Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Chasing It": Where Good Writers and Directors Go Bad

"The Sopranos" is probably one of my favorite television shows of all-time. The worst episode during the "The Sopranos" run was undoubtedly "Chasing It." That's my opinion of course, but if this were the first episode of the show I watched then I probably would not have watched the rest of the series. It's not that it is bad, plot-wise, but it is bad in that the writing is just so terribly inconsistent, lazy, and completely different from anything other episodes in the series. I remember watching this episode and wondering how I happened to watch a "Sopranos" episode that was so disconnected from the rest of the series. I didn't recognize some of the characters and their motives didn't make sense. Mostly, I am talking about the detour of Tony Soprano into a hardcore gambler, which I feel was contrary to the Tony Soprano we had come to know over the previous/following 80+ episodes. Major spoilers ahead, naturally.

What's even more interesting to me is this episode was directed by Tim Van Patten who has directed every really, really good HBO show at some point (Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Sex and the City---I know...women liked it and the show was well-made, The Wire, The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire) and he helped write the script for my favorite "Sopranos" episode ever, "Pine Barrens." The guy knows how to direct. Then to make matters worse Matthew Weiner wrote this episode. He executive produced, and is the head-writer and show-runner for "Mad Men," a show that is known for being very well-written. He wrote for "The Sopranos" and he's always seemed like an excellent writer to me. Yet, he is responsible for the worst sack-of-shit script in the history of "The Sopranos." How can that be? I can't answer that. What I can do is point out the inconsistencies and why this is the worst episode in the history of the "Sopranos" series.

Some background on this episode for those who don't recall "The Sopranos" episodes by heart, and really, only losers like me probably do. "Chasing It" was the fourth episode of Season 6 Part 2 (the reason this wasn't Season 7 makes sense only to only HBO and possibly some accountants, since I am assuming there was a financial reason of sorts to not call the last nine episodes of the series Season 7 instead of Season 6 Part 2). The previous episode was "Remember When" where Tony realized he hates Paulie, but keeps him around because Paulie showers him with great gifts like a new cappuccino maker. Tony was becoming more and more narcissistic and separated from his captains and the rest of his New Jersey crew. Through the entire previous episode it appears Tony wants to kill Paulie and there are flashbacks and callbacks to previous hits Tony and his crew had performed through the series as if Paulie is destined for death by Tony's hand. Tony doesn't kill Paulie, but Tony is still only out for himself. That's always clear. The turn Tony takes in "Chasing It" still doesn't make sense in the context of this previous episode. Here are my issues with this episode:

1. Tony becomes a degenerate gambler in "Chasing It." Tony has always hated degenerate gamblers and he has never shown that he could somehow have a gambling addiction or problems with money as it relates to gambling. Part of Tony's business is to take advantage of others who need money and then weasel his way into their business by becoming a "partner" in the business and eventually sucking the life out of that business. There is even a storyline in Season 2 where Tony allows a sporting goods owner with a gambling problem play a high-roller game of poker until he is severely in debt (the sporting goods owner is played by Robert Patrick). Then Tony destroys his business, ruins his professional and personal life, and the guy eventually completely moves to the other side of the country. The point is that Tony is a huge hypocrite, but he never showed the propensity for becoming addicted to gambling or chasing after gambling wins during the entire run of the show, except for this episode. Season 4 finds him getting very involved in horse racing, but only because he thinks he is good at picking horses, he wants to fuck with Ralphie's cash flow (if you haven't watched the show I won't explain this because you are probably already really lost), and because he is infatuated with animals. Tony never has a gambling problem before or after "Chasing It."

2. Nancy Sinatra makes a cameo appearance signing a song that (surprise!) just happened to be on the latest CD she was releasing. Her serenading of Phil Leotardo was disturbing in nearly every sense of the word. It felt tacked-on and a cheap way to promote her new CD. This show needs to be better than this. This was worse than David Lee Roth showing up at a poker game or Eric Mangini happening to be eating at the same restaurant as Tony Soprano.

