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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 12:49am | IP Logged | 1 post reply

Okay, let’s do it.


Inspired by this thread—


—I’ve decided, on a complete whim, to watch THE SOPRANOS for the first time. I’d never seen it before. I remember all of the talk about the show, back when it was on. I didn’t have HBO until the show was nearly over, and really only knew of it from the references and parodies floating around popular culture. So, I’m coming in way late on this.

Of course, the show’s reputation is legendary. It’s widely regarded as one of (if not THE) greatest TV dramas of all time, and single-handedly kicked off the so-called “Golden Age” of television that we’re now living in. It broke rules, invented some of its own, and completely changed the game. It also kicked in the door and made room for other popular crime drama/antihero shows like my beloved BREAKING BAD. 

But...I’d never seen it. Not for lack of interest, although Mafia films and TV are a bit outside of my usual wheelhouse. The opportunity just never presented itself. Well, today, I looked in the aforementioned thread, and the discussion of the show’s somewhat infamous non-ending made me want to finally give it a shot. So, I checked on my cable provider’s VoD list, and there it was. Free on Demand. The entire series. And in HD! I’m a bit surprised to learn that the show was originally presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. I was worried that the HD remastering of the show also included revisionist picture cropping to match the look of modern shows. But, no, THE SOPRANOS was apparently ahead of its time in terms of its aspect ratio, too.

I know virtually nothing about the show, aside from the basic premise, some of the principal actors, and the non-ending. I look forward to hearing the thoughts and commentary of youse guys as this thread progresses. Mind you, I’m still working on rewatching STAR TREK- THE NEXT GENERATION, so I won’t be able to give THE SOPRANOS my full attention for a few more weeks, but I’ll sneak in episodes when I can. I was originally going to wait until I finished TNG, but I decided to just jump in, tonight.

That being said...


“THE SOPRANOS” (pilot).


I Get It. Immediately. I understand why the show caught on, back in the day. What I didn’t realize until now is just how funny it is. Like, really witty and clever. Clever character moments, clever juxtapositions for humorous effect, fast and subtle jokes which aren’t spelled out for the audience. The series’ premise has an inherent dark humor to it, naturally—a likable mobster with depression talks to a therapist about his family (and his Family)—but I didn’t realize just how funny it would be. 

Lots of wonderful moments in this pilot, and it provides a great overview of the characters and general thrust of Tony Soprano’s daily life. The cards are also laid on the table rather quickly, in terms of Dr. Melfi clearly knowing who Tony is and what he does for a living, even though she doesn’t come right out and say it. I remember the dynamic between these two being much-discussed during the show’s heyday, and I can see why.

The late James Gandolfini is superb, as are the other principals. Gandolfini brings a disarming charm and likability to Tony Soprano. We immediately see that he’s a complex guy, with complex problems in all areas of his life. His family and his Family lives tend to stay comfortably separate, but still bleed together in certain instances. He’s a guy who longs for the Old Days, when there was a certain code of ethics among mobsters. Despite being a violent criminal and a serial cheater, there’s a strangely naive optimism and childlike vulnerability to him. I totally see why Gandolfini received so much praise, and why the character became an icon of modern popular culture, and I’m chomping at the bit to see more.

I’m impressed with how effortlessly the pilot sets up the characters, the tone of the show, and the world of Tony Soprano. It’s fast, smart, and, as noted, really funny.

And, man, this episode is a real slice of the 90s, isn’t it? CDs, laserdisc players, and “You’ve got mail!”.


Edited by Greg Kirkman on 11 March 2018 at 12:53am
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Marc M. Woolman
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 3:23am | IP Logged | 2 post reply

I'll be following this thread, Greg! I've always found
your discussions of Star Trek to be... Fascinating. :)

Of note: Seasons 1 and 2 are great HBO TV, but the
series hit its stride and a quality level from season
3 on, that is truly amazing. Masterpiece television
that I found shows like the much vaunted Breaking Bad
never achieved, in comparison.

Think: if the first 2 season of Star Trek TNG had
actually been good, but seasons 3 on still took a
quantum leap forward in terms of quality.
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Michael Penn
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 5:21am | IP Logged | 3 post reply

Like Greg, I did not watch "The Sopranos" until recently (just last year). I don't think it was the greatest TV show ever, but it's up there, definitely.

Like Marc, I think that Season 3 is simply great television. Some truly amazing moments then. For me, the peak of the series (and it stays very high in quality toward the end).

