For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding the ultimate Drama Derby to determine the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years. Each day a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 23. Today's inaugural battle: author Darin Strauss judges The Sopranos vs. Six Feet Under. You can place your own vote on Facebook or tweet your opinion using the #dramaderby hashtag.
The Sopranos was — Christ, you already know what The Sopranos was. The invention of a miracle; the beginning. But exactly what did The Sopranos begin? Well, the new artistry and the new canard-istry — this TV show had the world saying TV shows were Literature 2.0, saying the Great American Novel aired every Sunday, 10 p.m., on premium cable. This was not true. The Sopranos didn’t add up to Gatsby or The Naked and the Dead. Still, it was a colossal, bruising correction of what came before it and maybe even indistinguishable, in a soft light, from the best thing ever.
The naked, and the dead: That was the stuff we Sopranos fans got down to each week. But the show’s distinctly blue material wasn’t (merely) why this mob story became such significant cultural matter. Forget Nielsen ratings. You can name half a dozen bigger hits from the era — e.g., Ally McBeal and The Practice — that have been rudely fizzed away by taste and history. But The Sopranos endures. Forget even that journalist-cheerleaders pretty much pom-pommed The Sopranos to awards-show triumph. No, the reason The Sopranos endures is its mastermind David Chase, and his new approach to serial television.
Chase had a big idea. Now it seems obvious: A TV season could imitate the structural integrity of a novel (with weekly installments stacked against one another like chapters, instead of assembled willy-nilly as isolated episodes). Earlier dramas — St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks — had, in fact, tried less ambitiously to do similar prime-time stuff. But Chase was the first to manage it with real intricacy: Maybe it was his being on HBO that saved him from MSTA (Midseason Termination Anxiety); or that he knew he’d be allowed personally to write the first and last chapters; or that his show would never be aired out of order. Whatever. The upshot was: TV could now do what movies couldn’t — keep really long-form narratives up on their feet, and so offer a credible replication of life.
Think, in the show’s Dr. Melfi sessions, of Tony’s progress, its tortoise's pace. This shattered and remade the expected cadence of television. Remember Carmela’s drip-by-drop considerations of Tony’s mob culpability, and her own? Because such high-subtlety restraint was new to TV, it appeared (to some) as new to storytelling itself. In season three, this is how Tony’s lover reacted to his having one of his goons break off their affair: She hanged herself. Tony’s response: He blamed Dr. Melfi for being a bad doctor. What made this great, and fresh? It’s called irony, Sherlock.
All good dramas that followed (if I may shrink the TV Guide into one inclusive statement) attempted to draw their worlds in more shades, making use of all the newly available crayons. Six Feet Under was the first quality series to emerge from the tide of post-Sopranos programming.
Six Feet was even bleaker than The Sopranos. (Showrunner Alan Ball has said HBO’s notes on Six Feet’s first-pass script included: “Could you just make it just a little more fucked up?") As a result, and at its best, this show about a funeral parlor made a serious effort to deal seriously with death and the way death cracks people’s lives.
It helped that Ball was a real athlete of long-form storytelling. With Brenda and Nate, with David and Keith, even with Rico and Vanessa, we are shown, in a pretty good approximation of real time, the thorns and the comforts of persevering through a long relationship. And the last episode! The story leapt ahead riskily to the future, showing us exactly how all the characters would die — a thrilling justification of the bluntness with which Six Feet always returned to its one persistent subject. If the hopscotch technique borrowed from the 50-year-old Muriel Spark novels The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Momento Mori, it still made for a sad acknowledgement of all SFU had managed to say about the morbid unsayable.
And yet. SFU is a more self-conscious project than The Sopranos; a few of Ball’s cleverer gambits seem like the raised hand of a gifted but overeager student. Ball gave us sex addiction, “anger-management” issues, panic attacks, teenage drug use, the first televised depiction of gay marriage, and more contempo touches. Any one of these would be interesting; together, they got the show feeling a little à la mode, a little hip for hipness’s sake. It was a bathos feast so persuasively stylized that at first one failed to see what exactly had been forked onto one’s plate. Six Feet Under may have set the new soap-opera standard, but it was still a soap opera.
Sure, it was often great soap opera. But that HBO production note — “more fucked up” — is the problem. It’s been a complaint of critics forever that TV writing needed more hints of darkness, more dimension. But now we've gotten to a place where all the effort of the writing is now simply to give those hints, that dimension. But dimension is all we have. At their worst, Ball’s sleek, flamboyant story lines give us people with shadows but no recognizable surfaces.
For all its brute dramatics, for all its exploded spatter-baggies of effects blood, there was something different about The Sopranos. If only for the way it depicted nuances of rank — nuances that allow people to see which rung they hold on the human ladder — The Sopranos is a steely little masterpiece, and almost Tolstoyan. See, now I’m doing it too.
Winner: The Sopranos.
Reader Winner as determined on Vulture's Facebook page: Six Feet Under
Darin Strauss has written four books, including Chang & Eng and, most recently, the National Book Critic Circle Award–winning Half a Life.