3. Tony wants to use $300,000 of the profit from Carmela's spec house sale to fund a "sure thing" gamble because the kicker for an NFL team is injured and the backup kicker (more on this in a minute) is starting. She denies this request for Tony to use his half of the money and then they later get in a very heated exchange. Wikipedia says they eventually reconcile, but I don't remember it that way exactly. It seems like their reconciliation takes place off screen and I don't remember them actually having a reconciliation. This further speaks to the bizarre nature of this episode in that I don't recall Tony and Carmela ever making up. What's worse is that for a show that is always doing callbacks and different characters are holding anger or grudges over entire seasons, in the very next episode ("Walk Like a Man") Tony and Carmela are perfectly fine with each other. It's like the incredibly heated exchange just never happened and not in the "it never happened" way that Carmela and Tony usually treat events, but like it really never happened. The first time I watched "Chasing It" I felt like I was dreaming and this wasn't the real "Sopranos" episode for the week. I can't explain the feeling. Then in the next episode A.J. started whining more and in the episode after that Tony kills Christopher. It was a rough three weeks for me. This episode was like being drunk and trying to watch "The Sopranos" for the first time. It didn't make sense to me.

4. It's even more telling the worst part of this episode where Tony is given an addiction he has never had before is the description of the sports games Tony is gambling on. At least get the details right, which Matthew Weiner failed to do. So along with making Tony addicted to gambling, about 10 minutes of research went into detailing the type of gambling Tony was participating in. Here are the errors in this episode in regard to gambling and sports:

-An NFL team was starting its backup kicker. NFL teams don't have a backup kicker unless it is the punter. If an NFL team has an injured kicker they will replace that kicker with a free agent kicker during the week between games and most likely not replace the place kicker with the punter. Also, "a rookie kicker?" It's such a lazy bit of writing. Teams don't have backup kickers and starting a rookie kicker wouldn't change the line as much as Tony claims the line changed. Eventually, the game was a blowout, which means the kicker had nothing to do with the team winning or losing, unless he missed seven field goals in the game.

-Anyone who watched Seinfeld knows the Puerto Rican Day Parade takes place during the summer. A.J. was broken up with (very randomly I might add) at this parade, and yet, the NFL games that Tony was betting on took place during the Fall. How long does it take when writing a script to ensure that two events you are portraying in the show take place at the same time as each other? Apparently this research takes longer than Matthew Weiner had to turn this script in.

-To make matters worse, Tony bets on an NBA game (which one I don't recall), which also takes place during the Fall/Winter/Spring months, so the Puerto Rican Day Parade would not take place during these months. A little research is all I ask.

-When they show Buffalo-Tampa Bay playing on television, neither team has even close to the uniform color the teams have in real life. Again, it's small, but when the entire storyline of Tony becoming addicted to gambling revolves around these bets, shouldn't the bets come off as somewhat realistic? It's bad enough the viewer has to accept that Tony has randomly become a gambling addict.

5. Hesh, who is an advisor to Tony and was also an advisor to Tony's father, has a girlfriend apparently. We've never met her, but they appear to really love each other. Naturally, because we just met her she ends up dying at the end of the episode. Tony then pays Hesh back some money he owed Hesh (you know, because Tony is now the one who has to take out loans rather than playing the role of the loan shark that he had played during the entire series run) and isn't sensitive enough to Hesh's girlfriend dying. Tony is a mean person seems to be the lesson. In defense of Tony and the audience, this girlfriend is just thrust upon us all simply to die. She isn't a character but a plot point. So it's hard for the audience, and therefore Tony, to feel great sympathy for Hesh since we never met this girlfriend of his prior to this episode.

6. Then there is the storyline where A.J.'s girlfriend (Blanca) breaks up with him and this begins a downward spiral where he goes from a useless, annoying character in the background to a useless, annoying character in the forefront. The show always played the "surrogate son" role better with Christopher than it played Tony's relationship with his own son. A.J. went from an example of Tony Soprano having to deal with personal bullshit caused by his family to a character the writers often had no clue what to do with. The same thing went for Meadow's character. She would show up randomly and go to the pool or warn Tony and Carmela that A.J. was depressed and then exit stage-left for the rest of the episode. A.J. eventually tried to kill himself after Blanca breaks up with him, but this storyline is a great example of the show not knowing when to get rid of characters who had outlived their usefulness for plotting purposes (Dr. Melfi is another great example).

