Don’t stop believing

Sopranosfinale

We don’t know if Tony Soprano died. Let’s say he didn’t. Last seen eating dinner with his family in a local New Jersey diner to the chosen tune of Don’t Stop Believin’ in the aftermath of a mob war, he saw a man enter the restroom, his daughter Meadow arrive, at which he looked up and the screen went to black for ten seconds before the final credits rolled. We had no reason to think that Tony Soprano died, having watched him move like a bulletproof Buick through 87 hours of supreme television fiction over six years. He was a big man but he was in bad shape; you could outrun him, but he would catch you in the end.

We had Tony Soprano down as indestructible, immortal, qualities we probably bestowed upon James Gandolfini the actor who played him, and who has died of a heart attack, in Italy, aged just 51. Much discussion has taken place about the final scene of The Sopranos. I reviewed the final episode here. But now that Gandolfini has reached his season finale, we might remind ourselves of that Journey lyric.

Working hard to get my fill,
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin’ anything to roll the dice,
Just one more time
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

If there is a TV Valhalla, some marbled hall where only the medium’s immortals congregate, we can be certain that Tony Soprano, as played by James Gandolfini, is already among those Gods, taking his bulky place between JR Ewing, Hawkeye Pierce, Homer Simpson and The Fonz (and if that sounds facetious, it’s anything but). Clearly, Tony would never have existed without creator David Chase, but Gandolfini literally put flesh on those bones. A generous helping of flesh.

What’s most haunting in the immediate aftermath of Gandolfini’s passing is the way we listened to him breathe for all those years, that nasal wheeze increasing when Tony was stressed, a signal sent from deep within his workings that all was not smooth. The laboured breathing was a key facet of Tony’s character; he was not a man you could easily knock over, but he was mortal, always. If he stopped breathing, we would know about it.

Heavy set when The Sopranos made him a household name – within about ten minutes of the first episode starting, possibly from his first walk down that drive – Gandolfini’s skill and presence had already been noticed by the talent-spotters among us for supporting parts in films like True Romance, Crimson Tide, 8mm and Fallen. In movie parlance these were “character” parts. He was not a “leading man”, by dint of his shape. He carried an awful lot of weight, but this was required on the voyage of Tony Soprano, as the mob boss and family man seemed to be carrying all the trouble in the world on what looked like a gone-to-seed ex-prizefighter’s frame, as if, again, those burdens were made flesh.

We lived through those panic attacks with him, so full-blooded and corporeal was Gandolfini’s acting, as delicate and nuanced as he seemed bulky and unyielding. Gandolfini built him up but nobody could knock him down. There is little in TV’s great history to match it. It was Michael Corleone’s wife Kay who, in The Godfather Part III, uttered the devastating line, “I dread you.” We all dreaded Tony Soprano, and yet could not take our eyes off him, week after week, year after year. His temper was on a hair’s trigger, a Tasmanian Devil’s dervish of violence nearly always preceded by a grin, or a squint of death.

Gandolfini’s features were set like tiny pebbles on a vast beach of a face, but what complex emotions he could rearrange them into. It’s a commonplace to say that an actor inhabits a character. Gandolfini was a sitting tenant. He was just as much Tony Soprano when disconsolately peeling slices of bresola off the greaseproof paper at that monolithic fridge as when meting out rough justice to some insubordinate on the pavement with a staple gun or his ham-like fists.

It was a masterstroke of storytelling to have Tony’s entire arc prefigured by the flight of some ducks from his swimming pool, but rewatch that early sequence again and see how much wordless pathos and existential fear Gandolfini builds in, that bowling ball face shifting from simple delight to mortal terror. The dressing gown, the flip flops, the vest, the bowling shirts, these were his sartorial tics, but they alone did not maketh the man. In Tony Soprano, Gandolfini found immortality, all the more remarkable for doing so from the rarefied outfield of cable television. His face was not beamed into every American home like Hawkeye’s or Kramer’s or Archie Bunker’s or Mary Tyler Moore’s. It’s rare that an actor gives himself over so fully to a fictional construct, but Gandolfini did that.

Thanks to the medium that made him, he will never leave us.

ACSopranosgrabPS: I was pleased to be able to articulate some of the same feelings for this Guardian video obit, also featuring Andrew Pulver on his films, which we shot this morning.

A jazz thing

The Sopranos ended in 2007, The Wire in 2008. So, what did HBO do next? Well, it gave the creators of those two epic, HBO-defining shows free range to do whatever the hell they wanted. David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, went off with writer-producer Eric Overmeyer to New Orleans and made Treme, which premiered way back in April 2010 on HBO, and has finally reached our shores via Sky Atlantic. David Chase, who created The Sopranos, is currently developing a miniseries for HBO about the birth of cinema called The Ribbon Of Dreams; meanwhile, the core writers and producers of The Sopranos have spread out to form a quality drama platoon, Matthew Weiner defecting to Showtime to produce the magnificent Mad Men, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess creating the contemporary NYPD family procedural Blue Bloods for CBS, and Terence Winter sticking around to create Boardwalk Empire.

