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Not With a Bada-Bing, But a Whimper

Among returning dramas, The Sopranos hogs the attention. But though it started out great, it never got better.

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John Updike’s Rabbit has already expired, Philip Roth’s Zuckerman will get the big kiss-off this autumn, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe was last seen hospitalized with gunshot wounds and prostate cancer, and now David Chase’s Tony Soprano finds it harder and harder to get up out of his lawn chair and whack somebody. And so another storied American icon reaches the end of the road—Oedipus at Colonnus, with a dead duck. Pardon my dry eyes. When Tony’s monstrous mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), died during the second season of The Sopranos, so did the dramatic logic of the series. In the years since, with some artful angles, some terrific acting, and lots of kiss-kiss bang-bang, this mob might have been the most interesting, dysfunctional, and percussive family on the small screen, but it never improved on its brilliant original conception of a middle-aged, middle-management wiseguy with nightmares of emasculating waterbirds and a stress-related tendency to swoon.

Yet we live in a culture so hyperbolic that the simplest enthusiasm must be puffed up to a Passion play. Take, for example, the assertion that The Sopranos made television respectable enough for highbrows to look at. Anyone who says such needs an immediate remedial viewing of M*A*S*H, Northern Exposure, China Beach, Prime Suspect, and Homicide: A Life on the Street, not to mention The Singing Detective (Dennis Potter for British TV), Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder for German TV), Scenes From a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman for Swedish TV), and The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophüls for French TV).

But back to New Jersey, where Tony (James Gandolfini) has been arrested on a weapons charge, where his nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) has just wrapped his pulp-fiction mafia/slasher flick, Cleaver, with perhaps a few too many real-life echoes, and where the jailbird Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) is about to die from lung cancer even though the orderly in the prison hospital happens to be an oncologist who offed his wife for boffing her chiropractor. This orderly, not incidentally, will lend Johnny S. a copy of E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. I say “not incidentally” because, in previous Sopranos seasons, when references were made to writers like Hawthorne, Melville, Proust, and Marshall McLuhan, to actors like Gary Cooper and Keanu Reeves, to entertainers like Dean Martin and Jefferson Airplane, to novels like Madame Bovary and films like Frida, at least a joke, if not a point, was being made. Not so now. Though Doctorow’s Dutch Schultz novel, a Grimm fairy tale of primitive accumulation growing up to monopoly capitalism, has enough symbolic weight to signal all sorts of ironic subtext, it’s never mentioned again.

Instead, in the two episodes seen so far, there is one fistfight, two whacks, and an early-morning visit from the Good Humor Men at Homeland Security, who want Tony to be on the lookout for terrorists. There’s also way too much yak, most of it nostalgic, around which we are, of course, expected to draw our own frame of blank uneasiness on the verge of dread. Through the countdown, I will probably be there. I usually am. But Harry Potter is also calling it quits this summer, and I must admit that I am less likely to miss Johnny Sack than I am J. K. Rowling’s parade of doxies, puffskins, bowtruckles, and spattergroits.

It may be over as well for police detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the badass baldie whose out-of-control Strike Team on The Shield has confounded everybody in his L.A. station house from Captain Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) to Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker), the Internal Affairs investigator so bent on taking down Vic that he suborns perjury and plants evidence. Meanwhile, as Vic seeks to avenge the hand-grenade murder of his buddy Lem and ignores the deterioration of his buddy Shane (Walton Goggins), a whole household of Salvadorans is mass-murdered and City Councilman David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) plumbs new depths of opportunistic sleaziness.

I have said before that The Shield, in which paranoid cops are hunkered down inside their inner-city bunker like Trotskyites or Hezbollah, causes claustrophobia and/or hives. But at least all of you who get antsy when an hour of The Sopranos goes by without a woman getting hit or a guy getting whacked can count on Vic for nonstop violence.

More cerebral, and more fun, too, is Hu$tle, the action series about a slick team of con artists that returns to AMC with six new episodes branching out from London to Australia, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Scams involve racehorses, puffer fish, designer clothes, casinos, vintage wines, and pornography. Robert Vaughn, who used to be our Man From U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo, is back as Albert Stroller, an old-school grifter at home wherever there is big money. So too is Jaime Murray as Stacie Monroe, the obligatory femme fatale and slinky “lure.” Even Robert Wagner, creaky but game, shows up for the first episode of the new season on April 18. What appeals here, of course, is the jujitsu of the sting: Greed is suckered into leaning so hard that it floors itself.


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