|Photo by Abbot Genser|
By the time Francis Coppola reassembled the Corleones for the final installment of his Godfather trilogy, the outcome, while entirely respectable — underrated, even — seemed less than essential; somewhere along the way, some of the vital energy and relevance had drained out of the thing. Yet when The Sopranos returns to the airwaves this weekend, it will already have run for some 52 hours of screen time — more than five times the length of all three Godfather movies put together. And The Sopranos has yet to slacken, or to seem less than the greatest American family saga since the Corleones. So if the show’s fifth season arrives with an air of particularly nervous anticipation, it may be because of an unspoken realization among its many fans that nothing this good lasts forever. Even the best TV series take a southern turn at some point, don’t they? Then again: Is The Sopranos actually television, or just the longest movie ever made?
Almost certainly, they’re questions that creator and executive producer David Chase has wrestled with himself. Keenly aware of the value of quitting while you’re ahead — both artistically speaking and in terms of brand identity, for there may be real Sopranos movies yet to come — Chase once teased the public with the suggestion that season four (broadcast in the fall of 2002) would be the series’ last. Whether he was motivated more by his inner creative voice or by James Gandolfini’s increasingly Tony Soprano– sized contract negotiations is unclear. What is clear is that Chase had envisioned a way of getting out, by bringing the curtain down on — what else? — the disintegration of the very marriage that is the series’ furiously spinning core. (For if anyone reading this thinks that the real subject of The Sopranos is anything other than the cutthroat, unforgiving institution of modern matrimony, then you and I have been watching very different shows.) The resulting 75-minute episode, “Whitecaps,” was one of the series’ best, pregnant with the melancholy of growing older and of time passing by, crystallized in that haunting wide shot where Tony says to his children, at their Jersey shore home, “You’ll inherit this.” But already by that point, Chase was planning not just a fifth act for Tony, Carmela et al., but a sixth as well — one more than Shakespeare deemed necessary.
Rest assured, I have now seen the first four episodes of Sopranos season five, and there is no reason to doubt that Chase has judged wisely in trudging forth, nor cause to fear that office water coolers will spend the next three months feeling lonely. Right from the opening images of a windswept, overgrown back yard and the appearance of a wild animal that, like the ducks from season one, is meant to manifest an inner psychological state — in this case, a broken family’s paranoia about what happens when there’s not “a man around the house” — it’s clear that we’re living through the winter of Tony and Carmela’s discontent.
Of course, there’s much, much more. The parole of a host of old-school toughs means new characters played by Steve Buscemi (as Tony’s first cousin, Tony B.) and Robert Loggia (as the mythical Feech Lamanna — a name not unfamiliar to series devotees), each trying to readjust to life on the outside in a radically different way. Meanwhile, Tony attempts, in his signature, malapropian manner, to re-establish a relationship with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), if not necessarily one of the patient-doctor variety. And already, just in the span of these first few hours, Chase’s merry-go-round of intertextual references is in full working order, swinging from Barbra Streisand to Sun Tzu in the blink of an eye, and capped by a destined-to-be-classic moment in which Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) mistakes himself for Larry David.
As in the past, Chase, his staff of writers and his stable of regular directors manage to maintain a precarious, though seemingly effortless, balance between characters old and new, and many simultaneous storylines. Perhaps most remarkable is that rare discipline that allows themes and subthemes to crescendo slowly over the course of an entire season or, as the case may be, multiple seasons. (Was the fantastic impact of Tony and Carmela’s knock-down, drag-out breakup in the “Whitecaps” episode not inexorably heightened by the fact that the show had been inching toward that moment since day one?) Yet, if season five has an overall design, it is that of things falling apart, and there is every indication, particularly as episode four draws to a close — on a devastating shot of Carmela entering the house that has become the most iconic television manor since Southfork — that Chase will now tackle the subjects of separation and perhaps divorce with the same uncommon understanding he brought, in previous seasons, to our collective fear of psychiatry, the perils of raising children and the long shadows cast by parents. Where this will all lead is anybody’s guess. But come Sunday night, and for 12 Sundays thereafter, I like to think that an impenetrable hush will fall over the millions of Americans waiting to find out, because The Sopranos is one of the few moving pictures on any screen today, small or large, that rewards that kind of attention.
Another 4-year-old series, albeit one that reached only a fraction of The Sopranos’ audience, David E. Kelley’s Boston Public (Fox, Fridays at 9 p.m.) recently vanished from the network lineup, having regularly finished fourth in its time slot since moving from Mondays to Fridays at the start of this season. According to published reports, the high school drama is merely “on hiatus”; in short, it’s been suspended but not yet expelled. But production has been shut down, and for those of us with a decent lay of the TV landscape (or an idea of the direction in which the career of the once-prolific Mr. Kelley has recently been going), it’s as clear as the graffiti scrawled on the boys’ bathroom wall: BOSTON PUBLIC R.I.P.
This comes as no great surprise; even on Mondays, the series was never really more than a lead-in to Ally McBeal. There were also more cast changeovers in four seasons than some shows weather in 14, and a penchant for bombastic melodrama that more closely resembled the workings of a daytime soap opera than the day-in, day-out rigors of public education. In the midst of it all, though, there resided a core group of actors fiercely committed to exploring the trials and tribulations of those who can do, but choose instead to teach. And on those occasions when the material rose to their level, they delivered some of the best (and least heralded) work anywhere on television. (Even on an off day, the show tackled social issues that would never make it on to an episode of CSI and featured a host of black actors cast in roles that were color-blind without being color-ignorant.)
I’m talking about the glorious Loretta Devine, as social-studies teacher Marla Hendricks — a combustible force of compassion and chemical imbalance; Kelley regular Fyvush Finkel, as the way-past-retirement-age and proudly un-P.C. Harvey Lipshultz; and Sharon Leal as honey-voiced music teacher Marylin Sudor, whose beautiful façade masked an unpleasant past. Most of all, I’m talking about the inspired pairing of Chi McBride as principal Steven Harper and Anthony Heald as his terminally underappreciated vice principal, Scott Guber. Separately, both actors were extraordinary, with Heald (best known to audiences as the conniving psychiatrist from The Silence of the Lambs) transforming what began as a caricature of a neurotic, self-loathing, anal-retentive Jew into a richly textured portrait of an unlikely, Harvey Pekar–worthy Everyman. Together, sharing the screen either confrontationally or in comradeship, they could be something even better than that.
With the demise of Boston Public, that leaves the revamped The Practice as the only Kelley series left on the air. But Kelley has long seemed television’s ever-watchful conscience, and one pauses at the thought of what the medium may become without him.