I Like to Watch

While "The Sopranos" repeats itself, "24" explores utterly fantastical themes of corruption and deceit in the Oval Office!


Heather Havrilesky
April 30, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

People repeat themselves. A lot. It can be a little bit disappointing, actually, when you first hit that point in the friendship or relationship where someone starts telling you the same old stories or repeating the same old opinions over and over again. We all do it, but that doesn't keep us from hoping that someone out there will remain fresh and entertaining indefinitely.

I had a boyfriend in college who loved to tell the story of how his dad got him a dog for his birthday when he was 8 years old. His dad had since left his mom, moved to the city, married a big-deal magazine editor, and was relatively out of touch with his son's life, but in his mind, their father-son relationship was really special, as evidenced by that fateful day when his dad gave him a doggie. He always ended the story by saying, "I can't wait until I can give my son a dog for his birthday, too." "Aw, that's nice! Dad, son, dog," I thought, as if it pointed to some sweetly romantic notions that made the boyfriend eminently lovable.

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After the fifth or sixth time he told this story, though, I stopped getting it, and started wondering how such an anecdote could possibly be so important. Something about man-boy bonding, something about the joy of telling his tale in a warm, macho, fatherly tone. Charming but pretty empty, as far as I was concerned, but what did I know? I wasn't a man, a boy or a dog.

Then one day I visited my boyfriend's family home in suburban New York. We were sitting in the backyard, by the pool, when a mangy-looking mutt with a hump on its back and scraggly-looking hair wandered up. "Get that thing away from me!" my boyfriend yelled at his mom. "It's disgusting!" His mom fretted about how she couldn't let the dog inside anymore, because it smelled too bad, so it wandered around the neighborhood most of the day.

I asked and, yes, this was the same cherished, symbolic dog his dad got him on that wonderful day years ago. Oddly enough, while Dad maintained his hero status even after escaping to the city to raise his pretty young wife's kids, Dog was treated like a leper. This discovery made me feel sick to my stomach. Why was Dog being blamed for Dad's sins? Was Dog demonized so Dad could continue to be deified? Or was my boyfriend just an asshole?

When I pointed out that I found it strange that he would tell such a glowing tale about the day he got this dog, and then ignore the dog as it grew older, the boyfriend blinked at me, uncomprehendingly. "It stinks," he repeated, emphatically. "It's disgusting."

Suddenly it seemed clear that marrying this guy would be a very bad idea, indeed.

His story repeats itself
As boring and exasperating as they can be, the stories people repeat over and over again end up telling us a lot about them as human beings. In my boyfriend's case, his parents had separated right after he went away to college, and maybe he was haunted by the sense that something innocent and sweet from his childhood, some moment when he was the most important thing in the world to his father, was lost and gone forever.

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This same sense of melancholy and loss is what has made Tony Soprano a compelling character over all these years. He was a sensitive boy, but his mother and father weren't capable of giving him the love that he needed, so as an adult he's fated to look back with anxiety and grief. He worked tirelessly for his mother's approval, even as she treated him with disrespect, insulted him and plotted to kill him.

Still, like my college boyfriend, people who are caught up in golden moments from the past are likely to neglect people that are in their lives here and now. For Tony, mangy-looking, stinky mutts are wandering around every corner, but like the mom who shrugs and leaves the dog outside instead of giving it a bath and taking it to the vet, Tony tries gingerly to solve his problems by following his own instincts, but inevitably ends up shrugging his shoulders, cutting his losses, and shutting the dog outside in the rain. The question is whether or not, in the final season of "The Sopranos" (9 p.m. Sundays on HBO), Tony is going to continue to make the same brutal decisions that are necessary to fulfill his duties as mob boss, or whether he's finally lost his stomach for the heartless requirements of mob life.

Each season, this is the repeating story of "The Sopranos": There's a bad little sheep in Tony's flock, and Tony is forced to pull out his shotgun and eliminate the problem. From Big Pussy to Ralphie to Richie (whom Janice conveniently gunned down so Tony didn't have to) to Tony Blundetto to Adriana, Tony has struggled, year after year, with the unsavory responsibilities of keeping his business up and running.

This season, it may be that Tony's humanity and his loyalty as a friend are being tested more than ever before. After putting business first so many times before, Tony suddenly seems less able to make the same kinds of barbarous decisions he's had to make in the past.

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When Vito is discovered at a gay bar and forced to go on the run, it's impossible not to feel sorry for him. This isn't a guy who's squealing to the feds or screwing up and challenging Tony like Ralphie did. Despite his sneakiness when Tony was in a coma, overall Vito is a loyal guy, a good earner who hasn't caused trouble for Tony in the past. He's obviously meant to be a fairly sympathetic character, particularly in the face of the anger and rejection of the macho mob guys, who think he has to go simply because he makes them all look like girly-men by association.