Edited by Michael Penn on 11 March 2018 at 5:24am
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John Byrne
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 6:57am | IP Logged | 4 post reply

It's interesting, to me, that some have compared this show with GAME OF THRONES -- not in terms of content, but in terms of how much they enjoyed each.

Both landed with the same dull thud for me. GoT because I find George R.R. Martin's work impenetrable and derivative, and THE SOPRANOS because it came across as a working class GODFATHER pastiche.

(Didn't help that I just did not like James Gandolfino as a performer. From what I have read, he was a great guy in real life, but his characters I found most unappealing.)

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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 11:04am | IP Logged | 5 post reply

Both landed with the same dull thud for me. GoT because I find George R.R. Martin's work impenetrable and derivative, and THE SOPRANOS because it came across as a working class GODFATHER pastiche.

++++++++

That’s a good way to describe what I’ve seen, thus far. There are several references and tips of the hat to THE GODFATHER in the pilot, too. It comes across as a semi-comedic, working-class GODFATHER. New Jersey instead of New York, waste management instead of olive oil imports, etc.
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 11:19am | IP Logged | 6 post reply

Masterpiece television 
that I found shows like the much vaunted Breaking Bad 
never achieved, in comparison.
+++++++

Blasphemy!!!
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Vinny Valenti
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 11:42am | IP Logged | 7 post reply

You will probably quickly notice Tony's change in accent between the pilot and the rest of the series. Gandolfini speaks with his true voice in the pilot, but changes his accent after the show got picked up.

Also, you'll notice how the kids age between episodes. The pilot was shot in the summer of 1997, and the second episode 10 months later - with the show finally premeiring in January 1999. That also gave Gandolfini the opportunity to gain a considerable amount of weight for the role in-between.
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Dave Phelps
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 11:46am | IP Logged | 8 post reply

Just watched the whole thing last year myself (aside from a Season 2(?) episode around the time the series was coming out). I got what they were going for, and I could see why the show was so well loved, but so many of the characters came across as arrogant entitled assholes that it wasn't a particularly pleasant show to watch a lot of the time. (I'm probably in the minority in that I was rooting for the cops...)      

Interesting to see the comments about season 3. To me, the first season was clearly the story they came to tell (heck, compare the last few minutes of the Season 1 finale to the last few minutes of the Season 6 finale), then season two started and there's a bit of "oh, hey, we're still here" that they had to work through.
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Vinny Valenti
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 12:17pm | IP Logged | 9 post reply

"(I'm probably in the minority in that I was rooting for the cops...)"

---

Same here. The problem is, with shows like THE SOPRANOS and DEXTER and their finales, it came off to me as if I was not supposed to be rooting against the title characters. It was because of that in the case of those two shows, I did not revisit the show once it ended, even though I own all of THE SOPRANOS DVDs.

In contrast, I felt that BREAKING BAD still works whether you root for or against Walter White.
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Vinny Valenti
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 12:24pm | IP Logged | 10 post reply

"Interesting to see the comments about season 3. To me, the first season was clearly the story they came to tell"

--

Interestingly enough, I did not start watching the show until Season 3, which was in progress at the time, and did not backfill seasons 1 and 2 until 3 had finished. My perceptions of Carmella and the kids were very skewed at first as a result. During Season 3 itself, it came off as if they didn't know what Tony really does, and that they really thought that he was in "Waste Management". That made me sympathetic to them. But then I saw Seasons 1 and 2 and realized that they are very much aware of what he does and the life of murder that he leads, and I quickly turned against them. I feel like the characters only worked if they were not in on it. But turning a blind eye to theft and murder makes them almost as bad, IMO.
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Marc M. Woolman
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 3:21pm | IP Logged | 11 post reply

The show never tries to make us suddenly
be OK with mobsters and organized crime,
it tries to show us the lifestyle and
beliefs of their "world".
The comedic aspects of the show are great,
and there are episodes throughout the
entire run of the series that have some
great humour.

Edited by Marc M. Woolman on 11 March 2018 at 3:23pm
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 11 March 2018 at 3:43pm | IP Logged | 12 post reply

A good character study doesn’t mean one has to like what the characters do, or even like the characters themselves!
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 12 March 2018 at 12:23am | IP Logged | 13 post reply

“46 Long”.