I read the AV Club for most reviews of television shows and here is a review of this episode that semi-defends it's presence in the television universe. I can't defend this episode's presence since the main premise, Tony's gambling, runs counter (in my mind) to everything we have learned about him. Here's what a generous "B+" review of the show says about "Chasing It." And yes, I am sort of reviewing a review of a television show. And another yes, I usually really like how Todd VanDerWerff reviews television shows. I just think he graded this one incorrectly.

Of the nine episodes that make up the final batch of The Sopranos, “Chasing It” is the only one that I’ve heard even mild criticism for from the show’s fan base. 

These complaints are based on the fact this episode portrays Tony Soprano in a way the series never had portrayed him until point. I'm not even including the whole "waste of our time" component where the show is six episodes from ending and we get an episode that barely moves the main plot ahead.

Indeed, it’s quite a good episode of The Sopranos.

If "good" is defined as "shoddily researched," "poorly plotted," and "takes the main character and changes his personality for one episode-only" then this is definitely a good episode.

The chief criticism of the episode is that Tony would never have gotten involved this deeply in gambling. (Indeed, at one point earlier in the show’s run, he cautions against how gambling can take over your life and make you do stupid things.)

Tony several times cautions against how gambling can take over a person's life. He was prone to hypocrisy, but he was always the loan shark not the other guy taking the loan. That was the entire character of Tony Soprano. He was a shark who ruined people's lives around him and rarely ruined his own life. He would not have gotten this deep into gambling because it goes against his character. In the words of Jason Segel, that's the only argument I need. Tony isn't a degenerate gambler. He makes his money off other degenerate gamblers.

This is a criticism I’ve never bought.

Well, pony up some cash because you gotta buy it. Tony is the one who makes money off gamblers, not the one who gets deep into gambling debt.

The show has so successfully established that at this point, the Tony who survived being shot by Uncle Junior is a rasher, more impulsive Tony that I largely buy his giving in to this particular vice.

True, except for the fact his impulse in the previous episode was to kill Paulie and he didn't act on his impulses. In the very next episode Christopher rails on his own father, Dickie, for being a drunk and drug addict and Tony just lets Christopher criticize his dead father even though Dickie was Tony's hero. Tony loved Dickie Moltisanti and he allows Christopher to call him a druggie and drunk. If Tony were impulsive he wouldn't have let these words stand. In addition, in the same episode Tony sits Christopher down and talks to him about how he needs to stay on top of his crew and stop being frequently absent because people are noticing. There were beefs erupting because Christopher wasn't around enough. Rather than knocking the shit out of Christopher, Tony sits down and talks to him. Tony also doesn't beat the shit out of his son and gives him time to bust out of the funk he is in after Blanca broke up with him. Tony even allows Carmela to convince him that therapy is a good idea for A.J. despite the fact Tony doesn't think much of his own therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi and had a bad experience when Meadow (their daughter) went to therapy during an episode. Meadow's therapist tried to convince her to drop out of college and this pissed Tony off.

So Tony is impulsive and more rash, but he's only more impulsive and more rash when it serves the purposes of the writers. That's part of my problem with "Chasing It" and that's why I never buy Tony would give in to this particular vice of gambling. He's supposedly more impulsive, but he is only impulsive in regard to matters he has always been impulsive on...of which gambling isn't included.

Plus, look at the things he’s wagering: The horse he bets on in the race is named “Meadow’s Gold,” something he considers a lucky omen, even if said horse eventually loses. Tony is betting that he’s built up such a large lead that the universe can never come calling,

While part of this may be true, this one bet isn't what got him in gambling trouble. It was a string of bad gambles that I find outside of his character.

that his survival—and, indeed, his continuing to thrive—is a “sure thing,” as sure as that Chargers quarterback with the hairline fracture in his leg going down.

