Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Hero Project #9: Freud and Jung and Tony and Don

In March of 2006, I got a chance to attend an early screening of the first episodes of the sixth season of “The Sopranos”, presented by one of the writers on the show. I had some trepidation, since I hadn’t enjoyed the fifth season at all. Like so many recent near-masterpieces on TV (“Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” would follow similar patterns), “The Sopranos” had burst out of the gate with two amazing seasons, followed by an ambitious but not-entirely successful third season, then a sharply diminished fourth season. It was in the fifth season, however, that this show had gone seriously off the rails.

In the early days, it had seemed clear that this was a show about the unraveling of the Soprano family, and the mob in general. In real life, the FBI was breaking the back of the Sicilian mafia in America and the sense of that impending doom gave the show its weight and heft. But as the show went on, the chance of an arrest seemed to recede away into the fog, along with many of Tony’s other problems. As I pointed out before, a show that had promised change kept reverting back to immutability. Tony proved to be unable to adapt or fail. Perhaps that was the point, but the show had begun with his visit to a therapist, and returned over and over again to that setting. If you don’t want your hero to change, that’s an odd place to set your show, it seemed to me.

The fifth season had exacerbated all these problems. It started out with promise: Carmela had finally left Tony, and he took on a bunch of new lieutenants (like Steve Buscemi and Robert Loggia) who were clearly going to wreck things. Would Tony finally face a real crisis? No, Tony spent a lot of the season asleep, literally, as we indulged more and more of his dream sequences. The 11th episode was usually when the season-long plots kicked into high gear, so I was anxiously awaiting some plot movement when that episode arrived. Instead, Tony fell asleep five minutes in, and we got our first all-dream episode. The season soon limped to a finish. The lieutenants all killed each other off and Carmela reluctantly accepted Tony back, resetting the show to zero. Why did Carmela take him back? Because she realized that he was not unlike the bear who had been foraging in her back yard all season, and one must learn to accept bears, or something like that.

When I went to the preview screening of the first three episodes of season six, I was disappointed to see that the show was burrowing further down that rabbit hole. Tony spent most of those three episodes in bed, and the third was another all-dream episode: literally a snoozefest.
As for our host, I had been disappointed to hear that it would not be David Chase, the creator and showrunner, but rather another member of the writing staff. I had never heard of this guy, but I asked around and heard rumors that Chase had basically handed him the reins of the show. This writer had brought HBO a brilliant but unproduceable pilot script of his own. Rather than make it, they put him on “The Sopranos” and his vision had transformed the show. Uh-oh. Was this guy the problem?
Sure enough, the writer quickly confirmed that he had come on board in season four and pushed the show in a new direction. The show, like Tony’s old-fashioned Freudian therapist, had been trying to fix Tony. But this new writer had never liked Freudian therapy. He preferred the Jungian model. Jung thought that we shouldn’t go to therapy to fix ourselves, because we aren’t really sick. The purpose of therapy should be to get to know ourselves better. Like Freud, he loved the interpretation of dreams, but rather than use them to identify neuroses, he believed we should use them to embrace our animal self. This new writer was claiming responsibility for everything I disliked about the fifth season, and he had gotten even more control over the sixth. I gave up.
But… as much as I disagreed with his take on “The Sopranos”, I had to admit that he was one of the smartest writers I had ever heard speak. It was actually an amazing evening and I learned a lot.
A year later, after “The Sopranos” ended, another network, out of desperation, decided that take a chance and greenlight the writer’s famously unproduceable pilot script. Naturally, no matter how much I liked the guy in person, I assumed that I would hate his new show. I liked Freud. I liked fixing people. I didn’t want to watch some navel-gazing Jungian idyll in which the characters reconfirmed their sense of self every week. Well, as you may have guessed, the writer was Matthew Weiner, and the new show was “Mad Men”. I gave it a shot and quickly decided that this was the best show American TV had ever produced.
“The Sopranos” had promised change and then yanked it away when Weiner highjacked the Freudian journey and parked it on a Jungian treadmill. “Mad Men” was a different beast entirely. Once Weiner was playing in his own sandbox, he was able to create a world in which no big payoff was necessary. Tony Soprano’s world seemed destined to unravel, and when he stitched it back together every year, it felt more and more like a cop out each time. His attempts to change should have led him to either triumph or tragedy, but instead he just drifted away. Don Draper, on the other hand, is trying not to change, and he’s on the wrong side of history. His outlook and his world are inherently doomed. For Don, just getting to know himself is tragedy enough.
So what does this have to do with the Hero Project? Tomorrow we’ll bring this unit to its epic conclusion as I ask the question, what sort of journey is Luke Skywalker really on?


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