Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
When The Sopranos aired, people kept telling me how “marvelous” and “great” this show was. I started it recently, but I gave up in the middle of season two. I just don’t get it. There is the mafia leader, he is fat and rich, he deals with business and beats up some punks, he has delusions and sees a shrink. It’s just okay. For me, the brilliance about my favorite shows is the subtlety — you lie in your bed thinking about them over and over again, and they make you think about people, about men and women, about who you are. For The Sopranos, I feel like it’s just kind of a good story. Am I missing something? —Shane
Shane, you’re missing something. You’re missing out on one of the most influential shows of our time. There’s a lot about The Sopranos I don’t love — they stopped knowing what to do with Meadow, AJ was always a black hole of plot, and the whole arc with Christopher trying to make a movie seemed like a weird fit — but there’s a lot of subtlety in the series, and if its lack of nuance is what you don’t like, I think we’re watching different shows.
Look for how different Tony is when he’s alone. There’s an exhaustion to Tony, but he usually can’t show it, not to the people who work for him, and not to his family. Not even to Dr. Melfi, really. But when we see him driving, say, or in a moment of repose, we see him carry himself a little differently. (James Gandolfini: The guy could act.) Mad Men is about the performance of self when we’ve picked that self: Don chose who he is, as did Peggy, as did Joan, all for better or worse. The Sopranos is about the performance of self when we haven’t picked what we are. Tony doesn’t really want to be “Tony” very often. Carmela sometimes can’t tell who “Carmela” is supposed to be. Christopher and Adriana both start out feeling like their identities are whole, but as the show goes on, those identities fracture in significant ways. It’s why characters like Junior are so obsessed with image, with people knowing things or not knowing things about them, because who you are doesn’t matter, whereas who you seem to be truly does. (This cuts both ways; Tony really is a murderer, but he can also seem like a regular suburban dad.) If that doesn’t make you think about what it means to be (“be”) a person, again, I think we’re watching different shows.
If you don’t like The Sopranos, you don’t like The Sopranos. I can’t make you. It’s a show I revere more than one I actually find joy in — it’s a superb show, but when I rewatch it, it’s for work, not pleasure — but it’s also up there with Twin Peaks as a show you really should give a solid try.
Can you help with a list of the best shows to watch while doing other things (i.e., writing holiday cards, etc.)? —@Elizabeth Angell
This is the perfect way to watch The Affair, which seems really good but is actually not very good at all. Showtime’s murky domestic drama is told in split narratives, from the points of view of a mopey Brooklyn dad (Dominic West) and a pouty Montauk lady (Ruth Wilson) who have an affair with each other. I like the look and style of the show, all real-estate porn and ominous ocean vistas, but I find that most of the story is underwhelming. The whole hook of the show is the separate POVs, and I know I’m supposed to derive great meaning from the differences between the two characters’ stories, but I just do not. “Two kinda-sexy liars tell some lies.” Cool, I get it. It’s not quite interesting or surprising enough to warrant actual attention, and every time I decide, “I’m gonna really focus on this episode!” I find myself googling “Champagne sippers” instead, or looking up other teen actresses whom I think portray petulance well. I think about dream projects for Maura Tierney (who plays West’s wife) and Joshua Jackson (who plays Wilson’s husband) and how they could kind of play sister and brother, and maybe a wizard can make them a new family drama because Maura Tierney had to drop out of Parenthood because she was busy beating cancer. Maybe the wizard who writes her a show will start that journey by bringing me a cake later? It’s unrelated to the show, but hey, free cake.
That’s why just kinda-sorta watching it is a better deal. Most of the important scenes involve shouting, screaming, very loud crying, or noisy (but very sad) sex, so your attention will naturally be drawn to major plot moments while the lesser parts of the show fade into the background. All the whining and the “I’m so tired of living on this horse ranch in Montauk!” crap just kind of turns into white noise, like it should.
Can you suggest other foreign-language series or miniseries, especially titles that are not from English-speaking countries? (No disrespect to British TV’s The Fall, Happy Valley, and Broadchurch, all of which I loved, but we’ve heard much about these series already.) In fact, if your non-U.S. TV recommendations included titles from a few non-European countries, that would be even more wonderful. Regardless, I’m eager to find engrossing television anywhere in the world, and I don’t think subtitles should be a barrier to that enjoyment.
Going forward, I’m curious to know where to find the best foreign-language television each year. I’ve looked through past International Emmy nominations and Peabody Award winners for ideas. Are there other resources to consult? —Shirleen
You want Israeli shows. Over the summer I scarfed down all of the Israeli series Srugim (seasons one and two on Hulu), a show set among ultraobservant young people who are looking for love and excitement and hard-core religious practice. I was completely riveted by this show, and it’s exactly the kind of human-scale, emotional-stakes drama I wish I saw more of. No murder, no rape, no cops, no criminal conspiracies, no government secrets, no vampires, no superheroes. Come to Mama. One of the most gripping scenes in the show is about turning off the lightbulb in the refrigerator for Shabbat, and everyone takes him or herself extremely seriously. I was dazzled. If you want a jazzier Israeli show, the original Homeland, Hatufim, is terrific — and substantially different from the American adaptation, so don’t feel like you’re rewatching something. There are tons of Israeli shows that aren’t released with American subtitles, but a little noodling around and you can often find illegal work-arounds. If you’re down for that, try The Gordin Cell, an intense spy thriller reminiscent of The Americans. You can also buy a region-free DVD player and find several Israeli shows on DVD that are right now only available as Region 2.
Hulu has a ton of Korean and Chinese series, and lots of Spanish-language shows, too (Isabel is a decent higher-end drama). I know you asked for non-English-language shows, but I think you skipped over two anglophone countries with terrific TV offerings: Australia and Canada. I’m still reeling from watching prison drama Wentworth, and I also dug the neighborhood-set drama The Slap, about the huge fallout from a parent slapping someone else’s child. (An American remake is on its way.) Canadian drama Blackstone is set among residents of a First Nations reserve, and it’s completely engrossing.
Other than scouring best-of list and award nominations, I find new-to-me international shows through performers I like and through GIF sets on Tumblr I find intriguing. Try not to be too jealous of my extremely glamorous, exciting life spent farting around on random Tumblrs.