The Captain & Tony

13 02 2010

I hate space shit. Generally. Particularly if it has to do with aliens. I much prefer fiction grounded as closely to every day reality as possible. I don’t like science fiction, actually, with some exceptions. I definitely never read more than the occasional high-concept short story. Don’t like the Star Wars movies. The alien fad from the mid-90s–sparked by The X-Files and exacerbated by Independence Day, Men in Black, and head shop t-shirts showing an oval-headed alien in a UFO smoking a bong–annoyed the shit out of me. So when my girlfriend suggested I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with her I squirmed. I’ve spent my life giving Star Trek a wide berth: the movies, the original series, the spin-offs. To me it represented pure, distilled, escapist Sci-Fi, the Everclear of the genre. But, because I’m weak in the face of her suggestive powers, I watched an episode with her from the sixth season–I don’t remember which one–and then started again at the beginning, with “Encounter at Farpoint“. It was absolutely nothing like I imagined Star Trek being. First of all, I always figured Star Fleet was more of a military operation than just a bunch of science geeks. Also, that episode deals with a high-concept “trial” of mankind.

The episode that really drew me in though was one called “Darmok.” In that episode the Enterprise encounters an alien race, the Tamarians, who communicate only through mythological metaphors. The way we would say, “Christ on the cross,” to indicate vicarious torture and suffering, they use a phrase, “Darmok and Jelad at Tanagra” to communicate that they want to cooperate with Star Fleet. It takes Captain Picard almost the entire episode–the whole time struggling to understand his counterpart and resisting the instinct to confront him violently–to decipher their language.

I spent the next month watching every episode of TNG. This was accompanied with reading dense Leftist books and lifting weights, to make me feel better about my sad, geeky self.

My insecurity led me to read this book.

The only other show that so quickly grabbed me and then held my fascination is The Sopranos. Although Mean Streets and Casino were two of my favorite flicks, I sat out the first season of the Sopranos (I’m one of those annoying contrarians, yes), and only started watching when my friend, who got HBO in her dorm room, came home from college and ordered me to quit kvetching and get on it.

There had to be something common to these two shows, besides the good writing and undercurrent of self-referential and slapstick humor, that impressed me so much. Especially since one of the strongest appeals of the The Sopranos is its dim view of human nature, versus the aspirational view that TNG provides.

There is this: The Sopranos is widely considered the greatest television drama in a generation, when it isn’t being hailed as the greatest ever.TNG is widely considered (though any number of nerds would dispute this I’m sure) the best of the Star Trek franchise, which is kind of like being the best Yankees team in the history of the Yankees. In the short history of television, both shows are among the best of their genres, and both shows rested on the strong, genre-defining performances of their leading men.

But, other than that, seriously? Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Sopranos? There are lots of series I can watch from beginning to end: The Wire,  Arrested Development, Big Love, Deadwood, Golden Girls. But these two shows are different. They bring you in to unique worlds built around highly defined and regimented moral systems and hierarchies. Both deal with organizations (kinda paramilitary organizations) and hierarchies that define interpersonal relationships. Both have hilarious plasticky talking fish.

Then, when I was watching an episode from Season 4 of The Sopranos, in which Tony eats a bowl of ice cream balanced on his ever-swelling belly, it became a little clearer: Tony Soprano and Jean-Luc Picard are near perfect opposites, the ultimate American anti-hero and hero, the good and bad of America and Western society. Tony Soprano never–ever–controls his appetite. His appetite for women, power, money, attention, food. Every urge he has he indulges, and not only that, he feels entitled to his indulgence.

Fat. Fat!

