Six Damn Fine Degrees #61: Tony “Scheherazade” Soprano

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I met my now-wife back in the previous millennium. It took a while for things to work out between the two of us – anywhere between nine and eleven years, depending on how you measure and what you take as the starting point of a relationship that developed over a fairly long time, and that is still developing and growing. But especially during the first few years, there were a few constants. From the first, we went to the cinema with each other a lot. And early on, we would start watching TV series together – and once you start with a TV series with someone else, you can’t just go off and watch it on your own, because that would be simply uncivilised. Over the years we’ve watched so many series together: great ones, good ones, a fair few mediocre ones and even a couple of series that were plain bad. (I’m looking at you, Hunted and Intruders!) From Battlestar Galactica to Veronica Mars, from Ultraviolet to Lost, from House of Cards (the BBC original) to Edge of Darkness (also the BBC original).

But somehow, I would say that our origin story, our relationship as first friends and then more than friends as facilitated by television, really began with a mobster who went to see a psychiatrist.

Watching a TV series is already a bit like a relationship. There’s a first encounter, and you may immediately take a like or a dislike to them – or perhaps you sense that there’s something there that you could come to like. You may choose to spend more time with that series, you get to know it over a couple of evenings. Was your initial reaction indicative of how you’d feel after the first few episodes? Do you look forward to watching the next episode? Can you wait, or do you want to binge an entire season all at once? And then series change over time, or you change. You can sour on a series yet continue watching it – because giving up on a series before it’s over can feel oddly like a break-up, a betrayal both of the series and of how you used to feel about it.

All of this is subtly different if you’re watching a series with someone else, especially if you’re interested in that someone. You’re interested in the series, in its characters and in what happens next – but the shared experience changes everything. And it creates an occasion for a next time: you want to know what happens next, both on screen and off. There is no clearer signal that you aren’t interested than a casual “Oh, yeah, I ended up watching the second episode the next day. I can lend you the DVD if you like.”

I’m sure that The Sopranos wasn’t the first series I began watching with Lucy, but it’s the first I remember becoming a regular, longer-term thing. We did go to the cinema together frequently (our first film together was Fargo, which I’d call a good start), but it wasn’t the same kind of commitment. We both wanted to know what would happen to Tony Soprano. Would he manage to keep control of his crew? Would he be taken care off (you know what I mean) by a rivaling family or by people much closer to him, or would he live another day, possibly to die of ? Would Dr Melfi’s therapy make any difference? Was the New Jersey mob boss redeemable?

Obviously The Sopranos is not exactly a romantic series, and Tony Soprano doesn’t make for an obvious Scheherazade, but it’s the same mechanism: you end your story before it’s finished, therefore making sure that whoever you’re telling the story to wants to come back to hear how it continues. The Sopranos isn’t the most cliffhanger-heavy series, but there’s plenty to engage you from the beginning: the writing, the clever use of the clichés of mob stories, and obviously James Gandolfini himself, making Tony Soprano a masterpiece of ambiguous characterisation, as charismatic as he is despicable, without buying into the quasi-nobility of something like The Godfather (though it’s clear why Coppola’s classic would be much beloved by Tony and his crew).

The Sopranos has long since ended (let’s talk about The Many Saints of Newark some other time), and sadly, James Gandolfini is no longer with us. But when the series began Lucy and I were ‘just’ friends and when it ended we were still friends but also more than that. And watching series together has been baked into our relationship, even more so than watching movies. We watch an episode of a series over most lunches and dinners, we sing along to the title tunes (if they lend themselves to being sung along – one of several reasons why The Mandalorian trumps The Book of Boba Fett). We make fun of series that aren’t particularly good but that still make for an enjoyable hour of rest, relaxation and snark after a day at the office, ad-libbing along to particularly bad scenes. And part of me feels grateful to an endlessly watchable sociopath (“Always with the psychobabble!”), for doing his part almost from the first that our relationship was To Be Continued.

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