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  • Ethical Uplift, "Not for Nuthin"
  • Charles J. Stivale
The Sopranos by Dana Polan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. 232, 229 illustrations. $74.95 cloth, $21.95 paper.

Dana Polan's The Sopranos— the first volume of Spin Offs in the established Duke University Press series The Console-ing Passions— presents the challenge to readers, and especially to viewers/fans, of how one might read, understand, and interpret a popular media product in the age of corporate marketing strategies and commercial tie-ins and spinoffs. Throughout a two-part study—the first part devoted to "The Sopranos on Screen," the second to "The Sopranos in the Marketplace"—Polan suggests that no nonironic, non-problematized, thus no simple interpretation is possible especially of a series created by writers and producers who deliberately exploited the show's ironic content and shifting cultural status. In the prologue, Polan focuses on the controversial nonending of The Sopranos's final episode as a way to emphasize two main foci of the study: on one hand, series features and motifs (part I) that engendered such fervent audience involvement over a decade and reactions to the nonending, and, on the other hand (in part II), the life of the series after its purported end via new media products, including the web.

Focusing on the apparent narrative inadequacies of the series' nonending, Polan argues that many fans fell into several interpretive traps: most notably, they confused narrative levels—"the fiction versus its fabrication and its narration" (5)—and, by demanding to [End Page 339] know what "happened next," they implicitly denied that Tony Soprano "exists inside a fictional context that has creators behind it" (5). Another trap is that "the show itself had already made clear that no such end would probably be fully satisfying within its framework" (6) by deliberately situating the developing story with references to other, comparable cultural products—for instance, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and The Godfather films—that The Sopranos would evoke, but not imitate. Also, to this strategy of "refusal to satisfy the viewers' easy expectations," Polan connects David Chase's indebtedness to modernist European cinema, yielding an experimental creative thrust, "a practice of popular modernism … blending the comforts of the already known with the challenges of the boldly new" (9). Hence, the audience had been set up by this "work of popular culture deeply invested in irony, but an often playful one caught up in the undoing of each and every certainty [one might] try to formulate about the show" (9). Finally, alongside these complex creative strategies, Polan situates the series' status within the growing corporate mediaverse as a market commodity, as a sociocultural signpost (extending even into the 2004 presidential race), and as an intersection of "not only meaning-fulness and substance, but also [of] hipness, newness and cutting-edge innovation" (15).

The different motifs addressed in the "on screen" section I include narrative strategies (in chapter 2; for example, the mix of stand-alone stories with continuous serial tales, and expansion strategies via backstory, unforeseen interactions, and new characters), the complex role played by food (in chapter 3, linking nutrition to memory and also revealing how the insignificant detail could gain significance through later narrative deployment), and the concomitant role played by forgetfulness (in chapter 4; that is, how plotlines disappeared and also how character development seemed to be undone as a character remained locked into cycles of repetition of familiar behavior). In contrast to this repetitive pattern, in chapter 5, Polan borrows the concept of "late style" from Theodor Adorno and Edward Said to describe The Sopranos as a manifesto of "the sentiment that [artworks] have literally arrived late on the scene of history and that there's nothing affirmative left to be said" (65)—hence, belatedness both biologically (for the individual) and historically (for a society). The overarching thematics of the loss of moral certainty—for example, Tony Soprano's reverence for the lost heroism of Gary Cooper and disdain for the growing culture of victimization—result in a series "peopled with characters who seem out of sync, stuck in a time out of joint" (66). These thematics of loss also [End Page 340] engage issues...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 339-348
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-28
Open Access
No
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