Thursday, June 20, 2013

Some thoughts on tv storytelling, James Gandolfini and why we love the ordinary villain

Not so long ago (but well before the advent of Hulu, Netflix or decent content on YouTube) I was one of the people who quite proudly proclaimed, "I don't watch television." This wasn't really true. I didn't own a tv, but I'd sneak a Simpsons episode here and there, watch Star Trek at a friend's house, you know, the standard behavior of a reformed addict. But I didn't really miss it, nor did I feel a need to watch tv regularly. It wasn't well written, it wan't compelling, it didn't tell a story I found engaging.

All of that changed with The Sopranos. I missed the first season, but by the middle of the second, I found myself thoroughly enmeshed in the trials and tribulations of the Soprano family. I kept telling myself it was just another soap opera, that my addiction didn't make any sense, but what I came to realize was this: 1) it was a really well-written soap opera, 2) the acting was superb, I could believe everyone and 3) soap operas matter to us because they tell such human stories.

At its core, The Sopranos was the story of a man trying to do right by his family, do his job, find a place in his community, all while being deeply flawed. Who among us hasn't tried to do right while being deeply flawed?

After The Sopranos, television began to change. We are now in a new golden age of tv storytelling, with many shows where story and writing really matters. You may argue with me, that there was great tv before The Sopranos, that's fine. For me, that one show was the tipping point. Before there was very little I found deeply compelling, certainly nothing that didn't also include lasers, space and maybe a giant lizard or two. Now I have to choose between riches. It's as though The Sopranos helped audiences realize we could actually consume things that weren't bad for us, there was more than junk food and the occasional laser-enhanced apple. Where before the best written show I could find was Babylon 5 (which was often spectacular and, if nothing else, had great special effects), now I am offered good writing not only in sci-fi but right here on earth. Television producers have realized that good storytelling matters. That the audience's intelligence matters. That believability matters.

Which brings me to the quality of acting we now find on tv. The Sopranos raised the bar not only for writing/filming/directing, but acting. By casting James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and others, the producers were putting a stake in the ground, stating they wanted their characters to have all the visible unspoken nuances of any living person. That takes real acting chops.

James Gandolfini made Tony Soprano more than just a standard mafia don. His acting skill brought a very human complexity to the part. The writing opened the door, but his acting meant we were able to step into Tony's shoes. We could empathize with his love of eating leftovers from the fridge because of the delight on his face as he snuck that bite of lasagna. We felt his frustration with and love for his kids. Our hearts broke as he yearned to be a good husband but didn't quite know how.

None of this would have been possible without Mr. Gandolfini's skill as an actor and the opportunity he was given by such superb scripts. Just watch this clip from the very end of The Sopranos (really the end, the end of the last episode ever). Watch the play of emotions on his face as he observes everyone coming in. Watch his hope and frustration with his son. The ordinary conversation with his wife. The very mundanity of it all makes it real and makes it ours.

That we could identify so closely with Tony Soprano means we were able to have morally ambiguous feelings when he erupted into a murderous rage. We liked Tony. We understood so much about him. Did this mean we understood his dark side as well?

Ordinary villains, well-portrayed, allow us to connect to our own darker yearnings. We all have those stray uncomfortable thoughts. By empathizing with fictional characters, ordinary villains, we can live those thoughts out, just a little, without feeling too much guilt. Truly evil villains are too repugnant for most of us to want to identify with; we need to feel sympathy for the devil to get that fictional release. We all want to be bad, but we all also want to be loved. Tony Soprano let us experience that. James Gandolfini made it possible.

Since The Sopranos, there have been many other superb tv shows, well-written, well-acted, well-produced. Good storytelling, no matter the format or topic, gives us a doorway into our own lives, a chance to reflect and identify that we might not have otherwise have had. Yes, this is wildly different from live storytelling, but there is still value here that I didn't admit to before The Sopranos.

I now own a tv. I'm hooked on a couple of shows. And I'm grateful for the life and talent of people like James Gandolfini, who open that door and say, "Look. Here you are. Here we all are."

P.S. What are you watching? What do you consider good tv storytelling? I'd love to know.

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. I highly recommend The Wire and Six Feet Under. The modern Battlestar Gallactica was also very interesting and provocative. Game of Thrones is entertaining.


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