Anything that keeps him from getting exactly what he wants is a great injustice–when his gomara Valentina La Paz catches on fire making him some eggs and gets third degree burns, Tony moans to his cousin: “Why does this shit always happen to me?” In the rare instances where he can’t have exactly what he wants, he perceives a great injustice; and he excuses whatever method he uses to get what he wants by insisting that other people do it, too. Tony Soprano claims he loves people, but he doesn’t, except maybe superficially. He claims he “loves his family” but avoids spending time with them by whiling away the hours at casinos, at strip clubs, with mistresses and prostitutes. He cheats on his wife and nearly destroys his family. Almost all of his friendships are phony, and his few real friendships he takes for granted. He sells out his old neighborhood. He hates homosexuals, people of color, and most of all women. He dashes to defend his daughter’s honor while co-owning a strip club that pimps out girls her exact age, dramatized painfully in the seminal episode “University”, in which Ralphie Cifaretto punches a girl to death. He protects his friend Artie while simultaneously leading another old friend down a path of personal destruction through compulsive gambling. He projects what little real love he has onto animals to avoid feeling like a complete monster. He is willfully ignorant, rude, and proud of being closed minded. Tony sums up his attitude best: “Guess what pity produces in the recipient? They shit on your pity.” While in some fleeting ways his character is lovable, by any real moral measure he’s about as low as a person can get. A toxic person who destroys the lives of everybody he comes in contact with. A perfect anti-hero.

Jean Luc-Picard is an impossible hero. A supremely capable captain who pursues cultural and intellectual betterment while, every single day, controlling his baser instincts–personal feelings for others that would hinder his judgment; romantic love for women that would be inappropriate; feelings of revenge and hatred for his enemies or former persecutors; instinctual feelings of fear of or hatred of outsiders. He’s physically fit, sober, congenial with his underlings without fraternizing with them, impossibly confident but not arrogant, and he looks good bald. Commander Riker may have been cast to be the lady’s man, but Picard ends up the sex symbol–not just that, but also a warm father figure. Picard is the best of men–Tony Soprano is the worst.

Tony Soprano is a character you “love” without liking. You cheer for him, when you do cheer for him, because ultimately his conflicts are rarely good versus evil: it’s evil versus evil, and you may as well go for who you know. The Sopranos was also the first show that had characters regularly lie to each other, and lie well, without consequences immediate or long-term. It was also the first show to use boredom as a theme. Time and again on that show, Tony and other characters–mostly Christopher–are shown zoning out in front of the television, wandering through a shopping mall, plodding through interminable discussions about food or The Godfather. In Star Fleet, there isn’t a moment for boredom. It literally isn’t possible: the Holodeck is specifically designed to make sure that Star Fleet officers are constantly engaging their minds or bodies to improve themselves or pursue their hobbies.

Tony Soprano, like Picard, was an unconventional sex symbol. Pure id, fearsome, boyish, powerful. Tony is at one end, Picard at the other: both unattainable by the average man. We can neither be as progressive, moral, understanding, and brave as Picard nor as ruthless and self-indulgent as Tony.

Yakov Smirnoff
Nor can we be as hilarious as this man.

How they deal with the oppressiveness of the every day makes the contrast stark: Picard runs from the average, every day life by devoting himself completely to the Enterprise and Star Fleet, at the expense of his one true love: a story brought home to us in “We’ll Always Have Paris” when we learn what Picard left behind–and why. Tony escapes the boredom of the day-to-day, too, but his devotion is only to himself; his “oath” to the mob little more than the best way to make sure his appetites are always sated. “‘This thing of ours’? What a joke,” says Big Pussy Bompensiero in one scene grousing about Tony’s selfishness, “More like ‘this thing of mine.'”

Like all great writing, both shows could be enjoyed on various levels. Lots of people did watch The Sopranos and idolized Tony’s lifestyle of violence, exploitation, consequence free philandering. And the bulk of TNG fans tuned it to watch the crew outwit and outfight the Romulans or the Borg. Neither show strayed too far into the sort of over-clever preachiness that plagues, for example, The Wire or Battlestar Galactica. The writers of both shows created–or in the case of TNG, sustained–a world that had its own logic. David Chase’s America devotes its energy to consumption at the expense of progress, while it consumes and consumes. Gene Roddenberry’s Federation of Planets eschews consumption for its own sake in favor of progress. Tony leaves therapy–essentially ending the series–after being unable to resist tearing a recipe for steak out of one of Dr. Melfi’s waiting room magazines. Jean-Luc Picard kicks off the series by ordering the crew, “Now, let’s see what’s out there.”

