Type: Narrative Essays
Sample donated: Barry Dixon
Last updated: September 13, 2019
Throughout the Golden Ages of television, there has been one constant – innovation. Quality television usually challenges societal norms, tackles stigmatized topics, or paints the world in a picture that brings a nuanced meaning to artistic expression. As viewers, we often look past these subtleties that filmmakers, directors, and cinematographers spend countless hours perfecting. The phrase “quality television” can produce a myriad of definitions among consumers, who often use television as a way to escape reality and enter another. On the surface, television undoubtedly exists as a form of entertainment, but upon closer analysis, the heart of a story reveals itself. In order to produce relatable and noteworthy content, filmmakers, actors and writers alike employ cinematic tools to pull viewers in and convince them to stick around.
Despite having unequivocal differences, The Sopranos (1999-2007) and House of Cards (2013-present) are two television shows that fall under the umbrella of quality. For reasons of their own, these shows demonstrate carefully curated storylines, skillful character development and authentic portrayals of the world. The Sopranos, however, is superior in terms of overall authenticity and its broader conversation surrounding corruption and the American Dream. The Sopranos, written by David Chase, first aired on HBO in January of 1999 after being turned down by other major networks. James Gandolfini plays the mob boss Tony Soprano, who acts as the show’s complex anti-hero. The storyline follows the trajectory of a classic Greek tragedy, Tony being a strong leader who struggles to be vulnerable while simultaneously justifying his questionable actions. According to Men Behaving Badly on Cable, “Tony Soprano is intelligent or sensitive enough to be aware that there is something wrong in his life even as he is unwilling to do anything to change his situation.
” The pilot episode begins by showing the vulnerable side of Tony – a panic attack. As Tony goes through the MRI machine, Carmella tells him he’s going to hell when he dies. Throughout the series, the audience is provided snippets of Tony’s moral compass through therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, seemingly the only person Tony is ever 100 percent genuine with. Dr. Melfi draws connections between Tony’s cynical mother and a group of baby ducks living in his swimming pool, ultimately resulting in Tony admitting he is depressed. Despite Tony being depicted as a troubled man with good intentions, a continued theme throughout the series is his constant infidelity. The pilot dives right into Tony’s affairs with the scene of Tony and his mistress eating at Vesuvio – a reoccuring setting in the show.
Tony’s childhood friend Artie Bucco covers for Tony later in the episode when he returns with his wife Carmella, greeting them by saying “it’s good to see you” and “you haven’t eaten here in so long.” The women in the show are portrayed as mere housewives who spend their time gossiping, cooking, and spending all of their husbands money. Carmella is painfully aware of Tony’s affairs, but does not even consider leaving him until later in the series due to her religious and cultural beliefs. Even though Tony is clearly unfaithful to Carmella, he possesses traditional morals and family values that are nonexistent in Frank’s character. The Sopranos vast popularity stemmed from the innovation of the classic Italian mob storyline. The audience witnesses Tony grappling with issues such as remorse after having to kill a close friend due to business ventures, and feel empathy. In one scene, Tony could be shown conducting mob business inside his strip club “Bada-Bing” and the next, arguing with his mother Livia over moving into a nursing home.
When it comes down to it, Tony Soprano is a family man. Even his “work family”- who oftentimes are his blood relatives, regularly attend family dinners at Tony’s mansion. The audience is able to see Tony through the lenses of his business, family, and therapy sessions alike, which adds to the complex storyline.In the pilot, Tony confides in Dr.
Melfi that he is stressed over having to teach his nephew Christopher the family business. Later in the pilot, Tony and Christopher are beating someone up, the song “I Wonder Why” by Dion & The Belmonts plays in the background, a typical doo-wop sound that was used in mob movies such as Goodfellas. The audience is shown through flashbacks to Tony’s childhood, how he was born into this line of work, treating business as a transaction is part of his cultural identity. This is further solidified at the end of the pilot when Junior Soprano, former mob boss and Tony’s uncle, propositions Livia to the idea of killing Tony in order to gain his power back. This transaction occurs on the way to Anthony Jr’s birthday party, in order to showcase the normalcy of this conversation within their lifestyle.
In another situation of personal life and business being intertwined, Tony must order one of his men to detonate a bomb in his friend Artie’s restaurant upon hearing that his Uncle Junior had plans to conduct a “hit” inside Vesuvio. Uncle Junior guilts Tony by saying, “How many fucking hours did I spend playing catch with you?” Tony has the internal conflict of betraying his uncle, but ultimately blows up Artie’s restaurant after a failed attempt to convince Junior to move the hit. Tony is aware that Artie’s reputation would be ruined if he was mixed up in Mafia business, thus making the tough decision and keep it secret from Artie. It is precisely this type of two-sided situation that emboldens the anti-hero complex that Tony Soprano encompasses. Perhaps the most telling scene in the pilot occurs at AJ’s birthday party between Christopher and Tony. Christopher confesses that he often considers turning his life around and even writing a script about his experience with the mob. Tony enters a fit of rage, grabs Christopher, and condemns him. This scene is multi-faceted in that, in one sense, Tony is forbidding Christopher to abandon his family business and become an individual with realistic hopes and dreams.
