DID YOU READ

The Naughts: The Television Show of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Television Show of the ’00s (photo)

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“It’s not TV, it’s HBO” goes the tagline, and in the ’00s, TV was “The Sopranos,” a series that not only defined a channel but, more fundamentally, a decade’s worth of living-room drama.

When David Chase’s series about the titular New Jersey crime family debuted in 1999, it came equipped with a conceit that seemed, dare I say, a tad too cute — a mob boss balancing his two “families,” and buckling under the stress of it all? Yet cute was something the program almost never wound up flirting with, instead carving out a position as both a key member of America’s controversial modern gangster-fiction canon alongside “The Godfather,” “Scarface” and “Goodfellas,” as well as the prime example of the small-screen’s potential to be an artistic venue equal to that of the cinema.

Ten years ago, no self-respecting critic would have made such a case, but bada bing, at the close of this decade, “The Sopranos”‘ influence is now so clear, and so monumental, that it can lay claim to having spearheaded an entire medium’s golden age.

This isn’t to claim that “The Sopranos” is the best show of the decade; in my humble opinion, David Simon’s “The Wire” definitively owns that title. But Chase’s mob show is unquestionably the one that set us down our current bountiful path, proving from the outset — when it garnered record pay-cable ratings, which further skyrocketed in later seasons — that marrying film-quality writing, acting and directing with serialized storytelling that allowed for truly in-depth characterizations and plotting was a recipe for immense critical and popular success.

12032009_Sopranos2.jpgFar removed from the ’80s soapy serials (“Falcon Crest,” anyone? I thought not), “The Sopranos” was an epic fiction unfolding slowly and in immense detail, affording a level of engagement, of immersion in its settings and protagonist’s headspace (with Tony Soprano’s noggin serving as one of TV’s all-time great epicenters of conflict), that many of its cinematic counterparts soon seemed slender and cursory by comparison.

This was exhaustive drama on a grand scale, a long-form novel come to life on Sunday nights. And every show to subsequently employ a continuing storyline, from “Sex and the City” to “Lost” to “Weeds” to “Mad Men,” did so primarily because “The Sopranos” proved that audiences were hungry for (and, thanks to the advent and prevalence of DVRs, capable of keeping up with) alternatives to the “Law & Order” stand-alone formula, not to mention the wealth of sitcoms, that dominated the ’90s.

To spend years getting to know evolving characters in their unique habitats is now a veritable requirement of TV drama, but that wasn’t quite the case until “The Sopranos” began plumbing the deep, dank recesses of its Garden State environment and the nasty, volatile tensions of its mob and domestic family units. Its influence wasn’t just the byproduct of its serial structure; it was also due to its canny use of genre, as the show hooked viewers with a seemingly recognizable mob world and then worked diligently to deliver the basic elements demanded by its fans (murders, double-crosses, criminal schemes) while at the same time not-so-subtly subverting and reinventing its conventions to concoct something fresh and exciting.

“Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Dexter,” “24” and countless others have followed “The Sopranos”‘ lead by embracing bedrock genres and then twisting them into new and daring shapes. In doing so, many of these shows have also attempted to mimic not only “The Sopranos”‘ violence, profanity and all-around raciness, but its heart and soul, Tony Soprano, through their own brooding, dangerous, ultimately conflicted and empathetic anti-heroes. To concoct a compellingly ambiguous protagonist has become the way to launch a show and, more fundamentally, to give a network its identity, with Showtime hitching a ride on the good guy serial killer series “Dexter” and FX positioning itself as the network of The Shield’s corrupt cop Vic Mackey. Even HBO has often tried to duplicate “The Sopranos”‘ template with shows highlighted by charismatic baddies, from “Deadwood” and Al Swearengen to “True Blood” and Vampire Bill. One might argue that none of these offspring live up to their spiritual mob paterfamilias — and I’d say that only “The Wire” and its immense cast of morally complex, fundamentally human characters is up to the task — but certainly, doing like Tony, Carmela and the rest of their Jersey clan did has been the prime tactic of many an ’00s showrunner.

1222009_Sopranos3.jpgThat a basic cable net like FX made its name on provocative continuity-heavy dramas (not only “The Shield,” but “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me” and “Damages”), that the most critically beloved show on TV is AMC’s ’50s ad salesman gem “Mad Men,” and that the most buzzworthy show of the past few years is a narratively perplexing, multicharacter sci-fi mystery like ABC’s “Lost,” all goes to show how much “The Sopranos” has affected the current TV landscape. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s incessantly imitated habit of killing off beloved main characters, which has become so de rigueur that showrunners now spend inordinate amounts of time misdirecting audiences away from surprise cast member assassinations.

Nor does it factor in the “Sopranos” finale’s abrupt cut-to-black, a moment of formal and thematic audaciousness that incensed those fans who tuned in primarily for straightforward mob shenanigans, and thrilled those who recognized it to be merely the last of the show’s myriad daring cinematic gestures. Above all else, however, “The Sopranos”‘ enduring legacy is likely that, by proving the viability of bold, boundary-pushing, mature small-screen drama, David Chase’s landmark show has made cable the dominant realm of cutting-edge TV. After a decade of killings, it seems that Tony’s greatest whack may have been perpetrated on network television’s creative supremacy.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.