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My father, the Soprano: How the series became a father-son experience

Not only could we dive headlong into the lives of the characters in David Chase’s immortal series, we could compare notes on the way down

‘The Sopranos’ is where television became an art form

By Raja Sen

LAST PUBLISHED 01.10.2022  |  01:25 PM IST

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I never had a drink with my father. We were that sort of family where stuff like this was kept surreptitious—I grew up watching Baba elaborately snaffle cigarettes somewhere behind my grandmother’s back—and therefore it felt normal for me to lie that I never drank, and for my parents to (only too willingly) take my word for it. This idea of skirting the inappropriate was also applied to television, of course, with the channel promptly and mercilessly being changed any time Remington Steele would kiss a girl too hard. In pre-cable TV times, with no other channels to flick to, the box was simply turned off.

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Two summers ago, this changed. My mother died one March morning and the pandemic left us nowhere to go. Literally. This is when Baba and I started watching The Sopranos, streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar. I had always wanted to revisit that magnificent show and I wanted to see what my father—who once directed documentaries and who had schooled me in Satyajit Ray and Sergei Eisenstein—would think of that most cinematic of shows (I also wondered if I could finally sit alongside Baba as an adult and watch a profound drama where most conversations take place inside a strip-club).

In one hour, it was clear we were on to something special. In the monumental first episode, we meet mafia-man Tony Soprano, who calls himself a “waste management consultant" and visits a psychiatrist following an anxiety attack and a decidedly off-kilter attachment to some ducks in his swimming pool. Not only could we dive headlong into the sordid and surprisingly sentimental lives of the characters in David Chase’s immortal series, we could compare notes on the way down, discussing motivations and moral conundrums, figuring out our own affected lives while studying these low-lifes we soon loved. In my experience, grief demands literature. And here we were, reading HBO’s War And Peace.

Is The Sopranos the greatest drama series in television history?

Yes.

Quite simply, this is the show where television became an art form—arguably a richer, more transcendent art form than cinema. Rewatching a show you love with someone you love is special because you are reacting to how they will react to what you once reacted to—while revelling in the show itself. It’s like reading a beloved book out loud. The Sopranos is the sort of novel that gives you so much to love, so much to marvel at, so much to learn and draw from. All that has aged weakly is the opening credit sequence, which feels oddly unremarkable, a scratched plastic dust-jacket holding a book full of wondrous sentences.

One immense side effect of watching The Sopranos with Baba was that it broke down his resistance to the idea of psychotherapy, in a way that first-hand accounts and testimonials just could not do. Watching Tony Soprano sit across from Dr Jennifer Melfi, squirming over the truth before spitting it out defiantly, watching him confront his deepest, most duck-filled insecurities and inadequacies, was a humbling, beautiful thing. When the doctor started advising Tony, my father was as sceptical of her methods as the mob-boss himself. Several episodes in, Baba not only saw the point of Dr Melfi’s attempts but started to feel irked whenever Tony (or even Dr Melfi herself) strayed from the paths their therapists recommended. It was an understanding born out of empathy.

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That surreal summer had us grieving yet desolate, unable to connect with family and friends, with those even two neighbourhoods away seeming exotically far-flung. Fiction stepped in admirably as Baba and I started discussing the Soprano clan over meals, as if talking about cousins and family members: our paradoxical feelings towards Uncle June, Baba’s indulgent love for Christopher, the troubled relationship between Tony and his sister. Tony himself, of course, had our heart. James Gandolfini’s performance as the mobster who just wanted to do better is a masterclass, as believable as a family guy as a monster. Tony Soprano does a lot of horrible things but Gandolfini’s eyes make sure we know he is anything but remorseless.

The writing is extraordinary. The Sopranos strikes an unbelievable balance between the sublime word and the believably spoken one, between humour both high and low. After surviving an assassination attempt, Tony sits across from Dr Melfi and agrees that “Every day is a gift", yet he doesn’t think that’s enough, adding, “but does it have to be a pair of socks?" The line is genius, yet it’s plausible that Tony might say it. These are conflicted, complicated characters who strive for more, characters who don’t have the answers and don’t shy away from asking questions. Characters who care about family and friends, and about food. So much of the show is about food.

So we watched The Sopranos and we cooked, and we talked and we argued noisily and with our mouths full, and, most importantly, we found a grown-up experience to call our own. We couldn’t have watched this show together, with its incidental nudity and its violence, with Ma hovering around, and Baba fastidiously made sure we watched it only when my wife wasn’t in the same room, making it an exclusively father-son affair. Now, with Baba gone, I raise a toast to television. The Sopranos was the drink I had with my father.

Streaming tip of the week:

Director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde has hit Netflix. Based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, the horror film is a mostly fictional take on Marilyn Monroe’s life and legend, featuring a photorealistic central performance from Ana de Armas. It’s a mess, but it’s hard to look away.

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about the killing of critics. It is now in theatres.

@rajasen

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