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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Sopranos: "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood"

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Even the most realistic works of fiction are "life without the boring parts," as Alfred Hitchcock would have it. Take a cutting and trenchant work of social realism, The Wire, say, or a movie like George Washington or one of those Jhumpa Lahiri short story collections. Even these tales find a way to mostly trim the story of scenes that don't contribute to the narrative or the general theme of the show. Reality is manipulated to better service the story. We don't see the protagonist wandering down in the middle of the night to eat a bowl of cereal and finish the Junior Jumble in his bathrobe, and if we do, it's likely going to be immediately followed by major plot movement or by some sort of inner breakthrough that leads to thematic revelation. All storytelling is contrivance, the writer manipulating the coincidences and necessary acts of God needed to move the story forward but trying to keep his hands clean, so we don't see him lurking behind the curtain. When we say a story is unrealistic, what we really mean is that it's too easy to see the skeleton showing.

The Sopranos, of course, is a show that bases much of its appeal on depicting American life as it was really lived by a certain subset of the populace at the turn of the 21st century. Sure, there are moments when all hell breaks out and the mob world comes crashing through the everyday life of Tony Soprano and his family. But there are also moments when Tony and his wife talk about their children or about their marriage, moments that should be familiar to just about any American. There are long scenes of the characters just shooting the shit about work or about their personal lives, and there's no real attempt to make these scenes seem immediately dramatically interesting. And yet, even though this is one of the show's virtues, even The Sopranos mostly leaves out the boring parts. All of those scenes reveal character or provide subtle shading to the narrative. We're not seeing Carmela get set up for an exercise session while Tony talks about how the new coffee she bought cleared out his gastrointestinal tract.

That is, we aren't until this episode. "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood" is a slyly confident, funny return to the world of The Sopranos, an episode that takes a cue from, well, Hitchcock to talk as much about our relationship to the show as anything else. It's an episode full of people being watched who've gotten so used to being watched that they hardly even notice anymore. In terms of plot, there's not a lot there, beyond the usual, "Here's where everybody is at the start of a new season" moments. In terms of unveiling where the show will go for the season to come, "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood" is pretty much a colossal attempt to avoid doing anything of the sort, perhaps because the show was trying hard to figure out how it would move forward after the death of a key cast member. (I'll try not to spoil this, but it should be obvious with a little Google search.) And yet David Chase, who's credited with the episode's script, and director Allen Coulter turn this uncertainty into a virtue.

Season three of The Sopranos is one of my two favorite seasons of the show, and I go back and forth on whether I prefer it or the grand, Shakespearean heft of season five. Season three, in many ways, is the show at its most prosaic. It's very much a season about the show itself (something hinted at by this episode) and how the show would go forward in the wake of that tragic loss. It contains two episodes most Sopranos fans would have in their top 10 episodes lists, yet those two episodes are essentially standalone. The major story arcs of the season arrive rather late, and the show seems less interested in them than in the characters just sitting around and being themselves. There's a lazy sense of this being the best times for the characters, this being how things are before the shit really goes down. (It's also the last season before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, an event that will weigh on the show in several tangential ways in the seasons to come, and in ways that make everything seem even darker than they did before. But more about that in season four.) I love season three because it's the season when The Sopranos as entertaining TV show was still the primary focus, not The Sopranos as cultural icon nearing its end. If we remember that at this point, Chase was still planning on making the fourth season the last, then this is the last big moment before the fall, the season where a sense of what's to come, a sense the show earnestly cultivates, underlines every moment on screen.

It's also, weirdly, the season when the show broke through with a mainstream audience. The first two seasons were big in the media, and their ratings would be enormous for HBO today (this in the age before constant cable replays, On Demand viewing, iTunes, and DVD sets), but they didn't penetrate the cultural consciousness like the bigger hits of the time. Season three, which began airing after the first season became the first TV on DVD series set offered by HBO (but not season two), made the big leap in the ratings that made HBO weirdly dependent on it (along with Sex And The City). It was the season when a show with a sizable cult turned into a show that could attract more than 10 million viewers for its premieres, good enough to win the cable ratings at the time (and good enough to crack the top 30 programs of the week, period, now). That status would only grow through the next few seasons, but season three is both the birth of the show as a mainstream hit and the birth of the vocal contingent always wondering when the show would stop with the boring stuff and get with the violence already.

The thing is, "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood" (initially aired in a two-hour bloc with "Proshai, Livushka," originally, a bloc I hoped to emulate with this week's write-up but just didn't get time for) is already telling viewers to expect the show to keep staying with the family in their little, boring moments of domestic crisis, the moments that reveal more about who they'll be when the chips come down in Tony's other family. And it's doing so brilliantly. Framed almost entirely via the point of view of the FBI agents who have the Soprano family as their major target, much of "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood" consists of agents watching the characters, dropping in on their lives, but only at moments when there's basically no mob talk going on whatsoever. Like viewers, the agents are tempted to drop out of these moments, focus on something else. Like viewers, the agents are privy to things that Tony knows nothing about (like Patsy Parisi drunkenly pointing his gun at Tony, safely ensconced in his home). Like viewers, the agents may wonder just what the fuck is going on.