Yep, the kids are definitely older, and Tony is definitely beefier! Thanks for the heads-up, Vinny. It’s an inevitability that there’s usually a big gap between pilots and series production, but the kids’ aging is particularly notable.

The laughs keep coming, and are very much in line with my own absurdist and macabre sense of humor. The first truck driver asking to be beaten and bound so he won’t lose his job. The accidental death of the second truck driver. Livia running Fanny over, and Tony incredulously asking Dr. Melfi if she’s indicating that Livia subconsciously wanted to “whack” Fanny. Paulie’s righteous indignation over the cultural appropriation of Espresso by non-Italian coffee businesses. The strippers stopping their act to ask Tony if Livia’s in danger from the kitchen fire. AJ’s science teacher discovering the wet paint on “his” car. So many fun little moments and gags.

Meanwhile, we have some interesting character development. It’s very clear that Tony and Livia’s disfunctional relationship is a major cause of his problems, and that her domineering might just a be factor in why he’s de factor leader of the mob rather than acting head. 

We also see that Christopher does have some self-control, and isn’t just a hothead. He may be ambitious, but he’s willing to learn. One interesting dynamic that’s at play here is how each generation is disappointed by the next one. Uncle Junior is disappointed by Tony, and sees him as a potential threat. Tony is disappointed by Christopher, and sees him as a loose cannon who needs to think before he acts.

We’re also still deep into the 90s, with those newfangled DVD players that Christopher and Brendan are so eager to steal!

I also note that each of these first two episodes has featured very small appearances by Drea de Matteo. I’m aware that she comes to prominence in later episodes, but I do wonder if it’s a case of building up a minor character into a major one, or the producers recasting a glorified extra in a bigger role. I could do the research, but sometimes it’s nice to just go with the flow and discover things the old-fashioned way.
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Vinny Valenti
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Posted: 12 March 2018 at 6:38am | IP Logged | 14 post reply

"or the producers recasting a glorified extra in a bigger role."

--

That's exactly what happened. Her hostess role in the pilot was technically unconnected to Adriana, but they liked her performance enough (with just one line, actually!) to bring her back.
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Marc M. Woolman
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Posted: 12 March 2018 at 7:08pm | IP Logged | 15 post reply

The show does take background characters
and bring them to the forefront throughout
its run.
You'll see several background, low-level
mob-guys that are part of a more prominent
character's crew, come to the forefront
and get more lines and scenes after the
"captain" of their crew has been "wacked".
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 13 March 2018 at 12:41am | IP Logged | 16 post reply

“Denial, Anger, Acceptance”.


The plot continues to thicken. No surprise to see Brendan get whacked as retribution for messing with Uncle Junior’s business. Of course, the intercutting of Brendan’s murder, Christopher’s mock murder, and Meadow singing in the choir while on crystal meth(!) is very reminiscent of the famous baptism sequence from THE GODFATHER. Each episode thus far has had at least one GODFATHER reference, which only seems fitting, given the long, long shadow of that film over this particularly sub genre. We also get an interesting look at Christopher and Meadow’s relationship, as she essentially blackmails him into being her drug dealer. 

Tony having to stifle his guilt over torching Artie’s restaurant—which Artie just won’t shut up about—is quite funny. Meanwhile, Carmella’s silent reaction to Charmaine revealing her sexual history with Tony (as revenge for being treated like a servant by Carm) is priceless.

The whole subplot with Tony and the Hasidic Jews is darkly hilarious, especially Tony being called a Golem by Shlomo, and having to leave his mistress in the middle of the night—in bedrobe and slippers—to threaten Ariel with castration so he’ll get a divorce. The thing which intrigues me about Gandolfini’s performance is just how likable he makes this guy. Tony is a sort of lovable lout...who also lies, cheats, steals, and kills. A self-admittedly sad clown who just can’t quite get a break when it comes to friends and family. He’s always trying to cheer people up and smooth things over, but it never quite works. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where things are headed. Jackie will die, surely putting Tony in the position of becoming acting head of the mob, a position which will cause that much more trouble for him. Especially considering that his own mother and uncle are essentially plotting against him. This is like a comedic Mafia soap opera!
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Michael Penn
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Posted: 13 March 2018 at 4:23am | IP Logged | 17 post reply

The thing which intrigues me about Gandolfini’s performance is just how likable he makes this guy.

***

This grows as the series progresses. He's not the only likable mobster either. There are moments of apparently genuine tenderness even from some of the most monstrous characters.