At the same time, Tony is subtly alluding that if Christopher ever released any information and put the family in jeopardy, he risks being killed himself. The Sopranos is filled with convoluted narrative arcs that transformed prime time television and launched HBO back into the spotlight. House of Cards aired as a Netflix Original in 2013, led by A-list actor Kevin Spacey. The lead character, Frank Underwood, is a Congressman in Washington who gets passed over for Secretary of State and spends the duration of the pilot devising a plan to seek revenge. The show is loosely based on the corruption and greed that inundates the political sphere, as well as the hierarchy of power. In the first scene of the pilot, Frank witnesses a neighbor’s dog suffering after being hit by a car. The audience is introduced immediately to his narcissism when he quickly kills the dog, turns to the camera and recites, “There are two kinds of pain, the sort of pain that makes you strong, and useless pain.
I have no patience for useless things.”Similar to The Sopranos based on Greek tragedy, House of Cards leans towards a Shakespearean tragedy. The writer’s use Frank’s arc to tell the overall tale of corruption and lies within politics.
In the pilot, Frank turns to the camera and says “Power is like real estate – the closer to the source, the higher the property value.” Frank differs from Tony in that he is more sophisticated, intelligent and well-spoken. The show uses the tool of “breaking the fourth wall” in order to expose Frank’s private thoughts, much like The Sopranos uses Dr. Melfi’s sessions to show Tony’s vulnerable side. The insight into Frank’s private lifestyle is illuminated in other creative ways. For example, Frank and his wife Claire are attending an opera and the scene abruptly shifts to him playing video games at home. Although there are certain aspects of the show that reveal Frank’s inner dialogue, the audience is mostly placed in the position of the omniscient observer. The writers never delve into Frank’s past or give any indication into his life before politics.
In The Sopranos, the writers allow room for episodes that stray from the linear narrative, but House of Cards tends to show the characters in direct relation to politics. As opposed to The Sopranos, the women in House of Cards are depicted as independent and business-oriented. While Carmella Soprano is a stay-at-home wife, Claire is equally as determined in her career as Frank, running her own company, the clean water initiative, where she is shown giving ruthless orders to cut original employees in order to save money for other business ventures. Unlike Carmella, Claire is shown as a ruthless business type who not only relates more to Frank, but encourages him to gain power by whatever means necessary.
Other women in the show such as eager journalist Zoe Barnes and receptionist Christina Gallagher are less empowered. Zoe is repeatedly shot down by her supervisors to be given more responsibility until she goes above and beyond to get her hands on the new and unreleased bill for education. Early on, the show highlights the relationship between Christina Gallagher and Congressman Peter Russo, who have an “office fling.” Christina is characterized as the needy mistress who is seeking approval, much like the various mistresses Tony has. Later in the pilot, Peter is arrested for a DUI while on a date with another woman. When Christina prompts him if he was alone, he lies and shows no remorse. Unlike The Sopranos, House of Cards portrays Frank as a villain out to seek revenge for selfish purposes, and fails to showcase his vulnerability in the pilot.
In House of Cards, the audience witnesses a small glimmer of his disappointment during a long shot of Frank sitting alone by a fountain, ignoring calls from Claire. The shot is dim and has a bluish tint, indicating sorrow. The entirety of the pilot is shot in a similar fashion, with purposefully low lighting, foreshadowing Frank’s vengeance for being unacknowledged for his political work. The cinematography implements slow-motion matched with daunting classical music during another scene where Frank matches eyes with Michael Kern, the newly elected Secretary of State, further demonstrating his contempt with the verdict and his persistence to seek retribution.
Frank is undoubtedly the main character, but unlike Tony, the plotline diverts into different stories, such as the Washington Herald’s reporting. Although there are undisputed differences between the two shows, there are striking similarities in terms of their anti-hero complex, obsession with power and money, and authentic portrayals of both the Italian mob and the politics in Washington. Each episode is carefully curated to deliver more than the standard 30 minute episode so often applied in television, allowing the episodes to feel like full length films. By the end of both pilots, all main characters are introduced in a clever way in order for development to flow smoothly. Frank and Tony both prioritize business over anything else and will do anything to keep their pride intact. Neither one of them seem fully satisfied with life and clearly have demons they are unwilling to work through.
This machismo complex paired with their constant struggle to keep up appearances sets up the perfect anti-hero. The settings of both shows highlight the lifestyles of powerful men who are ultimately ego driven and can’t accept rejection. Both are heavily influenced by religion and their culture – Italian and Southern – respectively. Frank and Tony are traditional men, despite their self-inflicted sins. However, The Sopranos is on a higher echelon of quality television drama than House of Cards. The show is innovative in that it humanizes the stereotypical Italian mob boss by prompting analysis on the human condition. In the opening scene, Tony is shown gazing through the legs of a sculpture of a woman in Dr.
Melfi’s office, alluding to his complicated feelings about the women in his life. Tony’s bizarre connection to the ducks in his backyard and various other dreams he relays to Dr. Melfi stem from his inability to connect with the people he is closest to. In a session with Dr. Melfi, Tony expresses, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know.
But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Tony’s quote refers not only to his line of work, but also human existence in general. The Sopranos was created post WWII when the economy and political system were in shambles, which was relatable for American viewers. Tony seemingly has everything he wants, yet battles with existentialism, as we all do.
The pilot successfully and elegantly displays the concept of tragedy as a universal theme under the guise of Tony Soprano.