'Sopranos' plays by its own rules on HBO
The most resonant phrase uttered by any network executive at last summer's TV critics' press tour came from ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne. She was reminding her audience there's a difference in how real viewers and critics consume television.
"I think that what you look for," she said, referring to the 200 reporters in front of her, "is something that is totally different, something that is groundbreaking or provocative. (That) is not necessarily what a network audience is looking for when they come home after a long day. What we have been focusing on at this network is, 'How do we give people what they really want?'"
Then, the phrase: "We will leave groundbreaking to someone else."
Our obvious rejoinder was: "You have. For a long time now. And most of it is over on HBO."
Which brings us to this evening's return of Tony Soprano and family and crew and Larry David and his myriad neuroses.
Where the broadcast networks, constrained by standards and practices that cable operators are not, desperately seeking the broad, bland middle ground of formulaic sitcoms and soapy doctor, cop and lawyer shows, HBO continues to fully exploit its creative freedom with series like "The Sopranos" and David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
And for that, it's not just a couple of hundred critics who are thankful.
If there was ever going to be a pivotal, "jump the shark" moment for "The Sopranos," it should have come with this new, long-awaited fourth season. ("Jump the shark" is a TV expression for the moment when a series experiences total meltdown and creative exhaustion and resorts to wretched contrivance in an effort to fill the next episode.)
It hasn't happened. If anything, the first four episodes of this penultimate season (next year will be the last) not only confirm that "The Sopranos" is still gaining dramatic strength but that it is also the defining television series of the past decade.
Fifty years from now, when "The West Wing" is merely a fond, earnest memory, "The Sopranos," brilliantly plotted and filmed with a cinematic richness that shames most Hollywood features, will be remembered as the show that lifted television from adolescence to adulthood.
As creator David Chase hinted to the same gathering of critics in July, the underlying theme of this fourth season is the relationship of Tony (James Gandolfini) and his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco). When you're a de facto mob boss like Tony Soprano, mortality waits around every grimy street corner, and a sensible wife like Carmela begins thinking about a future without you.
Chase explained the long delay between the end of season three and the start of season four in terms of his need to avoid the creative exhaustion that allowed other successful series to deteriorate and his determination to enhance the cinematic qualities of his show. (In keeping with the theme of entropy and separation, notice the frequent use of wide-angle lenses this season, creating distance around and between characters.)
Chase's insistence that filming be done on real north Jersey and Manhattan locations is a recognition of the vital importance of visual texture in complementing the unique culture of his characters.
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