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The Sopranos: Boca (Review)

Boca pretty much interrupts a hot streak of first season Sopranos episodes. It serves as a reminder that the show might have brought the medium into the twenty-first century, serving as a massive influence on televisual storytelling over the past decade, but the first season was still a product of nineties television. Boca feels strangely like a stand-alone episode, a strange artefact from some parallel universe where David Chase and his team decided that The Sopranos might work just as well as a piece of episodic television, rather than as serialised narrative.

Boca feels like one of those “ripped from the headlines” issue-conscious pieces of television drama, as if we’re watching The Sopranos by way of Law & Order. Of course, the script still has the show’s wit, and the episode plays into the series’ themes, but Boca feels a little strange. It’s not a bad piece of television, but it’s the first episode of The Sopranos that feels like it could have been repurposed from something else.

Old love...

Old love…

Boca broadcast in March 1999. It was less than a year after former teacher Mary Kay Letourneau had been arrested for a parole violation following a tryst in a parked care with one of her former students, Vili Fualaau. Letourneau had already been prosecuted for sleeping with Fualaau, and was sent back to prison following the violation. However, Letourneau became pregnant as a result of the affair. She gave birth in prison in October 1998.

It’s hard to directly connect that high profile case to Boca, but this is the first time it feels like The Sopranos is really playing to a moral panic. It’s essentially a one-shot story about a soccer coach who has an affair with one of his students, and the crisis of conscience that this generates for Tony. To be fair, that’s not a bad hook. It’s always nice to see the gulf between the self-image Tony has crafted of himself as a heroic schmo who does right by everybody, and the reality that he’s a dangerous and manipulative sociopath.

Grave troubles...

Grave troubles…

The best parts of Boca play on and develop that idea, having a bit of fun with the notion of Tony Soprano as the defender of All-American values. The best scene in Boca is only really thematically connected to the main plot, as Tony makes a stand for manners and respect… by insisting some kid remove his hat in a restaurant. Artie, who hangs out with a killer and mob boss, is appalled by the kid’s lack of respect. “It’s values today. Standards is crumbling.” The waiter quietly thanks Tony for his intervention, and our hero gets to feel a little good about himself.

There’s something darkly comic about the idea of these mob bosses so offended by the controversy that the coach is generating. Righteous indignation is, after all, the best kind of indignation. “My daughter should have to think about this filth?” Silvio laments at one point, while hanging around in the back room of a strip club. (Incidentally the same strip club where they tried to pimp out one of the dancers to the coach.)

Hat's off to Tony for standing up to that menace...

Hat’s off to Tony for standing up to that menace…

However, the problem with Boca is that all of this gets lost in sheer sordidness of the set-up. “Gonna give him a real after-school special,” Silvio boasts, and this feels like a really weird attempt at an after-school special. This is the first time we meet either Coach Houser or Ally Vandermeed. We’re told that she has been over to dinner several times, but she’s essentially a new one-shot character. The first time we really notice her is during her suicide attempt. She’s a transparent plot device, and there’s something quite grating about how the show just invents her when it needs a victim.

It’s the kind of thing that The Sopranos would get better at in the years ahead, as it learned to foreshadow and seed even minor characters across several episodes before their involvement with the plot paid off. It made the drama seem a bid more fluid, and less sensationalist. There was a sense that the writers weren’t simply constructing plot points as each individual episode needed them, and that the show was less a collection of fifty-minute episodes than a giant book split over multiple chapters.

Tough call...

Tough call…

This will never be mentioned again. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. We don’t measure the worth of a story by how much weight is given to it in retrospect. Some of the strongest Sopranos episodes are never directly followed up – we just count on the events influencing our defining the cast in such a way that they seem insightful or probing. Boca, on the other hand, feels completely disposable from the moment it starts.

Part of the problem is pacing. The episode is very clearly building to something from the moment it opens at the soccer game. As a rule, Chase works a lot better when bringing concepts to a slow boil. Consider the year’s dangling plot threads so far, with Livia conspiring against Tony and Junior’s difficulty asserting his control of the family business. These simmer over extended periods of time, to help bring out the flavour.

I'm sorry Meadow, but we just call it "football" over here...

