Monday, June 11, 2007

More Sopranos! Updated!

Note: I've moved this back to the top because the stuff from Andy Ferguson is so perfect.

I don't mean to be a spoilsport, but again, I just don't get this media elite obsession with The Sopranos. Let's grant that it's a great show. A truly great show. Let's put it up on the shelf with Buffy, Homicide, and the other great hour-long dramas. Heck, if you want to, put it at the top of the list. The amount of attention being given over to the series finale seems slightly turbo. Driving to work this morning, both of my sports-talk radio stations were dissecting it; it was the cover of the New Yorker last week; in addition to VLM's entry below, Dean Barnett has a highly intelligent analysis of it, too.

But when we see the numbers on the broadcast tomorrow, I suspect we'll be looking at a show with around (maybe) 15 million viewers, probably fewer. At its peak, The Sopranos was doing 13.4 million viewers. This season, using a new-and-improved Nielsen system, the show has averaged between 10 million and 11 million per episode, including people who watch it on DVR and using On Demand.

That puts The Sopranos in the same neighborhood as CSI: New York and Two and a Half Men. Yet for some reason, The Sopranos got a send-off to rival the ends of M*A*S*H and Seinfeld, shows with bona fide mass-appeal.

If this is all about saluting quality television, then I'm all for it. I can't wait for the BSG New Yorker cover next year. And I'm eagerly anticipating the massive coverage of the soon-to-be-departed Veronica Mars.

But something tells me that the Soprano-mania is about something more. There's a certain clubby-ness to the Sopranos coverage. A Bos-Was axis of elitism, if you will.

Enough sourness. Even if it is getting obnoxiously disproportionate treatment, David Chase, the writers, cast, and crew are to be congratulated for putting together such great television. And HBO is to be congratulated for backing the series. Programming executives at other networks could learn a thing or two from them.

Update: I'm a nitwit, of course, because Andrew Ferguson made this argument, only better and funnier, a long time ago. Have a taste:

THE SOPRANOS airs the fourth, or maybe the fifth, episode of its television season this Sunday. Or is it the sixth? It's very hard to keep track. In any case, the show is still sailing along on an updraft of favorable publicity that is extraordinary even by the standards of television, where hallucinatory embellishment and repetition are basic communication strategies. The coverage and critical notices that swarmed over the show's season premiere, when it debuted on the cable channel HBO four or five or six weeks ago, read more like advertising than journalism. And there's no sign of a trailing off.

Bonus: Here's more Ferguson, putting his finger on exactly what bothers me:

A very large majority of Americans don't even have access to HBO and therefore, of course, to The Sopranos. It costs money to watch The Sopranos -- an extra 200 dollars or more a year for people who already get cable, and much more than that for people who would have to initiate cable service and then add the premium channels to boot. Difficult as it is for some of us to believe, most people in the United States have chosen not to spend the extra money. What this means is that, relative to the universe of TV watchers, The Sopranos isn't being seen by very many people. On any given night in prime time, 80 million Americans or more will be staring at the television in a futile attempt to obliterate the piled-up frustrations and petty resentments and failed dreams that constitute their pathetic little lives. Or maybe they're just watching TV to pass the time. Whichever. The important point is, not many of them are watching The Sopranos, which on a typical Sunday will be seen by roughly 8 million viewers -- or one out of ten of the total.

This makes it a great triumph for HBO, but only a middling success measured against the standards of network commercial television. For network TV, a smash superboffo megahit -- excuse the technical terminology -- would be Survivor, the sadistic reality show that will sometimes snag
40 million viewers or more. On its face, then, The Sopranos's 8 million looks like small potatoes.

But what potatoes! Among the couch spuds will be (it's safe to say) the entire combined editorial and business staffs of GQ, Newsweek, the New Yorker, and so on, and the staffs, excluding paperboys, of every sizable newspaper from the New York Times down to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. And all of them (likewise safe to say) seem oblivious to the possibility that anyone else is not watching. They continue to write their stories about their particular entertainment obsession, all of which assume that The Sopranos is a mass phenomenon on the order of, say, the televised Olympics or a runaway hit movie like Titanic. But of course it isn't.