As a young attorney, 25 years ago, I worked for a "mob"-lawyer and I met many people in the Families. They were all colorful, human, funny, replete with amusing apt nicknames and even endearing quirks, just like all the stereotypes we've seen in movies and on TV. They also fundamentally lacked any ability to maintain a moral posture. The instant business was involved, nothing was off-limits. Indeed, even in terms of pleasure, nothing forbidden. Reviewing seemingly endless cartons of FBI surveillance tapes, I was privy to everything, from the mundane to the murderous. One phone call was ordering a pie or one of their kids making a date, and another was -- yes, the stereotype was real -- about "the guy at the place for the thing": after you listen to hundreds of hours of recordings and review thousands of documents, you can break the code. Compared to what these Families were, a movie like THE GODFATHER was a romance. GOODFELLAS was much closer (and even that, compared to what I knew, was too tame!). I think "The Sopranos" made a strong effort to continually shock viewers about liking their characters too much. Likable, likable, likable, and then... SNAP! Sheer insane evil.
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 13 March 2018 at 9:46am | IP Logged | 18 post reply

I think "The Sopranos" made a strong effort to continually shock viewers about liking their characters too much. Likable, likable, likable, and then... SNAP! Sheer insane evil.
+++++++++

Yeah, that sounds right. There have already been hints of it, in the first few episodes. Heck, Dr. Melfi asked Tony in this latest episode if he sees himself as a monster who doesn’t have feelings in the way a normal person does.

I suppose the question comes down to whether or not he (and others like him) is a psychopath, or if he’s just an expert at compartmentalizing. Switching from “home” mode to “business” mode at the snap of a finger.

In terms of Tony’s specific psychology, there’s definitely something wrong. At this stage, at least, he’s more of a people-pleaser than a domineering mobster. Always trying to smooth things over with people in every aspect of his life. The sad clown.
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Petter Myhr Ness
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Posted: 14 March 2018 at 5:16am | IP Logged | 19 post reply

I did a re-watch of the entire series a year ago, after I got the box set on Blu-ray. I absolutely love it, and it's interesting to read your thoughts on the show, Greg, as a first-time viewer. 

There are so many great characters on this show, both big and small, and some whom you love to hate. And there are great performances all around. 
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Paul Greer
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Posted: 14 March 2018 at 9:01am | IP Logged | 20 post reply

3 greatest tv shows of all time.
1.Breaking Bad
2.The Wire
3.The Sopranos

Each held the top stop until the next came
along and knocked the previous down in the
rankings.
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 14 March 2018 at 12:22pm | IP Logged | 21 post reply

THE WIRE might just be next on my list. I saw a new making of/critical commentary book on the series at a store, today.
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Marc M. Woolman
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Posted: 14 March 2018 at 6:24pm | IP Logged | 22 post reply

I think Breaking Bad is highly overrated. It violated
it's own premise.
"American Guy dying of cancer sells drugs to pay his
medical bills." Quickly became: "guy doesn't need to
sell drugs to pay for his medical treatment because
he's a brilliant Chemist who could have his old
prestigious job back which would cover all his medical
costs BUT he'd rather become a drug kingpin despite
having no knowledge of the inner workings of organized
crime and drugs, because....Drama."

The show is really just a testament to how Bryan
Cranston can portray an evil man yet still make him
likeable, nothing more.

The Sopranos doesn't violate its own premise, it
doesn't have non-sensical, this-is-no-longer-plausible
-or-realistic-plot-twists for the sake of having a TV
show, and there several actors who give performances
that easily Rival Bray Cranston's.
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 14 March 2018 at 9:52pm | IP Logged | 23 post reply

I think Breaking Bad is highly overrated. It violated 
it's own premise. 
"American Guy dying of cancer sells drugs to pay his 
medical bills." Quickly became: "guy doesn't need to 
sell drugs to pay for his medical treatment because 
he's a brilliant Chemist who could have his old 
prestigious job back which would cover all his medical 
costs BUT he'd rather become a drug kingpin despite 
having no knowledge of the inner workings of organized 
crime and drugs, because....Drama."
+++++++++

No, no, no. The initial premise of the series was a high-concept hook, designed to stack the odds against Walt and get the audience to sympathize with him, even as he gradually became a monster. The whole point was to show him becoming consumed with ego and a lust for power. The fact that he was deliberately given a Get Out of Jail Free card very early in the series via a job offer (and his cancer treatments paid for, gratis) from his old friend and partner, Elliot Schwartz—and turned it down—was intended to show that there was more going on with him than there initially seemed to be. 

