Had I been smart enough to develop pre-testicular sterility just before committing to procreation, it would’ve taken me a lot less than a year and four months to plough through the entire Sopranos box set. But I didn’t, and it did.
Nonetheless, with strength of character enough to repeatedly ignore my dreadful spawn’s relentless thirst for affection, last week I reached the mountain’s summit. 86 episodes of peerless storytelling. What a view. Breath-taking.
A lot has been said of TV’s canon of excellence. Your Mad Men, your Six Feet Under, your Wire. All of them lickably brilliant, that’s beyond doubt. But having watched the whole thing from beginning to end, twice now, I have no choice but to conclude that David Chase’s gun-toting, horse-torching, spoon-burning, corpse-burying, duck-watching, basement-bugging, therapy-seeking, goomah-banging, gabagool-gorging, asbestos-dumping, abruptly-concluded Mob opus remains unsurpassed. The very best of the very best.
Attempting to deconstruct exactly why I find Tony Soprano’s narrative arc fractionally (and only fractionally) more compelling than Don Draper’s, Nate Fisher’s or Jimmy McNulty’s would be an act of analytical futility equivalent to comparing sex toys with golf carts. If you were to push me however, and I were to start reasoning why this Tantus Flex Double Penetrator trumps that E-Z-Go Freedom TXT I’d have to say the answer lies roughly one to three inches inside screenwriting’s anterior vaginal wall between the vaginal opening and the urethra. (Push your fingers up then arch them back towards the Skene’s gland in a beckoning motion – you’ll find it eventually.)
As far as character, conflict, complication, crisis-climax, and resolution are concerned, you really couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the contenders – a photo-finish. But if you look closely, run the latter stages of the race frame by frame, you’ll clearly see that fat Tony breaks the tape first. Not because profound obesity has his navel breaching the finish line before he’s even left the blocks. Nor because he bows out in the finest closing sequence this side of Butch & Sundance. No. For me, Big T takes gold simply because Chase and his team of writers managed to master one plot device the others rarely had the sand to even dabble with: comedy.
As far as character, conflict, complication, crisis-climax, and resolution are concerned, you really couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the contenders – a photo-finish
In amongst all the bloodletting, vinegar peppers, racism and misogyny, the Bada Bing manifests almost as many belly laughs as it does jiggling tits. And without a single one ever feeling awkward or out of place (jokes, not udders).
End-to-end the six series (no seasons please, we’re British) come in at 4,300 minutes, and during that time I honestly think I laughed as many times as I have done throughout all the Curb Your Enthusiams. Enthusiams… Enthusiasms… Enthusiams. That’s some strike rate for a show no one would ever dare describe as a sit-com.
There’s enough old-school gags told to give Bob Monkhouse’s joke book a run for its money, my personal favourtie being: Guy comes home to his wife with a duck under his arm, he says, "This is the pig I've been fucking." His wife says, "That's not a pig, it's a duck." The guy says, "I wasn't talking to you."
Then there’s slapstick; more slapstick; Janice cramming for her Proctology finals; everything Paulie ever said; everything Uncle June ever said; Silvio Dante’s face; and of course Ralph Cifaretto’s mushroom-cloud remark about the mole on Ginny Sack’s arse. Oof, marone!
Should the past ever catch up with me, as it inevitably will, I’ll gladly forego my last meal if the warden will let me watch ‘Pine Barrens’ instead (series 3, episode 11 – comfortably the most rewarding hour I’ve spent in front of a television set that didn’t involve a box of tissues and the lingering smell of self-loathing). An astonishing piece of work by all involved, particular praise going to principal actors Michael Imperioli (Chris Moltisanti) and Tony Sirico (Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gaultieri) whose double act chemistry channels all the greats from Abbot & Costello right through to Davidson & Virgo.
comfortably the most rewarding hour I’ve spent in front of a television set that didn’t involve a box of tissues and the lingering smell of self-loathing
Having been set the routine task of collecting money from an associate of the Russian mob (Chris: Russians? They're not all bad. Paulie: How 'bout the Cuban Missile Crisis? Cocksuckers flew four nuclear missiles into Cuba, pointed them right at us. Chris: That was real? I saw that movie, I thought it was bullshit), by the third act, through a combination of ineptitude and anger management issues, the pair are reduced to sucking frozen ketchup sachets for sustenance while shivering under some carpet they found in an abandoned A-team van.
Hardly a surprise when you consider how wrong things go from the start – the Russian, balls like watermelons, suggesting they fellate him for the money the second they arrive at his apartment. There’s a fight, a lamp is used as a cudgel. All very messy.
So it’s off to the Pine Barrens, a snowbound sprawl of pine trees and fuck-all-else that stretches for miles in every direction, to dump the body. But the body’s still alive. And it escapes, despite being severely concussed and still in its pyjamas.
Having somehow contrived to be outwitted by a drunk Russian lummox with a fractured skull and half his ear blown off, Dumb & Dumber are now lost and stranded in plummeting temperatures clothed only in loafers and slacks. Ray Mears they ain’t.
After a quick round or two of the Blame Game and no little scaremongering (Chris: For all we know, he could be out there stalking us. Paulie: With what? His cock?), Walnuts, his famed grey fins so wind-frapped and dishevelled it looks like he’s warming his ears under a swan’s carcass, puts in a call to the Skip – an SOS, if you will – begging Daddy to come rescue them. But all Daddy cares about is that the job’s done. And that’s when it happens: the greatest misunderstanding in the history of shit reception…
Tony: [Over the phone] It's a bad connection so I'm gonna talk fast. The guy you're looking for is an ex-commando. He killed sixteen Chechen rebels single-handed.
Paulie: Get the fuck outta here.
Tony: Yeah. Nice, huh? He was with the Interior Ministry. Guy's like a Russian green beret. He can NOT come back and tell this story. You understand?
Paulie: I hear you. [Hangs up, turns to Chris] …You're not gonna believe this. He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.
Chris: His house looked like shit.
Boom! You don’t get work of that quality at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, no matter how much money you throw at it. I rest my case. Now go grab me a mortadell’ and provolone, amico – I’m so hungry I could eat the hair off your sister’s cunt. Oh!
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