The saturation coverage of The Sopranos is another instance of a cultural development that has become increasingly un-ignorable, though still stubbornly ignored. Along with the rest of the American elite -- "the top one percent," to borrow a useful figure of speech -- the mainstream organs of opinion and news have detached themselves from the common life to a degree we haven't seen in many years. It should go without saying that just about every subject television touches it renders idiotic -- think of politics brought to you by Hardball, high finance brought to you by CNBC, even weather brought to you by the hysterics on the Weather Channel -- but once upon a time you could say this in its defense: TV created a kind of shared experience for the country at large. We all trusted Walter Cronkite, we all laughed at Laugh-In, we all accepted Ed Sullivan's taste. The wealthy and the working class, the banker and the baker: They all watched the same crap.

Not any more. The Sopranos is the entertainment equivalent of the gated community. The well-to-do now retreat to their own corner of the television world, with the obliviousness that has always been a hallmark of the rich and privileged.


Anonymous said...

What does the L stand for? C'mon, Last. You can't bury the lede like that.

(Is it "Lede"? "Lorenzo"? Maybe "Loyola"--Vic did go to Georgetown.)

Michael said...

It's not just the 15 million people, but it's 15 million people paying $20-$100 a month to watch the show.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure they don't mean to be a spoilsport, but I'm sure most adults don't get your obsession with video games and transformers. Really, aren't you, like, married with kids and a real adult-style job?

Anonymous said...

Last, is Matus even talking to you now that you've dissed on the Sopranos?

Anonymous said...

You just try to get Vic Matus to shut up. I dare you. The man once tried to talk his way out of a Milford Academy class reunion.

But whatever. What's Vic's middle name? I checked his IMDB credits--nothing. Somebody. Anybody. Please.

Anonymous said...

The expense of subscribing to the show should, as Michael notes, make its viewing numbers significantly, if not exponentially, more impressive: many a working stiff sits down to watch Survivor not because he enjoys it, but because that's simply all that's playing at the moment. Every Sopranos viewer, by contrast, is a bona fide fanatic, to the tune of some $200 a year.

In any case, the fact that The Sopranos' viewers are restricted to a higher income demographic makes the show more significant, from one - I think sensible - perspective. Those with the money to spend on HBO and/or The Sopranos are also those who have a disproportionate influence on American society for a variety of reasons: generally speaking, they probably have higher discretionary income, higher level of education, and higher positions within their respective professions. What resonates with them aesthetically/artistically - what they see as expressing their desires, fears, or understanding of the essence of American life - can reasonably be seen as more newsworthy than the entertainment interests of the theoretical "common man."

But in any case, Last, I'm surprised to see a Weekly Standard writer espousing mere popularity as the test for publicity. If we assume (without deciding) that The Sopranos is one of the greatest tv shows ever made, doesn't it make sense to give it a lot of coverage regardless of its mass appeal? The hoi polloi are more interested in the peccadilloes of Paris Hilton than the election of Sarkozy: does that immediately make Ms. Hilton more important? Your stance would have us give more coverage to the death of Zane Grey or Dean Koontz than that of James Joyce or David Foster Wallace.

Take what consolation you can from the fact that every year will see you getting more of what you want: more vulgarity, more ephemera, more trash. Welcome to it. I'm sticking with my snobbery.

Anonymous said...

Dude, did you even read the post?

"If this is all about saluting quality television, then I'm all for it. I can't wait for the BSG New Yorker cover next year. And I'm eagerly anticipating the massive coverage of the soon-to-be-departed Veronica Mars."

Anonymous said...

I loved "The Sopranos," but I love "The Wire" even more. I'm curious why a person who names "Homicide" as one of the best shows ever to exist somehow misses the obvious connection with the HBO show. Same writers, same directors, similar arena and conflicts - but even better than the earlier show, mostly because of the lack of network restrictions.

I'll cancel my Comcast when that show ends next year - to my eternal regret.

Matthew Lickona said...

There are, however, bunches of folks who watch and love The Sopranos on DVD, and who thus pay way, way less than $200 a year for their pleasure.