Bowman, James, The American Spectator
The return of The Sopranos to HBO last month for its third season reminds us once again of what a great work of American art this collaborative venture, headed by David Chase, still is. Although it suffers from the twin disadvantages, either of which might seem certain on its own to be artistically lethal, of being both a TV soap opera and a work of post-modern whimsy, it somehow manages to combine them so as to become the greatest of television soap operas, a work of post-modern whimsy which is also a work of art. Who'd have thought it possible? The series transcends the limitations of its medium and style and becomes not so much a kind of modern Homeric epic as what modern Americans would have if they had a Homeric epic.
Perhaps it was a somewhat similar point that Caryn James intended to make when she wrote in the New York Times that the reason for the series's "wide appeal" was its fusion of the inevitable mundanity of television with playful references, intended for the cognoscenti, to high culture, as when a taste of prosciutto becomes for Tony Soprano games Gandolfini) what the madeleine was for Marcel Proust. The show, she wrote: lives at the juncture when pop culture and high art meet. Functioning on the levy of capicola and Proust, of movie lovers and film scholars, "The Sopranos" speaks to middle-class people like Tony as well as those above and below him on the real-life social scale. Remarkably, it does not talk down to a mass audience or assume an elitist tone.
Well, you can see how the masses would flock to it! It must be very gratifying to them to know that they aren't being talked down to while at the same time their betters are "getting" the highbrow allusions to Proust! Indeed, Proust's experience with the madeleine is laboriously recounted by Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) to Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) just so the dummies in the audience can be kept on board.
This is actually the least successful moment of the new series, it seems to me, a straining after significance of which the two earlier series were hardly ever guilty. But Ms. James's is far from being an idiosyncratic opinion. Indeed, to read much of what has been written on the series is to be persuaded that a great deal of the critical praise which has been heaped on it is owing to the fact that the critics were flattered by getting the jokes. Here, for instance, is what David Lavery, a professor of "English" (i.e. "popular culture, film studies, and science fiction") at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote:
"Any text that has slept with another text.. has necessarily slept with all the texts the other text has slept with:' notes Robert Stam, author of Film Theory: An Introduction (Blackwell, 2000), extending a central premise of STD prevention into the study of literature and film. Our times, by this logic, are clearly promiscuous. It is quite apparent that many of television's most ingenious series-rife as they are with intertextual references, often humorous, to movies, to culture in general, to literature, to (self-referentially) themselvescome heavy [with allusion] as well [as The Sopranos]. The predominance of the "already said," as Umberto Eco once observed, is, after all, one of postmodernism's signatures. Often, the intertextuality of such shows contributes mightily to keeping a certain segment of the audience-flattered by "inclusion-by-allusion," able to feel pride in the ability to get the references-still hooked, still watching.
It's an Internet kind of point to make isn't it? Here is the critic as search-engine, sniffing out intertextuality wherever he finds it and spitting out a report on the number of hits. That, at any rate, seems to be how Lavery understands the critic's role. Quite what it has to do with criticism as it has traditionally been understood, I don't know, but it does have the advantage of making a lot of work to keep the professoriate happy. My own search engines each offered me over 100,000 hits when I typed in "The Sopranos," and this number can only increase, to the advantage of Ph. …