Thursday, January 21, 2010
When last I left New Jersey and the DiMeo crime family, Tony Soprano had once again ordered a significant whacking to save his skin and consolidate his authority. Unlike the killings of the first season finale, however, the murder in "Funhouse" carried significant psychological weight for the most tortured man in the Mafia: Big Pussy's death threatened to cast a specter over the next season, the crux of Tony's development for at least a portion of the following 13 episodes.
That the lingering effects of his dear friend's betrayal and death only factor in Tony's life occasionally reflects the larger failure of The Sopranos' third season to consistently tap into the emotions of well-defined characters. Indeed, while The Sopranos always worked on some level as a black comedy -- the Freudian nightmare of Tony's relationship with his mother, the puffed-chest posturing of its murderous, stunted, manchild gangsters -- this collection of episodes completely skews the balance into the realm of zaniness, to the point that its moments of dramatic thrust struggle to connect amidst the grand joke of it all.
Much, too much, is exaggeration: Meadow moves into Columbia University, only to find herself saddled with a homesick depressive of a roommate whose initial flightiness gives way to paranoia and neediness of the Single White Female variety. Chrisopher becomes a made man, only for Paulie to develop odd quirks and borderline fetishes that involve humiliating the poor kid. Before Livia suffers a fatal stroke in the second episode (a way for the writers to work through Nancy Marchand's death in 2000), Tony places her under the care of his former mistress' one-legged sister, who must contend with the bottomless well of bratty entitlement that is Janice Soprano when Livia leaves her nurse a few valuable items.
None of these is any bigger a comic diversion than the rest of the subplots that made The Sopranos such a dense, often hilarious, work, but they dominate the narrative arcs of the season while the typical scheming and whacking fall to the wayside. That's a fine way to change up the pace for an episode or two (who can forget the classic Buffy episode "The Zeppo," which placed Xander's private self-doubts in the foreground and hilariously relegated an end-of-the-world monster mash to the periphery?), but structuring an entire season that way demonstrates a rapidly thinning set of strong ideas for the show's direction.
For clearest evidence of this creative dry spell, consider the influx of new and retooled characters to replace the dearly departed, then how all of them essentially do nothing more than inhabit the traits of the characters they replace, albeit with greater exaggeration. Janice takes over the role of the vindictive, egomaniacal female Soprano for Livia; Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) for the sadistic, insolent capo Richie; the clingy, violently neurotic Gloria for Tony's old comaré Inira. Each of these characters magnifies their predecessors' traits without bringing much to the table of their own (save Janice, whose various ploys of making herself the center of the universe recall the titular petulant tyrant of Jane Campion's Sweetie), while Meadow, gently evolving until this point, backslides into hormonal angst better served for a character several years younger. She falls for two boys in the season: a half-black, half-Jewish elitist named Noah, who sleeps with her before casting her aside as vengeance against her racist father, and Jackie Aprile, Jr., whom Tony attempts to keep out of the Family business as a promise he made to his late friend on his deathbed. Meadow falls prey to her emotions, and the intelligent, maturing young woman o the first two seasons, the one who began to distance herself from her family as her awareness of their true nature grew, instead uses her father as a punching bag for her own troubles, engaging in bitch sessions at every turn.
Where the first two seasons offered bountiful topics for discussion, The Sopranos suddenly wades into the shallow end, preventing meaningful dissection. Only "Employee of the Month" works as full-blown drama: in it, Dr. Melfi -- the closest the show has to an objective viewer -- is raped, and she grapples for the rest of the episode with the prospect of telling Tony and watching her tormentor disappear. Lorraine Bracco gives a wrenching, flawless performance as someone coming to terms with such a horrific crime, the way that it becomes such a mental overload that the entire body becomes a live wire that recoils to the touch, and when she responds to Tony's question whether something is troubling her at the end of the episode with a deafeningly quiet, "No," she denies the first violence on the program that we actually might want to see. Yet the thoughtful plotting and conclusion of the extreme violence and its effect by "University," in which the horrific murder of one of the Bada Bing strippers is juxtaposed with the regressive dramedy of Meadow's pity parade, undercutting the severity of the violence even as the Meadow subplot is revealed as even more an asinine waste of time.
Occasionally, though, the use of high comedy works, as it does in the season's finest offering, "Pine Barrens." Like last season's "D-Girl," it is a very un-Sopranos-like episode, even as it reveals a blunt truth about the business. Last season, we saw how show biz and Family biz weren't so different, and "Pine Barrens" uses the absurdity of an extortion attempt gone awry to show how far loyalty goes in the mob. Paulie and Chris provoke a situation with the Russian from whom they are collecting, leading them to bury the man out in the snowy woods outside Atlantic City, only for the man to possess a Rasputin-like inability to die and spark a manhunt that strands the two gangsters out in the cold. Their hunger and cold leads to hilarious desperation, but they also bring out the bottom line of mob life: survival beats out loyalty.
The Sopranos' third season never truly dips to the point that any episodes fail, and the Gloria Trillo arc introduced at the end is a fun distraction that builds to a great punchline, but overall so little of it sticks with you. I remember only vague actions -- Meadow goes to college and has boy trouble, Janice finds religion -- but never any specifics: apart from Melfi's final line in "Employee of the Month," there are no moments like Pussy telling AJ what a great man Tony is while wearing a wire to bring him down, no Junior hitting someone in the face with a pie and making it tragic, not funny. What you're left with by the end is junk food, filling but empty compared to the feasts of what came before. I've heard that the show never matched its first season, but I hope it fixes some of the problems here before they drag the show down further.