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Sunday, June 07, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: The Short-Lived Framing Sequence in the Sopranos Pilot

Let’s look at what the therapy does for “The Sopranos”:
  • It’s deeply ironic: In a world where the worst thing they can say about you is “he talked”, a mobster decides to take the talking cure.
  • It allows a show about the mafia to exist in 1999, when no show had ever focused on an evil character. Chase desperately needed to humanize the hero, and the therapy created a brilliant way to do that. It created a huge gap between internal and external characterization, which automatically generates empathy.
  • It gives us a unique point of entry every week and a unique relationship to focus on. It’s very hard to tell a mafia story that isn’t clichéd. We need to see this old world with new eyes, and Dr. Melfi provides those eyes.
And, of course, in the pilot, it provides a framing sequence, which has its own benefits:
  • It binds us to Tony’s point of view, at least for now.  We are conditioned to reject evil characters, and search for good ones, but the use of this frame doesn’t allow us to do that. It doesn’t win us over to Tony’s point of view, but at least we understand it. It gets us to empathize with him (and only him, for now) even though we cannot sympathize with him.
  • It delivers tons of exposition in a quick and lively way. This is especially important in a world full of secrets and coded language. If we just watched the scenes without the commentary we might be baffled. Of course, Tony is not confessing the full nature of his criminal schemes to Dr. Melfi, but we learn a lot simply by contrasting what he says to her and what we actually see him do.
But then Chase does something interesting: he quietly drops the framing device when Tony’s first session ends at the 25 minute mark. Even when Tony returns to therapy shortly thereafter, those scenes no longer have flashbacks. From now on, we will experience the show without voiceover or any sort of frame.

This is a wise choice. Chase has delivered the exposition he needs to deliver and gotten us to care about and identify with this evil man, but now we’re cut loose, allowed once again to make our own decisions and judgments. More importantly, all of the problems inherent in voiceover and now gone: we are now longer having a mediated experience. This is no longer Tony’s “story”, it’s just Tony’s story.

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