I’m sorry Meadow, but we just call it “football” over here…

In contrast, Boca feels like a collection of scenes that might have been better suited scattered throughout the season like a trail of ginger bread. Tony befriends Meadow’s coach. The coach is leaving. Tony tries to convince him to stay. Then, more than half-way through the episode, the bombshell drops. The coach has been sleeping with one of his students. It’s a really awkward scene, one which doesn’t flow naturally at all.

Despite Jamie-Lynn Sigler’s solid work, Meadow’s admission feels forced, as if it’s only coming out because we have to reach the rest of the episode. To be fair, Tony’s reaction is spot-on. He tries to excuse the coach’s abuse of trust, subtly trying to shift the blame on Ally so that he doesn’t have to change his opinion of the man or his investment in his daughter’s team. It’s only when Carmela restates the issue in terms that affect Tony (“what if it had been Meadow?”) that he responds with outrage.

Big man, eh?

Big man, eh?

There are some good ideas here. I like Tony’s attempts to justify his outrage and his desire to kill Houser for his transgression. He attempts to argue that he’s simply doing what everybody else lacks the courage to do. “Why don’t you stick your head in the sand?” he argues. “Because that’s what people like you do!” It’s a lovely way of demonstrating how Tony rationalises his behaviour, and this is very clearly playing to his idea of outdated American masculinity, like Gary Cooper or other cowboys. It’s not enough to sustain the episode, which is definitely the weakest of the season so far.

The subplot doesn’t help. If the “ripped from the headlines” feel of the moral panic plot seems like “The Sopranos as Law & Order”, then Junior’s subplot feels like “The Sopranos as HBO sitcom.” I’m not sure we needed an entire episode dedicated to how seriously performing oral sex can compromise an alpha male’s reputation, but the tone of the show feels a little off. It’s nice to spend more time with Junior, and it’s interesting to see how sex and masculine self-image can wind up in conflict, but it all feels a little too much like an ill-conceived sex farce – something Boca all but concedes when it ends with the loneliest pie-in-the-face you’ve ever seen.

In the bedroom...

In the bedroom…

To be fair, I’m not sure this plot line is unworkable. It’s interesting to see that Tony’s conflict between his own insecurities and the hyper-masculinity required to do his job isn’t exclusive to his generation. “If only they knew the other side of you…,” Bobbi remarks, prompting Junior to finish, “… they’d eat me for breakfast.” It’s easy to see how such a world can grind a man down, and there’s something delightfully hypocritical about the fact that it isn’t what you do in the bedroom that matters, only what others hear about.

(I also like the show’s delightfully hypocritical assertion that male-on-female oral sex can be seen as a sign of closet homosexuality. “It’s a sign of weakness, and possibly a sign that you’re a fanook,” Junior helpfully explains. Bobbi raises the rather obvious question, “How would the two even translate?” As you might expect, the answer is less than convincing. And yet, despite how illogical and homophobic and misogynistic that idea manages to be – all at the same time! – it still feels quite human. It’s a very Sopranos moment, with old wisdom that makes absolutely no sense offered as unquestioned gospel.)

Family fun...

Family fun…

Of course, all of this is undercut by the fact that this is the first (and last) time we’ll see Bobbi. Dominic Chianese is able to sell the heartbreak of the end of a sixteen-year relationship through the power of his performance, but the set-up seems just as contrived as the arrival of Coach Houser. This is the first time it’s come up in sixteen years? It seems like a pretty massive coincidence. After all, Bobbi has presumably been gossiping about it for all that time, and it’s only when Junior flags the issue that it becomes a problem.

Boca isn’t a terrible episode, but it is a fairly weak one. It serves as the show’s first example of how not to construct an episode of The Sopranos, which is remarkable considering how elastic the format could be when Chase wanted it. Boca feels like we’re watching The Sopranos morph into the shape of a less challenging television show, a less compelling piece of drama. It remains a bit of a fluke in the show’s run, an early blip on the radar. And we should all be thankful for that.

2 Responses

  1. I disagree with you. Why is the episode called ‘Boca’? Junior goes to Boca Raton, FL. Is this destination arbitrary? Boca Raton means ‘The mouth of the rat’. Watch again with that in mind and pay attention to every reference to mouths, especially with Junior, but also with Tony. I think this episode is a classic example of how rich in imagery and well written this show was.

    • Fair point. I love the show. But I also think that it occasionally misfired, as any long-running show that isn’t The Wire must do from time-to-time. The realities of producing television, particularly in the first year, and all that. But each’s own – the world would be boring if we all agreed. 🙂

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