James Gandolfini: A Jersey Girl says “Thank You”

So I’m watching The Shining through a magnifying glass, after recently viewing Room 237, when my cell rings. It’s my sister. Of course I pick up. Family is everything. I’m expecting some update about my mom’s car or a status report on Oscar, our beloved beagle (recently prone to seizures), or simply a discussion about upcoming weekend plans.

Were it only that mundane.

“You know that James Gandolfini died.”

And she’s joking, right?

How many nights did we spend watching and rewatching Sopranos’ episodes in awe of what was happening on our screens? I mean, we’re Jersey Girls, and we’ve been peripherally associated with variations on Tony Soprano our entire lives. The tough guy. The family man. The proud peacock. The struggling soul. Here was an actor and a character for us. We recognized the swagger, trembled at the threats, and felt simultaneously safe yet awed in the presence. We admired Tony when he flexed his muscles, hated him when he came down on A.J. (the eternal adolescent in all of us), sat slack-jawed when he executed Big Pussy, and cried when his ducks flew away. This representation of so many fathers and grandfathers and cousins touched every chord. The “anti-hero” took center stage. We loved him, laughed with and at him, shook our heads when he tried and failed get back or just get on the right foot, and still always thought him a king in our midst.

And now he’s gone.

I can’t quite describe what I’m feeling. It is in no way like sitting at my grandfather’s casket or walking through the rooms at D’Arienzo’s on Skillman in Brooklyn. But it’s a loss just the same. I’m crying as I write this, but thankful that I, and so many others, had this character. Sometimes I wish that life didn’t imitate art. Gandolfini suddenly cutting to black seems too cruel. But it doesn’t have to end. You don’t have to stop believing.

I’m fortunate to have glorious recordings of my grandfather’s voice, singing his songs. A click can alleviate some of my pain when I miss him terribly. Some, but not all. But tonight, let’s take a moment to revel in another legacy left behind even as we’re stifling our tears. Take pride, Jersey Girls. In the good and the bad and the pride in all of it (you’ll have to go to YouTube after clicking on the first clip, but it’s worth it).

BOARDWALK EMPIRE: A Cast of Thousands

So we are well into Season Two of Boardwalk Empire. I’ve been enjoying it but have not yet had a chance to chime in here. Let’s start with the positives. The season begins with a bang (literally) as Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White engages in a brutal gunfight with members of the KKK’s Atlantic City chapter. While on the surface this is retaliation for Chalky’s carpentry lesson from the first season, it is also just one part of Jimmy Darmody’s (breakout star of the show Michael Pitt) plan to dethrone one time mentor and father figure Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi in a role unlike anything he’s done before) as the King of the Boardwalk. Now allied with his lecherous father (Dabney Coleman’s previously underutilized Commodore) and Nucky’s own jealous brother (Shea Whigham’s bitter Eli), Jimmy is attacking Nucky on all fronts. Neutralizing the uneasy Nucky/Chalky partnership is just the appetizer to the main course: Nucky is facing charges of election fraud for his role in last season’s battle for the mayorship of AC. Our man Nucky is down but not out. A plot to fold his charge into a federal matter, for which Nucky can buy the desired verdict, seems foolproof. But Nucky’s reach in DC is not enough to best one-time friend, now definite enemy, Senator Edge. For a moment we think that Nucky has another card up his sleeve by blackmailing twisted Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon stealing every scene), but the Fed’s new daughter with Nucky’s former mistress Lucy Danziger (a now underutilized Paz de la Huerta) influences Van Alden to turn his case file on Nucky over to US Attorney Esther Randolph (hello, Julianne Nicholson!). Van Alden’s game is still in question (is it possible that he’s playing up to Randolph and her team on Nucky’s behalf?), but Nucky has bigger fish to fry after a foiled assassination attempt. Finally heeding the words of real-life gambler and underworld figure Arnold Rothstein (a cool, controlled Michael Stuhlbarg), Nucky tells Jimmy that he’s throwing in the towel, giving up the boardwalk to focus on his lover (Kelly Macdonald’s tortured Margaret Schroeder) and her young children. Of course, Nucky his just biding is time, preparing to seek IRA assistance with associate Owen Sleater (newcomer Charlie Cox). Undoubtedly, more bloodshed is on the menu.

How many other subplots are in action? Well, there’s Jimmy’s longtime girlfriend and recent wife, Angela (the sorrowful Aleksa Palladino) wanting but not wanting to know about her husband’s illegal activities in between dealing with his manipulative mother, Gillian (the treacherous Gretchen Mol) and, possibly, a growing attraction to Jimmy’s disfigured partner in crime, Richard Harrow (the brilliant Jack Huston). For her part, Gillian finds a way to finally exact a kind of revenge on her rapist, the suddenly incapacitated Commodore. And Richard is battling his desire for a normal domestic life with his loyalty to Jimmy and the impulse to simply end it all (although an almost spiritual encounter with two hobos and a hungry dog seems to have curtailed the latter for the moment). All of this, plus a gorgeous production value unmatched on television, adds up to a rewarding viewing experience. So, you might ask, where’s the but…

