So there you have it, more press for “The Sopranos.” Like it needed another laudatory diatribe to convince people not only to watch it but also consider it the greatest television show of all time (although the two usually go hand in hand).
But how can I help it? They may not realize it now, but audiences watching new episodes of “The Sopranos” are probably experiencing the same revolutionary sentiments movie-goers felt when Orson Welles up-ended Hollywood with “Citizen Kane.”
Like Welles’ magnum opus did for mainstream filmmaking, “The Sopranos” is that body of work that has finally given television the artistic validity of its visual media brethren.
Yes, I know the boob tube has had its moments of legitimacy. The situation-comedy has had its fair share of greats with “All in the Family,” “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons,” and Steven Bochco has contributed classics like “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.”
But let’s examine this more closely–what exactly is “The Sopranos,” or for that matter, HBO–television or film masquerading as television?
It’s a huge credit to the integrity of the network that it has scholars debating such a question. “The Sopranos,” along with about 80 percent of the programming on HBO, does not fall under our common idea of network television. Sure, it’s got the sitcom, the serial drama and all that good stuff, but it also has the one essential thing not possessed by the nets–freedom.
Because it is a subscription-based service, HBO has no advertisers to answer to. Now, it’s not a ground-breaking revelation that because HBO doesn’t have to put up with the same kind of advertiser and government scrutiny as broadcast television, it is allowed to, among other things, take risks in its content and programming.
But this leads to other things.
The first part is the allure. In a recent episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David quips to Julia-Louis Dreyfus that, by developing a new pilot with HBO, they’ll double their viewership simply because they’ll be free to say “f*ck. This is a fairly facile (but damned funny) conclusion, but speaks volumes as to why people love HBO–their incredible shows utilize violence, foul language, nudity and adult content to maximum effect.
For some reason, I’ll always remember this episode of “Dawson’s Creek.” Dawson had moved out to southern California to attend film school and managed to get an internship at a movie studio. The director on the set he was working on was a real jackass, and the episode built up to this great climax in which Dawson, standing up for all of the mistreated cast and crew, tells him, “Screw you!”
Screw you? I can’t ever remember a time when I was upset and felt the need to refrain from dropping the f-bomb. And I certainly can’t picture Tony Soprano doing the same.
Larry David was right. Simply put, the freedoms afforded to HBO allow it to make more compelling programming. Think of it in film terms. How often do you see a PG-13-rated film win the same amount of critical acclaim and awards as an R-rated film?
The second part to HBO’s artistry is its programming decisions. Waiting almost a year and a half to debut new episodes of “The Sopranos” would seem like financial suicide to other networks used to running their shows into the ground (“Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” anyone?), but HBO has kept us salivating to the point of insanity.
However, they managed to whet our appetite: 1) by refusing to satisfy us with regular reruns and 2) through the utilization of the burgeoning DVD market (conveniently enough, season three of “The Sopranos” came out on DVD roughly six weeks before the start of season four).
Does this sound familiar? These techniques are quite similar to those used by the film industry. Studios tease us with sequels or the next big project by a hot director all the time. Take Quentin Tarantino, for example. He last directed a Hollywood feature in 1997 and isn’t planning to release “Kill Bill” until late 2003. In a happy coincidence, he released deluxe DVD versions of “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” just weeks ago.
And we’re back to HBO as film and, as a result, television as art. With shows like “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” HBO has single-handedly made the medium of television rethink its aims in artistry. Network shows like “CSI” and the many manifestations of “Law and Order” only serve to help the boob tube’s rep.
There, HBO–you’re welcome.