So, three of the four major post-Sopranos shows are period pieces. Interesting. The Wire‘s David Simon, meanwhile, a man of the streets, is too interested in the drama around him to go backwards, which is why Treme, though set three months after Katrina in 2005, is all about now. Treme and Boardwalk are defining shows for Sky Atlantic, now airing on Friday and Saturday night, respectively. We’re a number of episodes in, so worth assessing where we’re at.

Treme is, in many ways, nothing like The Wire. But it gets under the skin of New Orleans just like Simon’s previous show did with Baltimore. Treme, or Tremé, is a district not totally decimated by the hurricane, but predominantly black, and serves as a capsule for the themes that run through the city like wire. The main theme, though, is music. I’ve never visited New Orleans but I know loads of people who have – or certainly did, before Katrina – and they all say the same thing: wherever you go, there is music. Although Simon is a writer fixated on people, and against institutions (we saw them all ticked off in The Wire), he and Overmeyer have allowed music to be the heart and soul of the piece. It opens with music, it ends with music, and what’s been most thrilling about the first two episodes, is that it stops to let us listen to music. Real musicians from the district play themselves – and play, themselves – and if a sense of reality is something you require from your fiction, Treme delivers.

Fictional threads arise from the constant soundtrack (which is to say, an actual soundtrack that emanates from the story, rather than a soundtrack that is layered on afterwards), but these seem to operate at the same pace as the jazz and blues. The fine cast plays as a band, but individual actors get solos: Clarke Peters – sage-like cool customer Lester Freamon in The Wire – as a father and Mardi Gras Indian rebuilding his life in the water-damaged city; Wendell Pierce – Bunk in The Wire, although a New Orleans-based musician before that, who appeared “as himself”, a wise talking head, in Spike Lee’s epochal When The Levees Broke – as the definitive no-good wandering minstrel; Khandi Alexander – junkie Fran in Simon’s The Corner – as a bar owner in search of her brother; Steve Zahn as a white Trustafarian DJ whose love of indigenous culture seems entirely sincere (he’s seen encouraging live voodoo chicken sacrifice on the air!); John Goodman and Melissa Leo as the middle class white liberals, a teacher and a civil rights lawyer … all human life is here, going about its business, not always providing high-wire, or high-Wire, thrills, but that’s not in the nature of the beast. Profound truths about family and roots and social engineering are still told.

Some have been critical of Treme‘s pacing and lack of incident. But not all drama can be packed with events. I thought drama arose from the decisions of characters when faced with events, not from the events themselves. If so, Treme is pure drama. The event happened three months ago; these people are acting accordingly. The music interludes even give you time to think. Two episodes in, and I’m in.

Boardwalk is much more traditional and less jazzy, even though it is set in the jazz age. That Martin Scorsese is an executive producer, and directed the pilot, is apt, as each episode feels like a little movie. Not that little, actually. Again, not all critical reaction has been positive. Many find it beautifully assembled, but derivative, and calculated. It is, but who can resist returning to it, to find out what happens next?

Apparently Steve Buscemi – not a leading man by birth, but hey, guess what, one with Sopranos form (they look after their own in this universe) – is not that much like the Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Johnson his Nucky Thompson is based on, but nor, you have to assume, is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Henry VIII an exact copy of the real king in The Tudors. It’s not important. As long as the stories are good. And the unfolding  twin-engine plotline of Prohibition-led, politically-exploited gangsterism and the seeds of romance in among the stony ground of sexual cruelty and opportunism (itself shaded by the suffragette and temperance movements) is enough to be going along with. Buscemi’s let’s-say unconventional allure to all women is partly explained away by power, but it’s more of a stretch to understand why Kelly Macdonald’s Margaret would have any time for him, despite an early kindness afforded her. That’s a bigger leap of faith for the viewer than the obviously computer-generated seafront. (Actually, echoing the food-poisoning “dream” episodes of The Sopranos, it does give the show an aesthetically pleasing unreality, a bit like the compound in Big Love.)

We’re six episodes into Boardwalk, so I have a more confident handle on it than I do as yet with Treme – my appreciation of which is at gut level – but I can feel the tensions rising. It’s totally HBO, in that its violence is unflinching (the vandalism of Jimmy’s girl with ambitions to become a starlet a particularly nasty moment), and its sex is raw and full-frontal, albeit usually between an ugly, immobile grunting man and a beautiful, shapely, composed woman – do the men who make these films feel more comfortable with the soft-porn exploitation of actresses’ bodies if the men are always presented in less than pretty form? That said, the interrelationships and intrigues and historical and social context would sit easily after 9pm on a terrestrial channel. I wonder if HBO programmes use the word “cunt” and flash their reproductive organs because they can?

This has not been an advertisement for Sky Atlantic. DVD box sets and illegal downloading are or will be available. (Treme is out in the UK in April; Boardwalk not yet listed.)