Boardwalk Empire’s expansive sets are equally matched by an ever-growing cast of characters. And that’s not always a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes an addition to the cast has unquestioned value to the show as a whole (Huston’s Harrow did not show up until late in Season One, and now it’s almost impossible to envision the show without him). But this season alone has seen the afore-mentioned Owen and Randolph, William Forsythe’s Philadelphia crime boss Manny Horvitz, and Dominic Chianese’s lawyer Leander Whitlock among many, many others. I have nothing against large canvases of characters; any self-respecting daytime drama fan will tell you that’s where half the fun and most of the magic lies. In the HBO universe alone, Boardwalk Empire’s most obvious parent, The Sopranos (Chianese’s old stomping ground), has its share of more mobsters than you can count. And The Wire (where Williams first came to the public’s attention) actually infiltrates every aspect of the Baltimore drug scene to paint a complete picture of that city and, by extension, the world. But there is a difference.

Let’s go back to The Sopranos for a moment. Take a character like Vito Spatafore. Whatever you thought about his eventual arc, and actor Joseph R. Gannascoli’s ability to play it convincingly, Vito is gradually integrated into the landscape. By the time he is involved with Johnny Cakes, the audience was invested. Returning to The Wire, I cite Bunny Colvin. His act of questioning how much good he’s doing as a cop in the second season leads to Season Three’s “Hamsterdam” experiment then a stint working with at-risk youths, and finally to a role as young Namond’s adopted father. In both instances, the shows took the time to let its audiences get to know these people before the drama hit. Now there are exceptions. As Ralphie and Tony B., Joe Pantoliano and Buscemi, respectively, appeared and dominated their Sopranos’ seasons. Seasons Two and Four of The Wire basically reset the stages with new casts of lead characters. But it those instances, there was no question where our focus belonged. I can’t always say that about Boardwalk Empire.

A few episodes back, Empire’s Owen encounters an old enemy from Ireland and promptly murders the man. And I was most relieved. For a moment, my thoughts were “oh God, now I have to get to know this guy, too.” It’s not that I have a problem with new faces appearing on the landscape, but every entrance on Boardwalk Empire is scripted and directed in such a way that you wonder if this man or woman is going to take center stage. And it comes at the expense of established characters. Last week, I could have done without Angela mixing it up on the beach with a liberated female novelist. Where are her scenes with Richard? The Commodore’s stroke gives Gillian an explosive moment of vengeance as she brutally strikes the now helpless man, but I’d rather see the Commodore as opposed to Leander advising Jimmy as he makes his move to take over Atlantic City. This is a show in need of some major balance.

Boardwalk Empire is still on my must-see list (and it’s currently filling the Sunday night void until my beloved Mad Men returns). I almost hesitate to judge this show, or for that matter any TV show, before its current season or the series as a whole is revealed. But this is a viewing experience of highs and lows, and while I welcome the debates after each episode airs, I’d rather discuss what will come next as opposed to what just transpired on my screen.

Snow Day: THE SOPRANOS

To everyone on the East Coast, hope you’re finished digging out of the Blizzard of 2010. I only ventured outside yesterday for a few minutes of shoveling. The rest of time I channel surfed. I caught the second season Sopranos finale, “Funhouse,” on A&E. Now even censored, this is a pretty amazing hour of television. The dream sequences alone, as they always are for Tony and Co., are inspired: Tony stuck on the boardwalk, the little car (not present in this edited broadcast but memory serves), and of course Big Pussy with the fishes. A dream on The Sopranos is a random collection of seemingly profound recollections (as all dreams are). In this case, Tony has to face what he has known for the entire season: his best friend is in bed with the Feds. What’s a wiseguy to do? Even knowing Pussy’s fate and even with all the profanity pathetically dubbed, there is an almost unbearable tension to the scene on the boat as Pussy fights against but then seems to accept his fate complimented by the varying degrees of anguish on the parts of assassins Tony, Paulie, and Silvio. But all these years later (and maybe it was the snow), Tony’s discovery of the wire in Pussy’s bedroom doesn’t quite ring true. One moment Tony’s getting dressed, then he and Silvio are at Pussy’s, and then he discovers the damning evidence in the cigar box. I realize that the dreams were confirming what Tony knew in his gut all along, but a few more beats would’ve been welcome. And not for nothing, but the cigar box on your dresser, Pussy? You flipped out prior to A.J.’s confirmation when Angie caught you shaving your chest, and that’s where you hide the wire? Maybe he thought it was safer nearly in plain sight, likely no one else under his roof sampled stogies. But what if the wire was so easy to find simply to hurry the plot along to the hit at sea? Season Two was winding to a close; lots of quality moments with Richie and Janice intermingled with too many detours into the Scatino bust-out. That’s why Tony uncovers the wire in what feels like 30 seconds. Perhaps he shouldn’t have found the wire at all but simply confronted Pussy based on the images in his dreams. I think the big boy still would’ve cracked and sealed his own fate. In short, we don’t need to see Tony find the wire to get on board, literally and figuratively, with the business on the boat.

Don’t get me wrong; love, love, love The Sopranos. “Funhouse” is an awesome offering, particularly enhanced by the use of The Rolling Stones “Thru and Thru.” And a minor misstep in service of a fabulous climax is nothing compared to an entire “plot” on another show…