The whole goal of the series was to show an essentially good person turning into a monster, and to see just how long the audience would root for him. Walt is given opportunity after opportunity to quit the drug trade, and he doubles-down every single time. Because he likes it. He develops a skillset, and is turned on by the power and the violence and the excitement of being a criminal. As he admits in the series finale, “I’m doing this for my family” was always a pretense. It was all about him and his ego from the start, and no amount of money or power would ever have been enough. That plotline with the job offer was deliberated added in early during the first season to serve as a red flag for the audience: “Why is Walt turning down a free ride?”. In the second season, we see Walt furiously punch a paper towel dispenser in the hospital after he learns the cancer’s in remission, which caused people to ask: “Why is Walt so angry about beating back the cancer?”.

After that, we slowly got more pieces of the puzzle, in regards to Walt’s backstory and motives, until he finally admitted that it was all about him and his ego and desire for power.

It’s a story about an emasculated man’s fragile ego slowly mutating into bitterness, jealousy, and a desire to be a Real Man and prove himself. To build an empire. To exert power over others, and feel like he’s in control. Walt manipulates and lies to everyone around him. He squanders chance after chance to pull out of the business. And, in the end, he’s utterly destroyed both the family he supposedly went into the drug trade to provide for, as well as countless other lives.

So much subtext, so much craft. It’s a stunningly brilliant character study. And, as much as the show is about the moral degeneration of Walter White, it’s also about the moral awakening of Jesse Pinkman.
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Marc M. Woolman
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Posted: 14 March 2018 at 10:37pm | IP Logged | 24 post reply

You can add in all the "subtext" you want
but when you have fill in the gaps and
make up details the show never provided,
that's just poor storytelling.

The show is world famous for being about a
guy who resorts to crime, to pay for his
bills under the american "for profit"
healthcare system.
Turning it into a portrayal of one man's
decent into evil isn't that compelling
when the guy quickky doesn't fit into the
realistic world of the show.
He goes from regular married man/school
teacher to "super-genius chemist who can
just take over the world of organized
crime and drug trade".
The realism of the show completely
evaporates once it embarks down this path.

Had it stuck to its original premise, a
show about a man who has no choice, he has
to sell drugs so he can receive medical
treatment that woukd bankrupt his family,
he has no easy-outs, and this guy
desecnds into evil,THAT would have been
compelling, but Breaking Bad took the easy
way out, " Walter does this because he's
megalomaniacal villain".

That the show did an about-face on its
premise and went down a cartoonish
nonsensical path, doesnt imbue it with
great depth.

The show only really makes sense as a
complete fabrication of Walter's mind.

That one drug kingpin getting half his
face blown off and quielty walking out
into the hall to turn and look
dramatically at the camera for "his big
death scene" was amateurish junk.

You can make something like that set in
science fictional or Superhero fantastical
world, but not in what's supposed to be
"the real world" that a show like Law &
Order or The Sopranos, operates in.The
only strength of Breaking Bad is Bryan
Cranston.

Edited by Marc M. Woolman on 14 March 2018 at 10:52pm
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Greg Kirkman
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Posted: 15 March 2018 at 12:20am | IP Logged | 25 post reply

I fundamentally disagree with all of that, but to each his own. I’ve rewatched the show in its entirety multiple times, listened to the audio commentaries for every episode, listened to every episode of the BREAKING BAD INSIDER Podcast, consumed many, many interviews with the filmmakers and cast, and read multiple critical analyses of the show. This isn’t a case of me filling in the gaps.

An important stylistic choice of the show was to show all of the “in-between” moments in a life of crime, from corpse disposal to logistical problems of dealing with irrational criminals from a rational viewpoint. Walt and Jesse’s partnership starts out as clumsy and careless. They make plenty of mistakes, and have plenty of setbacks. Walt’s morality erodes very slowly, and we see each decision which leads him down the path from reluctant executioner to willful multiple-murderer. He doesn’t go from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to supervillain overnight. 

The show may have been presented in a very artsy style, and it certainly had a flair for being the over-the-top, at times, but the emotional and psychological dynamics are complex and fascinating, and I think you’re selling them incredibly short. But, again, to each his own.
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