Our sympathy for Vito peaks when he discovers a quaint little town in New Hampshire that appears to be a sort of gay paradise. I love the scene where the hot guy with the handlebar mustache serves him Johnny Cakes and says something like, "Do you like what you see?" Or the other scene where he's surveying a vase in an antique store, and the seemingly gay owner says to him, "You're a natural!" For once, instead of taking out the long knives because the mad dogs in the pack can't stand to let a perceived offense go unpunished, Tony urges the others not to rush to judgment. Even though he eventually seems intent on chasing down Vito, Tony is delaying the process in a way that makes it uncertain whether Vito will go down the way so many others have before him.

And then there's Artie, who's sometimes a sympathetic character, but whose overall demeanor is that of the prideful, irrational jackass. Artie has always inspired Tony's loyalty, but he himself isn't all that loyal, either to his wife with his relentless crushes on Adriana and now Martina, or to his staff, whom he treats with respect on good days, and then explodes and abuses at other times. Artie is stubborn, he refuses to listen to others, he makes really bad decisions, and he follows his own bloated ego in little circles.

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Tony has been consistently loyal to Artie. Even the fire at Artie's restaurant, which Tony felt so guilty about, yielded Artie enough insurance money for him to rebuild and start over. But every time Tony tries to reason with Artie and to steer him away from danger or ruin, he does so in vain. Artie can't discuss anything reasonably -- he's massively insecure yet too enamored of himself to see the truth.

With Paulie going off the rails, Vito hiding out, Artie threatening to lose his mind, and Christopher falling off the wagon and acting like more of a self-serving jerk than ever, how will Tony keep it all together?

But more important, what's new under the sun? We've seen most of these situations before. Do we really need more scenes with Christopher navigating Hollywood like a confused meathead? Do we care that Carmela is put off by her rude friend Angie? And don't we know what happens to traitors eventually? They get taken out in one horrible way or another. Even if Paulie is discovered to be double-crossing Tony -- and that's likely, the way Paulie is acting lately -- Tony will take him out. The End.

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Unless Tony is going to put his foot down and take a very different course of action this season, I really wonder why we're being treated to the same scenarios we have been since the very first season. Why would every single season's narrative arc involve a traitor to the family? And why is this season shaping up to be just like all the others?

It bothers me that these characters aren't changing or growing more, particularly in the final days of the show. I know that's the nature of this show and the nature of its characters, but you'd think they could break from tradition at the 11th hour to liven things up a little. A.J. is still chumpy and annoying, Meadow is a somewhat ineffectual do-gooder, Carmela compromises and keeps the peace, Tony's men are all self-interested, short-sighted assholes with no conscience who aren't evolving past a violent, simian state, and Tony, despite his near-death experience, is just as beleaguered and angry as he ever was.

The show remains as imaginative and funny as it ever was, but it feels like we've seen it all a few times already. The Sacramoni wedding episode was heartbreaking and memorable, with its theme of weakness vs. strength in men; the casual Italian assassins were hilarious and odd; even Artie's outbursts were thoroughly entertaining, as frustrating as Artie himself can be as a character. But most of the stories here feel like retreads, and that makes this season a little less exciting than seasons past. I no longer look forward to Sunday nights in the same way, and sometimes (gasp!) watch "Big Love" only, and catch up with "The Sopranos" the next day.

The only outcome that might explain the status quo of this season so far is that something big is in the cards, and the point of these episodes is to remind us of the usual state of affairs before the entire picture is turned upside down. Some possibilities: 1) Paulie or Christopher rat to the feds in exchange for immunity and take the whole family down in the process, 2) Tony joins the witness protection program and writes a book about his experiences (unlikely, since that's pretty out of character, plus Tony would naturally be the main target of any investigation), or 3) Tony goes easy on Vito, Artie and a few others, ends up being seen as soft, and then gets displaced by one of his longtime loyal associates.

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Those are my best guesses. How do you think the final season will end? Send your ideas my way and I'll publish the best predictions in next week's column.

I have to say, though, if something that big is going to happen, I'm anxious for it to start already. As harsh as it might be to see the family get ripped apart, it's getting to the point where it's hard to care about any of them. Aside from maybe Tony and Silvio, the characters on "The Sopranos" are frustratingly stagnant and self-concerned, and that dampens my interest in the show. It's time for "The Sopranos" to stop telling the same old stories and start trying out a few new tricks on us. I'd love to see Christopher make a terrible decision and meet with a well-deserved horrible fate, while Vito grows old eating Johnny Cakes. Isn't it about time Tony showed a little mercy and let the mangy old dog in from the rain?

