Back to “The Sopranos”, tenors of TV

Lit’s soprano enchant again. A film recounting part of the childhood of Tony Soprano, main character of the HBO series (1999-2007), arrives this week on the screens, young and old. This TV production has marked recent cultural history with a scarlet rock, so to say that the prequel is overdue would distill the sheer irony so dear to Tony and his ugly, wicked but endearing cronies of scheming and blood.

Towards the end of the broadcast of the first season of The Sopranos by the HBO channel, considered the best in the world for thirty years, the TV critic of the prestigious New York Times had published an analytical summary under the title “Sympathetic brutes in a pop masterpiece”. A masterpiece, then.

Journalist Stephen Holden added that this production was quite simply “the greatest achievement of American popular culture of the past quarter century.” The Guardian en 2010, la Writers Guild of America en 2013, le magazine Rolling Stone in 2016 also placed it at the top of the list of the best series in the now very long history of television, ahead of The Wire Where Six Feet Under.

On reading this intellectual dubbing, the mother-in-law (since deceased) of Dana Polan, professor of film studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, felt compelled to delve into this in turn. “Quality TV”. The laudatory qualifier is often used by people who don’t like TV to distinguish a production that looks more like cinema …

“Nothing attracted her naturally to a series on gangsters: my mother-in-law was very cultured, lived near Princeton University, liked concerts of symphonic music,” says the professor, contacted earlier this week in New York. ” But the New York Times was his bible. So she watched the show to go with the flow. I watched some episodes with her and I could tell she was uncomfortable with the level of violence, the very foul language, the sewer life. My mother-in-law was fairly typical of the reports of a certain intellectual audience on this so-called quality television. “

He himself loved the production so much that he devoted an essay to it that has become the essential reference work on the cultural phenomenon: The Sopranos (Duke University Press), published in 2009, two years after the release of 86e and last episode, in 2007. The one who wrote ten essays of the genre (including one on Pulp Fiction) describes himself as a cultural critic of moving images. He adds that for him, cinema and television represent “the most representative forms of culture of the 20th century.e century ”.

Contrary to New York Times, however, he refuses to talk about Soprano like a masterpiece.

“I don’t use that term,” says Dana Polan, who speaks exquisite French, refined by a doctorate at the Sorbonne after her PhD from Stanford University. “As a cultural critic, I try not to give my opinion: I am content to analyze a phenomenon. Two decades ago, everyone, including the New York Times and my mother-in-law, talked about Soprano and it therefore seemed legitimate to me to analyze it as such. “

For me, the question isn’t whether the show shows an immoral America. The question is what she does and wants to do by showing this immoral America.

A mafioso at the psycho

Let’s talk about it again and reanalyze it. For the record, the action of the series takes place in New Jersey within the family and the criminal organization of the mafia Tony Soprano. The seasons follow the professional adventures and personal setbacks of the gang leader. Tony seems in perpetual conflict with his wife Carmela and their two children. So he secretly sees a psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who helps him dig into his past and childhood to understand the causes of his recurring panic attacks.

David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, himself often and at length explained his disdain for the majority of television productions and his immeasurable love for the cinema. Its creation suffers.

She experiments with the time of the story. It introduces a self-critical distance within it even with the sessions with the shrink. She multiplies the references and allusions to well-known and praised works, including films. The Godfather on the New York Mafia. In a scene from the first season, Tony Soprano goes through a shootout while shopping for orange juice, as Godfather Don Corleone is shot while shopping for oranges in the Francis Ford Coppola film.

This framework is used to develop even more thirst for situations where the moral codes explode at best. The group portrait extended to America turns out to be as critical and dark as that of the series The Wire Where Breaking Bad, other “quality TVs” of recent years. Here and there a harsh and cruel Darwinian society is revealed, dominated by toxic males.

“For me, the question is not whether the show shows an immoral America,” says the professor. The question is what she does and wants to do by showing this immoral America. Perhaps the proposal allows the viewer to enter immorality for an hour, to contemplate a life other than his own. Both TV and cinema allow you to flirt with other positions, other moralities, other life choices. Before, it was believed that immoral productions lead to immorality. It is much more complicated. “

Irony hegemony

The creation in fact constantly plays on double talk, as if to tell the viewer not to trust appearances, not to believe in the banality of the obvious. She constantly oscillates between seriousness and casualness, the harshest reality and frivolous distance. She activates sardonic springs in a deliberately playful tone, including out of politeness of despair. In a scene at the funeral home, one of the protagonists joked to the other bereaved: “Still, what were the chances that Lou Gehrig would die from Lou Gehrig’s disease? “

Short, The Sopranos distills the irony that reverses the meaning of what is said. This figure of speech dominated the turn of the century in all more or less artistic disciplines, the novel as advertising, the cinema as television. A university colloquium in 2007, just as the series was ending, was held on the theme of “hegemony of irony “, Many writers then exploiting the vein by” making the spirit on the back of their character “, by manipulating the second degree ad nauseam in their aesthetic of distinction.

Professor Polan sometimes uses the reference to irony in his book. He still prefers to speak of a postmodern series in the sense that it offers a position and its opposite, that it establishes a certainty at the same time as it deconstructs it.

« The Sopranos exposes ethical dilemmas and at the same time tells us that these situations make no sense and remain unimportant, he says. We no longer know whether to laugh or not. The same dilemma arises with Pulp Fiction. In front of the level of violence or obscenity of this film, one must constantly wonder if the director Tarantino is serious or not. “

He admits a particular fascination for the scenes in the bar of dancers, landmark of the Soprano gang, a place obviously concentrating the exploitation of women by men. “The series shows the hypocrisy of condemning the very thing it exposes,” he concludes. My students have a lot of difficulty with this way. They are less generous and less tolerant of moments in a work that lack political correctness. The series condemns by exploiting, and this approach seems difficult for some to understand.

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