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.
With The Tudors, Showtime seems determined to prove that Henry VIII and his courtly crowd had almost as much fun back in the sixteenth century as Octavian/Augustus and his Roman circus seem to be having on the HBO series Rome. We weren’t five minutes into the first hour of The Tudors before the first naked female breast appeared, followed shortly thereafter by jousting, squash, and bling. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, still best known as a television Elvis, plays a lean and hungry younger Henry, with boudoir eyes and a species of professional negligence that doesn’t protect him from the svelte machinations of Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn. Sam Neill is Cardinal Wolsey, who wants too much to be a pope. Gabrielle Anwar is Princess Margaret Tudor, who will first marry and then poison the king of Portugal. Jeremy Northam is Sir Thomas More, a man for every season. In this trashy romp, there are almost as many divorces as there are beheadings.
Painkiller Jane, the new Sci Fi Channel series, is inspired by the Jimmy Palmiotti–Joe Quesada comic book of the same name, about a young woman for whom, ever since the death of her mother, pain has been if not a friend, then at least a catalyst into another world where she can hide while her wounds heal. Even more inspired is the casting of Kristanna Loken in the title role, whom you may recall as the indestructible blonde in Terminator 3. Here she has grown up to become a DEA agent until a secret government task force conscripts her into their private war against “Neuros,” an underground of genetically enhanced freaks with superpower psychic abilities who conspire to do … what? Nobody knows for sure, but it can’t be good.
Since the anti-“Neuro” task force seems unusually incompetent, Jane—whether she is thrown out of a skyscraper window on the 46th floor or ventilated by a fusillade of bullets in the course of a police-station invasion—is fortunate that somehow, mysteriously, she regenerates her broken parts, after which she can go forth whole again to shoot microchips at the telepathic “aberrants.” To these tasks, in alleyways, elevators, bedrooms, and graveyards, Loken brings a bad attitude and a deep-pore cleansed complexion. She is almost worth watching for her Teflon self alone.
The Sopranos, now building toward its 86th and final hour, has prompted a virtual arms race of escalating superlatives among critics. In the beginning, the praise was (relatively) subdued: Newsweek called it “the best show on television,” while the Philadelphia Inquirer declared it “the best series ever on TV.” Then the Times upped the ante, anointing it “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century,” even as the Calgary Herald ranked it “up there with Shakespeare’s plays.” The final word, at least for now, goes to Slate, which recently paraphrased Samuel Johnson and mooned: “To tire of The Sopranos is to tire of life.”
HBO. Sundays at 9 p.m.
FX. Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
AMC. Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Showtime. Sundays at 10 p.m.
Sci Fi. Fridays at 10 p.m.