By Colin Hart
8.7 / 10
At the end of “Watching Too Much Television,” Tony Soprano beats a half-naked assemblyman with a belt. In the past, a scene like this might’ve played as poignant satire, which is a testament to how The Sopranos often doubles down as both great drama and great comedy. Yet in the despondent reality of season four, the scene is ugly and abhorrent, and it makes us hate our main character more than we ever have before.
Tony has always been a lovable antihero — that’s one of The Sopranos’ greatest contributions to cable TV. However, series creator David Chase has really been pushing the limits of that definition here in season four. In moments such as this, Tony’s been turned into an outright villain.
The same goes for Christopher Moltisanti, who was at one time an affable underdog. Nowadays, he’s nothing more than an abusive fiancé and unrepentant heroin junkie with no redeemable qualities. Such is the nature of Chase’s creation: when you watch too much television, you’ll naturally end up hating television. Apparently, that also applies to writing television.
Unfortunately for The Sopranos’ devoted fans and viewers, this heel-turn toward self-loathing puts us at a crossroads: should we trust Chase’s vision, or is it wrong to change the series’ outlook four years in? The answer is the former, but it’s necessary to understand how we arrived at the latter.
Ever since the beginning, the main outlook of the series has always been one of deep-rooted cynicism. However, the morally reprehensible storylines were always masked by humor and a flair for cinematic experimentation. To counteract the façade, season four has adopted a minimalist aesthetic that cleverly amplifies the extreme pessimism that has always been at The Sopranos’ heart.
For instance, take the famous scene from the pilot episode, in which Tony shows Meadow the old cathedral that his great-grandfather built. It represented a nostalgic look at the past; a towering monument to the old ways now gone. In “Watching Too Much Television,” Tony takes AJ to the same church, but the original message is lost on them both — four years later, the building is now a metaphor for Tony’s fraudulent mortgage scheme.
“Watching Too Much Television” extends the season’s main themes to the political arena, as Tony and Ralph Cifaretto use their connections to Assemblyman Ronald Zellman and Maurice Tiffen, an African American activist, to swindle the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because The Sopranos rarely explains the details of the mob’s get-rich-quick schemes, this episode is particularly noteworthy for its start-to-finish execution of the HUD scam. However, that doesn’t mean the results are particularly memorable.
Even though the installment has a relatively easygoing vibe, it features an unusually large focus on Zellman and Tiffen, who simply aren’t interesting enough to carry a scene by themselves. Likewise, the episode’s depictions of minorities once again fall flat, which has been a recurring issue throughout the series. Leave the scenes involving crackheads and teenage gangbangers to The Wire.
All these non-traditional elements somehow make that aforementioned final scene even more revolting, which I guess is the intended effect. The HUD scam is a success, and Tony didn’t even have to get his hands dirty, but that doesn’t stop him from assaulting Zellman over the fact that he’s now dating Irina. It’s a deliberately off-putting scene that leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths. For the audience, however, it might just be one punishment too many.
In many ways, “Watching Too Much Television” is a success: Chase is getting exactly what he wants out of his viewers. But the viewers aren’t getting exactly what they want out of the series.
- In the episode’s original script, Zellman was to receive his beating from Tony while naked. Actor Peter Riegert didn’t feel comfortable with the scene, and so James Gandolfini stepped in and pushed Chase to change it, which he reluctantly did. Another example of how the real-life Gandolfini was the exact opposite of the character he portrayed onscreen.
- The episode’s title comes from Adriana, who watches an episode of Murder One and gets the idea that spouses aren’t legally obligated to testify against each other. However, she later learns that this isn’t necessarily true. In an unlikely season four development, Adriana is now the series’ most (and only) sympathetic character.
- Paulie Gualtieri is finally released from prison, and the episode begins with a welcome-back party at the Bada Bing. They play his favorite song: “Nancy (with the Laughing Face)” by Frank Sinatra. Paulie’s absence is another reason why the first half of season four has felt somewhat empty.
- The installment bears some similarities with “Do Not Resuscitate.” In both episodes, Tony profits from political schemes that directly affect low-income African Americans. The lesson: everyone is a piece of shit.
- Once again, Chris drives while high on heroin, nearly blowing a stop sign. It isn’t the first time that a similar sequence from the series’ final episodes has been subtly foreshadowed.
- Carmela’s cousin, Brian, was first introduced as the family’s financial advisor. However, Tony’s toxic influence has introduced him to a life of white-collar crime. He’s the one who teaches Tony and Ralph how to pull off the HUD scam.
- “Watching Too Much Television” was written by Terence Winter, Nick Santora, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess and series creator David Chase, and directed by John Patterson.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “Buy land. ‘Cause God isn’t making any more of it.”
- “Do you blow your father with that mouth?”
- “Well, in the future, I’ll ask that you extend to me the same courtesy you would a crack addict.”
- “Here’s something I never thought I’d say: to the federal government!”