Chase spends a lot of time in the run of the series trying to implicate the viewers for their enjoyment of the series. He's the ultimate example of a self-loathing showrunner. Yet there's very little of this in "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood." This episode is more about the uneasy relationship between the two major thrusts of the series, at least the uneasy relationship as it exists in Chase's mind. Some of Tony's life is very exciting. Like us, the agents are voyeuristically dying to know what happens when Patsy turns up in the backyard. Notice how the camera cuts between the binoculars taking in Tony just futzing around inside the house, then take in Patsy closing in. After this, the view cuts to a more standard camera angle, without the binocular overlay because the show has established that these guys are watching these two events happening because they're us, the viewers at home who both know what's happening right outside Tony's door and the ones who are powerless to stop it, less because they couldn't stop it (one of them has a gun) and more because they simply want to know what comes next.

It's that need to know what comes next that gives Chase the breathing room he needs to make season three a partially improvised mess that somehow remains a terrific season of television. Everything is looser than it would be in a season with a tighter structure, but what makes the season work is that everything around the edges is just that much more brilliant, as if the show realized it was going to need to make up for some things in the margins. Take, for instance, tonight's centerpiece, a long series of scenes where the FBI stalks the Soprano family (and the maid) while two familiar pieces of music blend and flow into each other, Henry Mancini's theme for the TV show Peter Gunn and The Police's "Every Breath You Take." The two pieces of music are remarkably similar (and I don't know who on the production staff realized this, but kudos), but it's in their messages that the FBI's wires get crossed. The Peter Gunn theme is how the agents see themselves, big moments of derring do (like when one has to merge rapidly into traffic to follow his target) that build and build to a just conviction. But the Police tune is closer to what they're actually doing, taking in all of the little moments between the moments we see, investigating a family that's just as normal as your family or mine 95 percent of the time.


Of course, it's in the other 5 percent that things get difficult for Tony and his crew. The FBI has been lurking around the edges of The Sopranos since about midway through season one, and giving an episode over to a bunch of characters who are mostly minor ones that don't really have a bearing on the main thrust of the storyline must have seemed like the most obvious solution to the third season premiere problem at the time. But something about it pays off handsomely. (Indeed, this might be my favorite premiere the show ever did, though the equally off-format "Sopranos Home Movies" is good as well, if it counts.) What's going on with the Sopranos and their associates isn't terribly interesting, all things considered. Carmela has to switch tennis coaches, and the new one (a woman) takes a liking to Adriana (though who wouldn't?). Tony and his gang talk about fairly prosaic stuff and try to figure out if Patsy knows the truth about his brother's death. A.J. practices football. Meadow settles in at Columbia and comes to realize her roommate is much more homesick than she is. The maid deals with the test to become a U.S. citizen. And yet because all of these events are taking place on the edges of an episode that's about the process of these events being watched (just as we're watching them), they become oddly thrilling. Will this be the moment where Tony slips up and gives the FBI enough information to take him down? Probably not, but because the series has shifted its protagonists for this episode, it seems weirdly likely. On any other cop show, this would be the episode where that happened.

But, ultimately, there's only one huge plot point here: The FBI plants a new bug in Tony's house, right in the place where Pussy said he conducted his secretive meetings, and he doesn't know about it. The rest of the stuff resonates through the season, but in the way that this stuff resonates in real life. It's not an action-packed, suspense-driven thrill ride. It's just a bunch of people living their lives, carrying out relatively mundane existences that could be punctuated by something exciting at any given moment. Their lives provide a job for the FBI agents who track them, but they also provide something like cheap entertainment. When a drunken man shows up, waving a gun around, it's less important to stop him and more important to just take in what happens next.


Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to Sopranos-ville for the third season. I'll be writing about one episode per week until we're done with season three, and then, presumably, I'll move on to season four (though I may try to do something else between those seasons). I'm glad to be back, and writing about one episode a week should be much easier to squeeze into my schedule, which means these should be up on time for once.
  • This episode might be one of the top 10 episodes in the series, just for usage of music. The Gunn/"Breath" mashup is justly acclaimed (it was all most critics could talk about when the season debuted), but there's nice use of Alabama 3, Elvis Costello, and Steely Dan throughout.
  • It's the little things you notice: The agents realize that Tony's 120-gallon water heater is about to blow, even though it should last much longer. Indeed, it does, flooding the basement (another subtle reference to structural instability in a show filled with them) and giving the agents the in they need to plant the bug.
  • Nice, random shot: We transition to Meadow's time at school with a God's-eye view of Manhattan. Why? I'd like to theorize that it's about how the FBI sees themselves, ultimately, but I'm sure that Chase and company just thought it looked really cool.
  • AJ's football skills leave something to be desired. So do the American history skills of the maid's husband, who answers Martin Luther King, Jr., to everything, though that's most likely because he's just trying to get a piece and get this whole testing thing over with.
  • It's sort of crazy to imagine HBO, which now doles out its big hit series one by one, often skipping holiday weekends, airing two episodes of this show on the same night.
  • Lots of characters don't appear in this episode, from Junior to Livia, leaving a lot of the season two cliffhangers floating out there. But it's nice to have Pussy back, though only as an audio recording.
  • "That cookie shit makes me nervous."

Speaking to the Fishes:

  • There's not a lot in the way of foreshadowing in this episode, what with the completely shifted focus. That said, this episode vamps for a lot of time, trying not to deal with Nancy Marchand's death. We'll see the hideous visage of CGI Livia, perhaps the series' lowest point, just next week.
  • On the other hand, if Chase had always intended to begin the final season with Tony getting shot and entering a kind of dream-state afterlife, then Patsy appearing and waving his gun around may have been a subtle hint toward that. This is kind of hard to buy, however, and I think I'm probably stretching too far.

Next week: The series confronts one of the single greatest setbacks a great show has ever had to deal with head-on in "Proshai, Livushka."