Category Archives: TV reviews

And finally … The Sopranos

That only took eleven years.

For much of the time I’ve been in China, I’ve been able to keep abreast of what’s been on TV. A few years ago, the DVD shops in Wuxi all disappeared, although I’ve heard rumours there are still some in the New District, or that they’re still in Suzhou or Shanghai, but my sole source is mostly what’s been dumped in the cupboard of the Maths Office at school.

However, I recently acquired a complete set of The Sopranos from a colleague of mine who has now departed. I’d seen most of the series, but in the days when you could buy DVDs here, I bought a complete set of my own so that I could see the final episodes. But that never happened. The final series stopped (as I’ve learnt more recently) halfway through. There have been occasions over the past decade when I’ve wondered whether I’d ever get to see the rest of The Sopranos, and now I have.

The series began almost twenty years ago and is about Tony Soprano, a gangster who’s part of the New Jersey mafia. Tony may be well large and well hard, but after a stress-induced panic attack, he starts seeing a psychiatrist, Dr Jennifer Melfi to try and deal with his issues. There are the usual work-related problems – who to extort money from, who to whack next, when a good time to faint would be – which form most of the story. The sessions with Melfi are brief interludes.

The first five series were good, having clear storylines (although I kept wondering how many times Artie Bucco could push his luck with Tony without getting killed), but the sixth series seemed to lose its way.

The story about Vito Spitafore being gay when he’d demonstrated no such proclivities in earlier series was ultimately tragic, but came across as the sort of thing which had suddenly popped into one of the writers’ heads when they couldn’t think of anything else.

There were too many whiny AJ stories, but I wonder whether the producers were attempting a little post-911 satire with AJ representing the discombobulated youth of America who were all at sixes and sevens in the early 21st century. Again, this smacked of a lack of ideas and a certain aimlessness as if everything else had been explored. AJ ended up being a bit like the Wesley Crusher of The Sopranos. Robert Iler also suddenly grew himself a silly little beard, but that was perhaps to try and convey that after six years, unlike Bart Simpson, he was actually older.

Tony’s relationship with Melfi came to an abrupt end. The whole idea of mobster-seeks-psychiatric-help had long since fizzled by the final series. This was wound up when Melfi’s psychiatrist pointed her at research which showed that therapy for criminals tended to be a complete waste of time. In fact, it’d been a complete waste for several series already.

Melfi: How have you been, Anthony?
Soprano: F_ck you, motherf_cker!
Melfi: How does that make you feel?
Soprano: This is bullshit! [Storms out of office.]

The final scene left things hanging. It starts with Tony waiting in a restaurant. His wife, Carmella, arrives and then AJ, while outside, Meadow tries to parallel park several times before succeeding. Meanwhile, a couple of blokes turn up in the restaurant. They may just be customers; they may be something else. One of them goes into the loo, the family are sitting around the table, the screen goes blank. What?! A provocative ending, but there was just about no one left. Tony’s nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, had died in a car crash; his brother-in-law, Bobby Baccalieri, had been shot while buying a model train; Silvio Dante, Tony’s right-hand man, had been shot and was probably never going to recover. Without introducing a whole bunch of new characters, there were very few characters left to work with.

The casting was all over the place as well. Apart from the main characters, it seems Chase and co. had to do with with ever actors and actresses they could get from central casting. Tony seemed to acquire new henchmen and lose them on a regular basis; Phil Leotardo, a rival gangster from New York, seemed to have even bigger problems retaining staff.

The Sopranos was a brilliant series that by the end, was asking to be taken out behind the shed and whacked.



Homeland (Series 1 & 2)

More twists than the Nürburgring.

Carrie Mathison works for the CIA. She hears that some US soldier who’s been held prisoner by some extremist group has gone over to the beardie side. Not long afterwards, Nicholas Brody is released from captivity. “He’s a mad beardie!” screams Carrie. A lot. “No,” Brody keeps saying in a flat monotone, and everyone believes him.

In fact, Brody is working for Abu Nazir, plotting to kill the Vice President, who gave the order for the drone strike that killed Nazir’s son, Aisa to whom Brody had become deeply attached. (Just as an aside, how is it that when Brody is rescued, he’s a dishevelled mess, but he was perfectly all right while he was teaching Aisa?) The cunning plan is to herd the VP and everyone to a safe room so that Brody can then blow himself up, but the bomb fails to explode, and then his daughter rings him, and he can’t go through with it.

Don’t worry about it, says Nazir. You can still be evil. “How?” asks Brody. Become a politician.

And so Brody ends up becoming a Congressman, and tipped as a potential Vice President.

There’s one small fly in the ointment. Carrie is temporarily reinstated with the CIA so that she can go and have a chat with the wife of a terrorist commander in Beirut, who has some information. In typical Carrie style, she shouts hysterically and runs into the house where the commander lives so that she can gather intelligence. It seems to be no more than his shopping list until Saul finds an SD card sewn into a bag which has the video in which Brody explains why he blew himself up (but never did).

Thus, the CIA turns Brody, although to save Carrie, he gives Abu Nazir the serial number of the VP’s pacemaker so that the beardies can hack into the man’s heart and kill him. Job done.

The CIA eventually get their man after Carrie rants and raves hysterically again, but he gets them back by blowing up Langley with a bomb. “What’s my car doing there?” says Brody. “That’s not where I parked it.” Oh, f… says Carrie, getting cut off by the explosion. You did it! You did it! she screams wildly. “No,” replies Brody in a monotone, and for once he’s telling the truth. They go on the run, and Saul is left in charge.

Carrie is a manic depressive, but has hidden this from the CIA. She ends up having sex with Brody. In one episode, Saul Berenson (Carrie’s mentor) suddenly declares that she loves Brody. Really? There’s no real chemistry between Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, and Danes has the wild-eyed loon thing down a treat.

Brody’s daughter, Dana, is also prone to Carrie-like mood swings and hysterical rants. I suspect the writers didn’t know what to do with the character of a teenage girl, thus turning her into mini-Carrie. The character seems to be constantly on the verge of rumbling her dad, and she discovers that he’s a Muslim (I note that Jessica Brody doesn’t confront him with a bacon sandwich).

Homeland is both compelling and ridiculous at the same time. It’s as if the writers sat around trying to think of more and more implausible plot twists. The character of Carrie gets more and more annoying as she rants and raves at regular intervals. “Don’t do it, Carrie!” says Saul. Does she bother listening? No. If she was a World War I general, she’d be telling her men to charge straight at the machine guns because bullets only sting a little bit.

While the plot twists may make Homeland compelling, they can feel relentless, and although art requires the suspension of disbelief, it has little power against eye-rollingly inane plots.