President evil!
In contrast to "The Sopranos," "24" (9 p.m. Mondays on Fox) has wisely swerved off the expected path into new territory during the second half of its fifth season. But even though CTU is no longer concerned with an imminent terrorist catastrophe, the mood is more apocalyptic than ever, as Jack and his renegade agents focus on exposing President Logan for the creepy evildoer we always suspected he was. This recent shift from disaster to deceit has given "24" a nice late-season shot in the arm. After all, we've already squeaked through more looming nightmares than we care to remember, from a nuclear bomb falling on Los Angeles to the spread of an Ebola-like virus that caused victims to bleed from their orifices. And that's not to mention the now-unforgettable release of nerve gas at CTU headquarters, which left Edgar and Lynn dead and the rest of the staff reeling in its wake. As satisfying as it was to see such deliciously horrifying scenarios unfold before our voyeur eyes, we're so conditioned to expect the annihilation of big, anonymous segments of the Los Angeles population after five seasons of "24" that we can't really get that worked up over it. When the Russian terrorist guy said something about 200,000 potential casualties a few weeks ago, I thought, "Is that all? Come on, guy! You can do better than that. Stop underachieving and set your sights a little higher already."

But a coverup! That's another story. We've seen thousands of real American lives lost in the past year, what we haven't seen is a violent bitch-slapping of the Oval Office. Leave it to the geniuses at "24" to find something even more satisfying than hysterical strangers, foaming at the mouth or bleeding out!

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I mean, the notion that President Logan might actually have to answer for his sneaky plans and nefarious, covert actions! Sure, it's a pretty unbelievable scenario, a real fantasy sequence. The writers must've been huffing on the funny pipe when they dreamt this one up. Ha! A president, having to face up to his lies and deceit! Who thought of this wacky story line? Give that nutty guy a raise!

Even that scene where the first lady (Jean Smart) told the president (Greg Itzin) that he disgusted her was a little far-fetched. She looked right into his eyes and said she hated him and while she would keep her mouth shut, she would never, ever see him the same way again! Most of us at home were like, "Hey, lady! Go easy on the guy. He's the president. Don't you get it? It's his constitutional right to lie with impunity. Haven't you listened to anything Scott McClellan has been telling us for the past year?"

And isn't it widely recognized and accepted that our president is allowed to kill anyone he wants to? But hey, if Jack's got his panties in a bunch over "corruption that leads all the way to the top," and "egregious abuses of power," well then, we do, too! Whatever you say, Jack!

I also love how Chloe is stepping up and playing the hero through it all. Edgar's death really seems to have changed her, don't you think? She went from whimpering and staring at her hands to blackmailing that nasty lunatic girl on the fly in order to sneak out of CTU and then seeking out Bill Buchanan (who was conveniently hanging out at home when she arrived, perhaps flipping through his CTU scrapbook and sniffling softly). Now she's going to great lengths to continue to break the law from Buchanan's pad, and she even refused to turn off the computers and hide when Buchanan got the word from the head of Homeland that a CTU task force was on its way over to arrest her. She knows how important it is to help Jack track down that tape that implicates Logan, that's why! She recognizes the importance of "egregious abuses of power," even if we don't!

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My, my, where do they find these heroes? I mean, Wayne, Jack, Audrey, Chloe, Bill -- so many fine patriots out there, risking their necks in order to get to the truth. How many of us would put our asses on the line just to put an end to corruption that leads to the very top of the food chain? How many of us are even willing to consider what corruption is, or even vaguely grasp the structure of our government, the checks and balances in place in order to keep one of the branches of government from seizing too much power and leading our great nation to the brink of destruction and worldwide war?

But let's not worry our pretty little heads about any of that. Nah, let's just crawl into bed and pull the covers up to our chins, while that old mangy dog whines and claws at the door outside. Do you hear that? It's starting to rain. It's so cozy to stay in bed on a rainy day, especially when wars are waging far, far away and the whining of that sad old dog reminds you of just how warm and dry and safe you are, by comparison.

Luckily, we can tell the same old happy-go-lucky bedtime stories about American heroism and ingenuity, stories that make us feel OK about ourselves, that make us feel that everything is going to be all right. Instead of looking too hard at the facts, we can daydream about American flags waving and fathers giving their sons cute little puppy dogs. We can turn the TV up really loud, because we know that in the end, President Logan will get caught, and he'll pull off his mask and reveal that he's actually old Mr. McGregor from the mill! Gasp! And he would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids over at CTU!

So here's to the meddling kids of the world. Let's hope that the next generation of meddling kids is a little more informed and courageous and idealistic than we were.

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Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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