“[In California], they don’t throw out their garbage; they make it into television shows.”—Alvy Singer, 1977
The 20th Century was the Age of Movies. In a very short time, cinema went from a gimmicky new technology to humanity’s highest art form.
Meanwhile, television was cinema’s popular but mentally slow little brother. The problem with network television is that it has to be simple enough to be understood by the dumbest member of your family and bland enough so that it doesn’t offend the most sensitive member of your family. In other words, 20th Century TV was not great. By design.
In 1999, the entertainment world began to be turned upside down. The Sopranos debuted on HBO.
Sopranos creator/head writer David Chase wasn’t trying to get 40 million average people to like his show; he was trying to get 10 million smart people to love it.
That’s why your favorite TV show is on cable or a streaming service rather than NBC like it used to be years ago.
The new Sopranos movie “The Many Saints of Newark” reminded me of why I loved the television show. And it underscores why 21st Century TV is so much better than movies.
The story begins in 1967. Tony Soprano is an impressionable little boy. And his uncle Dickie Moltisanti is a leader of the DiMeo Crime Family, which runs the Numbers Operation in Newark, NJ.
The movie isn’t about Tony, it’s about Dickie. In his first major starring role, Alessandro Nivola grabs the spotlight and never lets it go.
In the first half hour, Dickie murders his father and begins cheating on his wife with his father’s widow.
Dickie never stops doing horrible, violent things. But we never stop feeling for him. That’s because he is always trying to be a better man. For every crime, there’s a genuine good deed.
This is not a contradiction. Man is sinner and saint. Dickie isn’t more bad than good, but his awful job brings out the worst in him.
Dickie Moltisanti is an amazing, compelling character. It’s a pity that we only got to see him for two hours instead of a few television seasons.
The only other interesting character is Tony Soprano’s miserable mother Livia. Vera Farmiga is unsettingly believable as a combative woman who has no idea how to express love. Disturbingly, she knows exactly how to receive love. She drives people crazy and she feels intense loyalty to the few who put up with it and keep coming back. To us, it is abusive. To her, it is family.
“The Many Saints of Newark” isn’t perfect. David Chase bit off more than he could chew by introducing us to Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr): a former lacky of the DiMeo Crime Family who decides to take the Numbers Operation – and the city itself – away from the Italians.
Harold’s story of black empowerment is extremely important. But it would have been better told as part of a multi-season television series rather than a busy mafia movie.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is pretty darn good. Its greatest virtue and its greatest flaw is the same: it left me wanting so much more. I could have happily watched Dickie Moltisanti for dozens of hours. That’s why a great TV show is always better than a great movie.