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Non-Review Review: The Many Saints of Newark

The Sopranos was a groundbreaking piece of television that completely changed the rules of television as a medium, with a mob epic that was singularly suited to the opportunities and the constraints of its given medium. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Many Saints of Newark is that it at least reinforces how much of the success of The Sopranos was down to its existence of a television show. The Many Saints of Newark demonstrates that so many of the tricks that made The Sopranos so compelling when watched in thirteen-hour seasons become deeply frustrating when condensed to a two-hout movie.

The Many Saints of Newark is a fundamentally flawed film. The most charitable interpretation of the film is that it feels like an attempt to condense an entire season of television down to a cinematic narrative that clocks in at just under two hours. The Many Saints of Newark is a sprawling film, one that spans from the late sixties into the early seventies. It often doesn’t seem to have a singular driving plot, but instead a set of competing subplots that swirl and occasionally cohere around the lead character of Dicki Moltisanti. They gesture broadly at compelling thematic concerns, but without any real clarity or focus.

Clever Dickie.

The Many Saints of Newark hinges on the narrative trickery that made The Sopranos such a compelling watch. It has an expansive cast. There’s a recurring ambiguity about what any of this actually means and what parts of it will be actively important to the resolution of the story. The film is willing to spend extended periods focusing on vignettes involving tertiary supporting cast members, away from the nominal lead. The film’s ending is a very deliberate and pointed anticlimax, one that is very deliberately set up over the film’s runtime, but which still feels designed to confound audience expectations.

All of these elements worked on The Sopranos because the production team had enough room to explore and develop them. The show was dense enough and had enough narrative real estate that credited leads like Lorraine Bracco or Dominic Chianese could disappear for multiple episodes at a time, only to return at pivotal junctures. The show spent enough time developing its narrative threads that sudden curve balls that seemed to derail certain plots instead felt like satisfying and unexpected pay-offs from others. The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t have this luxury. It doesn’t seem expansive, just messy.

Family ties.

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New Escapist Column! On The Lingering Ambiguity of “The Sopranos”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the rapidly approaching premiere of The Many Saints of Newark, it seemed like as good a time as any to take a look back to The Sopranos.

The Sopranos remains a towering accomplishment in modern television. It is a show that ushered in what has been described as “the Golden Age of Television.” It is a show that has endured, recruiting new fans in the years since it went off the air. It is a show that is still hotly contested and debated, with fans still arguing over what particular scenes or episodes mean. This is particularly true of the show’s famous ending scene, but the truth is that The Sopranos was always deliberately ambiguous, trusting its audience to reach their own conclusions about these characters and how they operate.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “WandaVision” and the Death of Ambiguity…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With WandaVision ending just over a week ago, I had some thoughts about art, ambiguity and meaning. You know, small things.

One of the more interesting aspects of WandaVision was the way in which it presented itself, and was received as, a “mystery box” show. It was framed and treated as a puzzle to be solved. What’s interesting about this is the care that the finale took to carefully explain and confront each possible fan theory and speculation, to communicate very simply and very straightforwardly not only what its audience was supposed to take from this story, but also how they were supposed to feel in response to certain key plot beats.

This is arguably a reflection of a larger trend in pop culture, in which there’s a strong rejection of the idea of ambiguity and an embrace of the idea that everything has a fixed meaning that can be clearly determined and objectively derived. This ignores the reality that art exists in ambiguity, that there’s no simple, single decoder ring and that meaning is often something derived from conversation between the art and the audience consuming it.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

The X-Files – The Goldberg Variation (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Jeffrey Bell does whimsical very well.

The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation are perhaps Bell’s two strongest contributions to The X-Files, and they stand as some of the show’s most light-hearted episodes. In a way, Bell was the perfect new writer for a show moving from moody Vancouver down to sunny Los Angeles, with his best contributions to the show managing to preserve the weirdness that fans had come to know and love while turning up the brightness at the same time. They were episodes that felt much more applicable to the show’s new home in California.

Eye see...

Eye see…

The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation are bright episodes, and not just in a literal sense. There is an optimism that runs through both scripts, suggesting that maybe the world is not an inherently hostile place and maybe not every X-file is plotting to eat your liver or carve out your cancer. Strange things happen in the world on every day, and some times those strange things can be wondrous as well as terrifying. While quite far removed from the aesthetic of the first five seasons, The Rain King and The Goldberg Variation are no less true to the spirit of the show.

