HBO Legacy Cagematch

Matt Yglesias weighs in on “Sopranos v. The Wire” by way of “Sopranos v Godfather,” and comes down hard on  Sopranos in both instances. Too harsh? Cutting through bullshit? Let’s make some arbitrary judgments.

I agree that The Wire plays better as the more self-contained and coherent piece of work when viewed start-to-end, which is  extra impressive because the plot is such an intricate Rube Goldberg device.  But the creative laziness it suffers in the newspaper plot in the final season is not all that different from the stagnation/exhaustion you can glimpse in Sopranos Seasons 4 and 6 (I think Matt undercredits seasons 3 and 5).

The Wire‘s major advantage is that the show felt its survival was in question for the first three seasons.   It always wanted to just make it to five years so it had a specific endgame in mind and used that as leverage for renewal.  The Sopranos, being the bigger cultural phenomenon that it was, found itself with the opposite problem, a demand on the creative team for more open-endedness than the story requires. It is a distinctly Lost-like issue.

Successful television shows are often faced with the problem of coherency v longevity, but seasonal thematic broadstrokes really help maintain the balance and on this score The Sopranos does, I think, equal The Wire.  SPOILERS and more, after the jump:

The Wire tackles, by season: The Street (S1), The Docks (S2), City Hall (S3), The Schools (S4), and The Press (S5), to create a comprehensive portrait of the modern urban system and how it perpetuates itself.

The Sopranos explores Tony as son (S1), brother (S2), father (S3), husband (S4), and Boss (S5), culminating in him literally murdering his family (Tony B directly and Adriana by proxy). The sixth and final season opens with Tony experiencing a spiritual epiphany and a ‘second chance’ at life, which subsequently proves ethereal as we watch Tony descend into a grim parody of enlightenment, climaxing with a false and hollow second epiphany during his peyote trip in the desert. The character study ultimately ends with either his post-onion-ring annihilation or the grim existential hell of impending annihilation and familial trauma, take your pick.  Haha that David Chase is such a kidder.

Both shows are, in the end, far more literary in nature than most television, The Wire in scope and The Sopranos in depth.  I’ll give The Wire a win on points because it creates many evocative and distinct characters both major and minor, in addition to being a model of narrative economy, whereas the cumulative power of The Sopranos‘ character examinations must overcome more narrative distractions.

Finally, I’d like to apply all this thinking about the strategies and tactics of television writing to Mad Men. But that will wait until after the season finale on Sunday…

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