Cinema and ‘The Sopranos’: When two forms collide

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

Television, and the experience of watching television, have undergone a radical shift in the twenty-first century. While the internet promises (or threatens) to make the experience of watching broadcasted TV entirely redundant, as well as altering the viewing experience irrecoverably from that of a weekly drip feed to that of a televisual binge, the quality of television has been violently torn in two very separate directions. Indeed, television has never been better, or worse, than it is in the current moment.

On the one hand, the global realisation by television networks that general audiences are highly engaged by content that draws on the voyeuristic impulse, has resulted in an overabundance of reality television. Of course, the category of reality television comes with a plethora of sub-genres (some far more acceptable than others), but generally they can be divided into the exploitative and the innocuous. The exploitative end has its earliest (and perhaps nastiest) incarnations in programs like Big Brother or the tragically inappropriate The Anna Nicole Show, and can more recently be seen in (admittedly less severe) examples like Jersey Shore. The innocuous reality show is made up of everything else I suppose – shows about cooking, pawn shops, and Louisiana gator hunters. Such programming covers everything from the educational to the inane, but I suppose the same could be said of any other genre in television history.

On the other hand, television has reached new heights in terms of quality, critical reception and audience engagement. This new wave of quality television, commonly understood to have begun with the much lauded HBO program, The Sopranos, appears to have come out of a significant gap that lay in the market in the late 1990s. The qualitative gap between the cinematic and television experience was gargantuan, not just in terms of production quality and performance, but also at the basic writing level. The reasons for this were many, but predominantly came down to issues of cultural legacy, audience expectation and simple economics (an article for another day, perhaps). In any event, the commencement of The Sopranos; its outstanding critical and public reception; and the ease of access provided by internet downloads in the years that followed, have allowed for a whole new breed of television show focused on strong writing and far more adult content than has ever graced television screens in the past.

Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

And people get through these shows fast. The idea of coming into a show midway through a season run is almost unthinkable now (earlier episodes are readily available online), as is the idea that one would watch only a single episode of a favoured program each week. Indeed, Netflix set a game-changing precedent in early 2013 when they released the entire first season of the new BBC series, House of Cards, online all at once. The notion of waiting for next week is teetering on the brink of becoming entirely obsolete.

And to an extent, this is a natural reaction to audience demands. I remember burning through a stack of Twin Peaks VHS tapes in the 1990s as soon as I got my hands on the them. And more recently, I’ve certainly binged my way through series like Deadwood, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. The reasons for this kind of consumption are many, I suppose. The superior production quality, acting, and writing are significant general factors. And apart from the fact that the content is readily available online, and that there are so many well-regarded series to watch that one feels compelled to burn through each show as fast as possible, this new mode of adult-oriented storytelling is far more intelligent in its use of overarching narratives and open-ended conclusions to drive viewer engagement through sequential episodes.That is to say, they more expertly achieve the task that television drama has always sought to achieve – keeping viewers wanting more.

Deadwood (2004-2006)

Deadwood (2004-2006)

This might sound like an obvious thing to say, but one need only look at The X-Files, CSI, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or any 1990s sitcom to see that in the past, the focus of television programs has been traditionally far more imprecise. That’s not to say that these older shows do not have linear narrative development, but they more frequently tend to juggle between narratively significant and insignificant content – forward momentum and filler, if you will. In The X-Files, for example, one might have seen an episode about Mulder’s overarching goal to undercover “the truth”, followed by an episode about a case that has no relevance to Mulder’s quest. Or in Deep Space Nine, a narratively significant episode might be followed by a diversionary episode focused on a particular character’s holiday. In other words, earlier series were (at least from my perspective) far more imprecise, mellower, and took a less driven approach to television drama. This is not a qualitative judgement per se, just an observation. There will be countless exceptions I’m sure – but my point is that, generally speaking, the contemporary high-concept television program very aggressively attempts to drive the viewer directly from each episode to the next through an unwavering forward-focussed narrative structure.

Boardwalk Empire (2010-?)

Boardwalk Empire (2010-?)

So as this new world of high-quality television permeates the internet and modes of viewing, how is it to be understood when placed in contrast to the feature film. Do they fulfil different needs? Will the lines blur between the two modes even further? I would suggest that both the modern series and the feature film have enough strengths and weaknesses to keep each other alive, although my personal preferences see me leaning far in the direction of the cinematic for several reasons. Admittedly, the structure of these new high-quality TV series, as I touched upon earlier, is the product of a far more disciplined hand than that of earlier eras. Stronger character development, a greater dedication to forward momentum in the service of the overarching narrative, and a deeper appreciation for formal production elements have contributed greatly to the changing face of television. But the reality is that television is still limited in many ways.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Firstly, commercial and time constraints (as well as the need for certain levels of consistency) still limit the formal qualities of television production. These programs look professional, but ultimately they are (up to this point) constructed in merely aesthetically serviceable ways. In other words, the composition of each shot in a TV series is based on a pragmatic need to simply communicate the content of a scene. Within cinema, of course, each shot is of greater import to the overarching form, and in even the lowliest of productions has been considered prior to the production phase. Perhaps more importantly, cinema offers the film’s author the opportunity to use these formal elements for the purposes of individual artistic expression, something television shows no signs of offering in the near future.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Secondly, even with the greater level of discipline now apparent in television narrative, it is inevitable that the television program, given enough time, will need to start diverting into a range of melodramatic narrative tributaries. This affords the television program a unique ability to further flesh out its characters, but it also ultimately leads to a certain generic quality over time that begins to reveal a deterioration of unique vision. For example, the narrative dissimilarities of shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire seem to deteriorate over time. All three of these feature deeply troubled alpha-male heads of criminal organisations whose character severities soften as they go through the not dissimilar ordeals of attempting to see two steps ahead of everybody else while dispatching enemies and friends (Breaking Bad is structured similarly, but in the inverse). These are all brilliant shows – I’m not attempting to claim otherwise – but ultimately they show the beginnings of a kind of creative degradation in the new post-HBO high quality program, largely caused by the simple need to service a narrative on an ongoing basis (perhaps Game of Thrones, based on a series of books, offers an interesting counterpoint here).