While I can buy this, Tony has never shown any interest in gambling on football prior to this, other than to find out how much Paulie/Christopher were making per week that could be kicked into his own pocket. Again, gambling was a source of income for Tony, not a vice. It always had been that way until this episode came around.

If those first 12 episodes are about a man who desperately tries to change, who tries to hold off his own worst impulses to become something “better” (whatever that means for Tony Soprano), then these last nine episodes are about how that man, having realized how much less exciting it is to be that responsible adult and to commit himself to his marriage and the prospect of change, cycles into self-destruction.

I perceive these episodes the same way, but it doesn't change the fact Tony's gambling addiction is a one episode addiction. It shows up and disappears in one episode. He isn't cycling into self-destruction, but the writers are randomly assigning him a self-destructive behavior for one episode only and then moving on. A person doesn't cycle into self-destructive gambling and then just magically stop without some major change in attitude or invention, neither of which Tony undergoes.

In that sense, a gambling problem is incredibly appropriate: Tony Soprano is gambling with his life, and he’s building up a bigger and bigger debt to the house. 

It's incredibly not appropriate because it is a temporary cycle of self-destruction motivated by what the writers want and not caused by any character development. I can buy cycles of self-destruction, but the cycles must continue to be believed and not resolved magically in a single episode.

Hesh, more than anyone, understands how deeply Tony could be burying himself with gambling and his lifestyle. (At one point, he rants to his girlfriend, Renata, about the cost of Tony’s boat, which is massive.) Yet Tony doesn’t want to hear it. He’s not interested in the ways he could be dooming himself, not when there’s a great big present to go out and live in.

So where does this Tony that is deeply burying himself in gambling go after this episode? He pays Hesh back and then this deeply indebted Tony disappears and goes back to the Tony Soprano we know from the other 85 episodes.

Throughout, he keeps coming up with new funds, then losing them on bets. What he’s doing here isn’t really addiction, per se, nor is he really desperate to find a way back to solvency. 

So Tony has a gambling problem (as acknowledged above), but not an addiction? I'm sure there is a difference but I fail to understand it. It's still a new Tony Soprano for one episode.

He promised Marie he’d help out where he could, but he bristles at giving her the substantial sum it would cost to go to Maine, both because his gambling losses would make a payout of $100,000 hurt more than usual, and because he just doesn’t care all that much, beyond the theoretical. I really do believe in an earlier season, Tony would have hemmed and hawed and eventually given Marie that money. (Then again, in an earlier season, he wouldn’t have lost so much gambling.)

Because it wasn't in his nature to develop a gambling problem. Tony never had a gambling problem before or after this episode. See the issue? The gambling is just a random character issue the writers lazily threw into one episode. VanDerWerff knows this episode has an inconsistent characterization of Tony Soprano even if he can't admit it. It's such lazy writing on the part of Matthew Weiner.

This is still an okay episode of "The Sopranos" (it's just a great show), but I can't pretend it is well-written or doesn't have major flaws simply because it is probably my favorite show. There's no defending this episode and I have always been surprised critics don't absolutely hate it. I don't hate it (because I love the show), but the characterization and writing is shit. Some would disagree with me I guess.

3 comments:

  1. I also was curious about this episode - until I read this:

    http://masterofsopranos.wordpress.com/

    Give it a whirl. It's a fantastic explanation of most of Season 6 - in particular the end, but I believe Chasing It is discussed in detail. There is a reason for every single detail in every single episode of S6 if you look closely enough. And unfortunately, taking liberties to make sure the real plot points get through is sometimes necessary, as with having the PR Day parade in the fall (but was that even in NY City? Couldn't that have been something in Newark in the fall? I know in certain cities/towns around Boston they sometimes have random parades for Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, etc. seemingly on a whim at any time of year).

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    1. Frank,

      I read that before, but didn't notice much about "Chasing It." I will read it much closer. I do understand it is hard to get small details right and sometimes there has to be some sort of liberties taken. Still, I hate what they did with Tony in this one episode. I will read Masters of Sopranos again and maybe it can explain it better.

      My understanding is the PR parade was in NYC, but I could be wrong.

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