We get it, he’s awesome.

TNG traverses the universe, while The Sopranos is maddeningly, claustrophobically confined to about 150 square miles, and that includes a couple New York’s boroughs. Carmela Soprano loses sleep imagining her daughter going somewhere as alien and threatening as Berkley for school; Beverley Crusher brings her son Wesley along on adventures across the galaxy. Few shows present as encouraging a picture of human solidarity and improvement as TNG. By the end of the series, The Sopranos had cemented an understanding of human nature so dark and pessimistic that many viewers began complaining that the show had become too depressing to watch. Neither show presents the whole picture, but rather explores elements of the human condition to their extremes.

It’s pessimism and optimism. David Chase, The Sopranos creator, said in an interview that alternate titles of the show could have been Poor You or No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. His point was that these characters were generally selfish, unhappy people who saw the world in a very dog-eat-dog way. They were purely self-interested, indifferent to empathy, hostile to pity, and, most of all, set in their ways–capable of only small, incremental bits of change. As Chris Moltisanti says in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”, “Where’s my arc, Paulie?” The characters that populate the world of The Sopranos don’t have real arcs. They don’t “start down here” and “end up here.” Life is boredom punctuated by turbulence, trips to the hospital and the graveyard, and fleeting pleasures. Tony and the rest of the characters saltate along, weighed down by boredom.

As mentioned earlier, at the end of “Encounter at Far Point”, Jean-Luc Picard leans towards the viewscreen and with that look of childish wonder says, “Let’s see what’s out there!”

Tony, on the other hand, laments to his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi: “You watch a movie. You lift some weights. It’s all just a series of distractions until you die.” Invited to spend a weekend at a lakefront cabin paradise, Tony shrugs it off: “I don’t know. Sit around. Chew the fat.” Where Picard is the quintessential hero because of his fearlessness in service to curiosity and wonder, Tony and his crew consume in part because they see life as a burden. After turncoat Eugene Pontecorvo hangs himself in “Members Only”, Christopher turns his nose up: “Look at this mutt. Who wouldn’t like to take the easy way out?” Another episode, “The Ride” is an impossibly gloomy take on life itself. The characters attend the festival of St. Elzear d’Ariano di Puglia, gorge themselves on zeppoles, watch cannoli eating contests, hop on and off rides; Christopher is unable to resist the urge to get back in the needle and spends much of the episode wandering the peripheries of the festival stoned out of his mind, hanging out with a stray dog.

Contrast that with the inherently selfless world of Star Fleet. Tony’s entering of therapy creates a constant theme: can Tony become good? TNG however consistently teases us with: will the crew turn bad? Will Riker succumb to the lure of the Q continuum’s powers? Will Data’s lust for humanity move him to team with his evil twin brother (okay, that was the geekiest goddamn sentence I’ve ever written)? We would often rather see Star Fleet fail its mission than abandon its moral principles: not just the written rules, like the Prime Directive, but the code of selflessness and sacrifice and solidarity that motivates these characters. When they flirt with corruption are the moments of deep anxiety–like when Riker’s philandering brings an addictive though nonsensical video game onto the ship. No moment of TNG is more shocking than seeing Captain Picard turn to the viewscreen, transformed into Locutus of Borg.

Speaking of the Borg…

…”You will be assimilated.”

Tony Soprano is the Borg. As his “friend” Davey Scatino says: “You have no idea what ‘dead eyes’ means until you’ve faced these people in your fucking bathrobe and flip-flops”. He is the unstoppable force of consumption, unfeeling and self-concerned. People exist to be used. Fairness is irrelevant. Freedom is irrelevant. You will be assimilated. You will be incorporated into the Borg, or you will be destroyed.

Thanks for helping me through rehab and writing my screenplay.

Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano shows us the purely distilled human condition: consuming, selfish, locked in personal experience and neuroses, a bundle of appetites with no prospect of satiety. Stewart’s Picard makes us believe we can overcome it and get to a time when we can fit into a skin-tight body suit in our fifties and smile and strive to see what’s out there.


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