Thirdly, the gargantuan face of the television series offers a myriad of opportunities for spending time with characters and exploring narrative worlds, but conversely, its girth will always result in an imprecision (both thematically and poetically) not present in the feature film. I’d suggest that there is no point made in the moral gap between Walter White and Hank Schrader of Breaking Bad that wasn’t made just as perfectly in that between Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly in Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces. Nor will Boardwalk Empire ever offer quite as much insight or emotive perfection as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America.

There is room in this world for great television – and I hope to see the form continue to develop. But the feature film still remains, to my mind, the moving image in it highest form.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

10 thoughts on “Cinema and ‘The Sopranos’: When two forms collide

  1. This post email got buried in my inbox, but I am very glad I found it! First, it makes me feel ok about only liking current/within the last 10-15 years TV shows. So perhaps I already agreed with you, by virtue of my television viewing choices, that the quality of TV has only been admirable in the last few years.

    That said, I do think that there are some stories/narratives that are better suited for TV. Perhaps shows that focus on a single character’s development (Breaking Bad, Boardwalk) have their limits, but then there are shows like The Wire that have a different narrative focus each season. In that case, the same characters and framework exist, but there is a different plot/story arc that unites the episodes in a given season. That’s the most successful use of the episodic structure of TV that I can think of.

  2. Television and cinema have long struggled in a mutually parasitic relationship. Much of what was of value in Hollywood studio pictures of the fifties and sixties had their origins in television programs that had recruited a slew of new talent in directing, writing, acting, and cinematography. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the new style of Hollywood movie had more to do with the plays of Tennessee Williams and Paddy Chayefsky, the short stories of Richard Mathieson and Katherine Anne Porter, the directing of Sam Peckinpah, don Siegel, Robert Mulligan, and the cinematography of Conrad Hall than any accomplishment of the actor’s studio. But we mustn’t discount the proliferation of great actors that converged there. Still, most of their first work was in television, not the movies. In the seventies, mini-series such as Roots extended the limited time frame of the television narrative, but the content of such programs was tainted by a soap opera sense of delayed event. It wasn’t until the 80’s, when Fassbinder made the epic adaptation of the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz for German television that the mini-series found an aesthetic that successfully cinematized television. My primary disagreement with your thesis here is that the more flexible time frame allows for more a more elaborate narrative structure. I have found that most of these programs, such as the sopranos and Breaking Bad, stay with the soap opera format and do not attempt any kind of novelistic depth. What they do accomplish, however, is a richer detail of character, and character is something that has been lacking in films for some decades now. I loved the sopranos, but I wouldn’t use it as a turning point, because Homicide accomplished the same thing several years earlier. I hated Breaking Bad, and grew so sick of the characters that I rejoiced each time one was killed off. An example of the superiority of cinema to television can be found by comparing the train robbery in Breaking Bad with the one in the Wild bunch. Another good example is the Millennium trilogy, the first of which (the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) was made by a film crew for theatrical exhibition and the two subsequent adaptations were made for television by a television crew. I thought the first ranked among the best pictures of the year, and the second among the worst. There is so much to say on this subject, that I had better stop here, but I just wanted to thank James for addressing the subject with his usual intelligence and insight.

  3. I agree with your broader point about television vs. cinema, and often feel that television would benefit from dipping into its variety show and dramatic playhouse roots. Who wouldn’t watch Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett all over again? Why shouldn’t television give us the opportunity to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in “Godot”? PBS makes some of this possible, but not enough.

    Since you’re right, let’s leave that point aside. You make a smaller, very perceptive point about the narrative imprecision of the TV series before (and even after) “The Sopranos.” This is something I’ve been idly pondering for a few months. Where do you see “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in this timeline? Did Joss Whedon invent the technique of assigning each season a “Big Bad”? And whether he did or not, did this help focus his narrative? I’d love to know your thoughts on this!

    • Hi Beth,

      Thanks for your reply – glad you enjoyed the post!

      I can’t claim to be an expert on Buffy (although I loved Firefly), but in retrospect it certainly seemed to be a part of the shift towards a higher level of programming. I was aware of the show’s use of the ‘big bad’ concept, and it is certainly positioned by critics and academics as a moment of shift for this reason. I certainly can’t think of an earlier iteration of this 🙂

  4. Lovely thoughtful piece James, about something close to my heart, good TV. I agree that film is still better, and would take ‘Goodfellas’ over ‘The Sopranos’ anytime. However, that programme is still one of my favourite things ever shown on TV, and some episodes were as involving as a good film. While the major studios continue to churn out childish animations, dire US comedies, and super-hero films, there are some good TV series that allow us to continue to enjoy the performances of first-rate actors, and sometimes, even great scripts.

    I don’t have Netflix, or watch TV on the Internet, just old-fashioned, I suppose. So, I do still like that anticipation of episodes to come. For me, watching it all at once, is a bit like reading the end of a book first. But then, I am getting on a bit…

    Here is my shorter take on this theme, from January 2013.
    http://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/tv-shows-as-good-as-films/
    Regards from England, Pete.

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