The Goldberg Variation is light entertainment. It is so light that there are points where it almost seems ready to float away. That may not be such a bad thing.

Sometimes you have to play the hand you're dealt...

Sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt…

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The Sopranos: Pax Soprana (Review)

I think it’s possible to make the argument that The Sopranos can be read as that illusive “great American novel”, just handily divided into eighty-six chapters and televised as opposed to written. Sure, it’s a show about the mob, but it’s also a compelling examination of the disillusionment festering at the heart of the American psyche. Tony might be a New Jersey mob boss, but most of his problems aren’t too far disconnected from those eating away at the American middle class. (Hell, I’d argue that it speaks volumes to the Irish psyche and probably many other nationalities as well.) As such, across the crucial first season, Chase and his team of writers seem to lay down and establish the core themes, allowing Tony to confront and explore just one of the many gnawing insecurities eating away at any middle-class father. In College, Tony wrestled with the idea that his daughter might discover who he truly is, while Pax Soprana explores the notion of impotence and insecurity – some times literally.

Psyche!

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Sopranos: Meadowlands (Review)

It’s interesting how slowly The Sopranos approached the violence of what Tony does. Of course, the pilot episode (The Sopranos) featured Tony brutally beating a debtor in an attempt to earn his money back and the subsequent episode (46 Long) featured Tony beating up an employee at the Bada-Bing for failing to work the telephone properly, but the show generally eased us into seeing Tony as a truly “bad” guy.

It was never ambiguous about his mob connections or the crimes and violence that he committed or that he authorised others to commit, but the first few episodes generally keep that violence somewhat insulated from Tony. Paulie and Pussy brutalise the car thieves to reclaim a teacher’s lost car, while Tony’s threatened castration of a Jewish man refusing to play ball is kept off-screen. While Tony would commit his first on-screen murder in the next episode (College), Meadowlands feels like the first episode to truly present Tony as a borderline sociopath, and to demonstrate just how aggressive and possessive he can be.

Paying respects...

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The Sopranos: Denial, Anger, Acceptance (Review)

Denial, Anger, Acceptance marks the first episode of The Sopranos not written by creator David Chase. In the United Kingdom, it’s traditional for a particular writer (or writers) to write every episode of a given series, to the point where you are quite likely to find a television show credited “by” a particular person. In the United States, due to longer seasons and various other concerns, such an approach isn’t feasible. (There are exceptions, such as Aaron Sorkin’s tenure on The West Wing, where he contributed eight-one scripts in the show’s first four seasons.) However, The Sopranos remains associated with its creator, David Chase, so it’s interesting to look at Denial, Anger, Acceptance as the first episode written by a writer other than Chase, in this case Mark Saraceni.

Sticking his neck out...

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The Sopranos: Sopranos (Review)

I feel like I am massively late to the party. Not fashionably late, mind you. However, my gran received The Sopranos on DVD for Christmas, and I’ve decided to go back and watch it from the start with her. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the iconic television show over the years – even following it for a full two seasons in the middle – but I’ve never seen David Chase’s dark exploration of the American dream from beginning to end. So, slowly, in the company of my grandmother, I shall be making my way through what many people consider to be the best television show ever produced. And where better to start, after all these years, than the very first episode?

Talking it out...

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Holding Out For an Anti-Hero: The Rise of the Morally Ambiguous Protagonist…

Sure, comedies have a long history of featuring genuinely unlikable characters as leads, but I think the last number of years have seen an explosion in the number of morally ambiguous (and sometimes downright villainous) protagonists, both on the big and small screens. Of course, the entire film noir movement was based upon the idea of a compromised hero, in recent times we’ve found ourselves increasingly cheering for the bad guy.

A serial charmer...

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My Top Ten Shows of the Decade

Yep, it’s retrospective time. I’ve done my top 50 movies of the past ten years, so it’s time for me to reflect on my top 10 television shows of the 00s. Prepare to be awed and mazed, shocked and astounded, angered and enraged, by the inclusions (and omissions) from my list. The good folks over at Television Without Pity included their favourite episode in each choice, so I think I’m going to run with that idea.

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