T. and I approached season five of The Sopranos with some trepidation. The show’s writing started to tank after season two and I thought season four was pretty awful. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the first few episodes of season five, wondering if perhaps the show had turned a corner. The season begins with an injection of new blood, as several mobsters get released from jail around the same time, so there are several new faces. These include Steve Buscemi as Tony Soprano’s childhood friend, Tony Blundetto (known as Tony B.). The new characters give the show a bit of oomph, and it also helps that Tony and Carmela are no longer together. We’re therefore spared the inane family melodrama that dominated seasons three and four… for a while, anyway.
Season five initially sees a renewed focus on the FBI and their efforts to take down the various Mafia families in New York and New Jersey. This storyline drives much of the season’s better action, just because it’s interesting to see how the federal police plan and execute operations like this. Other shows have since done this sort of thing much, much better – think of The Wire, or even Sons of Anarchy – but nevertheless, The Sopranos’ fifth season has some good moments early on. Unfortunately, the season’s early momentum comes to a screaming halt by the time of episode six, “Sentimental Education”. This is one of the first Sopranos episodes written by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men – not a favourite show in these parts), and it marks a new low for a show that had already served up some pretty poor episodes. From this point onwards, narrative complexity is largely abandoned in favour of a straightforward story centred around Tony’s personal neuroses.
I’ll admit that for a while I thought Tony’s psychological problems provided an interesting frame to view the goings-on of the Soprano crime syndicate. But they are not enough to sustain a drama for this length of time. By this stage, Tony’s psyche and personality are as overexposed and repellent as his corpulent physical form. Just as Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi go nowhere and cover the same ground ad nauseam, so too does the storyline repeat itself; simply with new characters performing the same narrative function as the likes of Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto before them. Side characters are never given any time to develop, merely being used as triggers for Tony’s rage or depression, and the show relies on a procession of “star power” to maintain any interest in its cast. Like with Tony, series regulars such as Carmela and Chris Moltisanti are so one-dimensional and over-familiar that you just don’t want to see them on your screen any more.
A show like The Sopranos has such an aura around it that people explain away things that would elsewhere be called out as downright bad or incompetent. Season five fails to maintain a basic level of storyline continuity and credibility. In the space of a few minutes, Tony B. inexplicably abandons his deeply-felt plans to “go straight” which had been built up over six hour-long episodes. Halfway through the season a ranking member of Tony’s crew is caught sucking off another man in a car park; nothing more is said about it. Another character accidentally sets themselves on fire making a sandwich. Then there are the editorial decisions that only the most over-indulged show can get away with, such as Tony’s interminable surreal dream sequence; a laughable reminiscence montage when Tony is thinking about a childhood friend; or a “mic drop” freeze frame after Carmela dumps someone that would have felt cheap on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. None of this is helped by the fact that Tony’s main rival for much of the season is the singularly dull, unthreatening and effete mafia “boss” Johnny Sack. As unconvincing mobsters go, he rivals even Andy Garcia’s cringeworthy performance in Rob the Mob. How did we go from Brando, De Niro, and Pacino, to this?
The last couple of episodes of season five see some basic competence restored to the storytelling, albeit brought about in an abrupt and contrived manner via the police acting as a deus ex machina to move events forward. The sections of the show which follow the police tend to be the more interesting, as are the all too rare occasions when we see how the mafia try to cover themselves or, you know, actually conduct their business. As countless police procedurals and historical dramas have shown, the ways people operate in the world tend to be of wider and more lasting interest to viewers than summoning forth the obscure goings-on from inside someone’s mind. For all that its first two seasons were very, very good, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. Not least the way it helps legitimize this kind of introspective claptrap as a form of serious entertainment.