Chris' script and his mob anecdotes for their own film. It's a clever juxtaposition of two deceptive, amoral industries, only one of which is actually outlawed. It also has the best Big Pussy scene of the season when he wears a wire to A.J.'s confirmation and ends up talking to the boy -- who is undergoing a strange, hilarious obsession with existentialism -- about what a great man Tony is. He may be a big thug, but he understands the irony of lecturing this boy about remaining loyal to his father when he's spying on the man himself, and soon the lug breaks down in tears in the bathroom.
Tony's trip to Naples, however, adds nothing to the story. He goes there to lay low and to establish ties with the distantly-related Camorra family in order to sell stolen cars abroad. They get a lot of gorgeous shots of the landscapes, but the only purpose the episode serves is to bring a vicious soldier named Furio Giunta back to Jersey -- his role in the season is fairly small, which works because anything bigger and he'd have just looked like another Richie -- and for Tony to flirt with Annalisa, the acting boss of the family. It's not a bad episode or anything; it just has no point.
The best subplot, however, concerns a man by the name of David Scatino, played by Robert Patrick of Terminator 2 fame. A compulsive gambler, Scatino tries to get in on one of Tony's poker games, and Tony backs him after initially refuses. He loses and owes a lot of money to Tony, who receives recompense by basically taking everything from the man, including his son's car. Scatino serves to show that Tony will exploit anyone, even family friends -- young Eric is one of Meadow's close friends, and his wife gets along with Carmela -- for the sake of monetary gain. At one point David asks Tony why he even lent the money, and Tony mentions that it's simply in his nature, even referencing the story of the frog and the scorpion. Patrick plays David brilliantly, and he conveys as much with his brief screen time as many of the main characters.
The season climaxes in its penultimate episode, "The Knight in White Satin Armor," in which, yet again, someone plots to whack Tony and Janice and Richie's relationship comes to a shocking end. But the real treat is "Funhouse," in which Tony finally stops denying that Pussy is an informant through a series of food poisoning-induced hallucinations. You know where Pussy's story will end, but Chase handles it with care, and the result is a major highlight of these early seasons.
All in all, season 2 squanders is storylines by telling us too much too soon and then drawing out a conclusion, and not in a way that maintains interest. Yet it makes the best of a bad situation, like Buffy's fourth season, by delving into the characters like never before. We see Melfi slowly come undone in seclusion, stopping just short of violent outbursts and even admitting something approaching sexual attraction to Tony to her therapist (played marvelously by Peter Bogdonavich). Janice's transformation from new age love child to cold, conniving mobster is a highlight. And through it all Tony and his family continue to grow and pull apart, come together and stretch out again.
Those moments of character development, combined with some great execution here and there (chiefly with the subplots, "D-Girl" and "Funhouse"), make the second season of The Sopranos a success, if a muted one. And for all its flaws, I'm eager to see where it goes next.