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Idol Chatter

Tony Soprano’s Painful Path to Redemption?

posted by donna freitas

Dedicated “Sopranos” fans were shocked last week by the end of episode, the surprise shooting of Tony Soprano by his Uncle Junior (who’s gone a bit senile in recent years). Last night’s follow-up show focused–of course–on the aftermath of the shooting, as experienced by both Tony, through a series of coma-induced dreams, and as experienced by his family in their intense grief at the possibility of loosing him.

After last season’s downward turn in Tony’s character–when he was forced to live without Carmela’s constant presence and her capacity to keep him at least somewhat grounded despite his criminal tendencies–I can’t help but wonder: Is this shooting the beginning of Tony’s path to redemption? Is his suffering in a hospital bed a painful penance for his sins? Is Tony’s spilling of blood–something that often happens on the show to others but never in any significant way to Tony before now–a kind of Jesus-like giving of his own blood as payment for his past digressions and even those of his captains and heavies?

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Two significant things in last night’s episode raised this question for me. First were the dream sequences Tony experienced. In his dreams, Tony was a regular salesman with no criminal past who’s stuck on a sales trip trying to get back to his perfect-sounding family. In other words, Tony’s fantasy is of being a regular guy, not a mobster who is continually juggling his role as a hardened criminal and dedicated family man. What will happen if he comes out of this coma? Will Tony express the same desire to turn away from mafia life and set himself on a straight and narrow path like in his dreams? Will this near-death experience allow him to finally free that sympathetic, caring man we can all see glimpses of here and there throughout the entire run of “The Sopranos”?

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The second significant moment came from Carmela, whom I’ve always regarded as the moral compass and central religious figure on the show. Carmela recalls, while weeping at Tony’s bedside, when several years earlier, while she and Tony were fighting she told him he was going to hell. Tears fall down her face and onto her husband’s body as he lays there in a coma, and Carmela tells Tony that he’s a good man, that he’s not going to hell, that she is sorry for ever saying that. Are Carmela’s confessions, her forgiveness, and especially her tears a kind of “christening moment” for her husband? A renewed welcoming back into not only her family’s life, but also a baptismal renewal for his life and path in general?

Maybe I’m too optimistic. But maybe there’s hope for Tony yet.

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“Thank You For Smoking”: A Morality Farce?

posted by donna freitas

Within seconds after the opening credits of “Thank You For Smoking“–the new film directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, with an all-star cast including Robert Duvall and William H. Macey–the film’s central character, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a successful pro-tobacco lobbyist, explains in voice over narration: “I front an organization that kills 1,200 people per day.”

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As the film progresses, Nick’s blunt self-awareness and string of self-associations and rationalizations about his job are never-ending. His alliances include membership in a group he refers to as “The M.O.D. Squad”–M.O.D. standing for Merchants of Death–which meets regularly for dinner and drinks. The group has a membership of three, and Nick tosses off the group’s name with a chuckle, as if it’s quaint. Nick’s role is as the “Merchant” representing Big Tobacco, while his two fellow “Merchants” represent the firearms lobby and the alcohol lobby, respectively.

In one of Nick’s stand-out moments, which is touching and reflective (insert sarcasm here), his son asks him about his job and whether or not any average Joe is qualified to be a tobacco lobbyist. Daddy responds to his son’s question with complete sincerity and a straight face: “No. It requires a certain moral flexibility.” “Moral flexibility,” of course, is one way of describing life as the “front man” for a product that kills 1,200 people a day.

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And yet, throughout the film, Nick Naylor somehow retains a kernel of sympathy from the viewer.

How does he do it? Perhaps it’s the father-son relationship that gives Nick’s character its redeeming quality, despite all the moral problems I have with his character and job. His dedication to being the best dad he can possibly be is evident throughout. He approaches fatherhood with all the tenderness, love, and effort one can hope for from a weekend-divorced dad, albeit in a rather offbeat, unusual manner (since most dads are not sincerely trying to instill disturbingly distorted pro-tobacco, lobbyist-tactic moral lessons into their kids). The father-son dimension in this narrative is amazingly well-developed and crafted, making the viewer care and empathize in a way that reminded me of Tony Soprano’s character: He is a man who wants desperately to be a good family man, yet who commits all these reprehensible acts.

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Or maybe it’s simply the comedy factor, since this film offers many laugh-out-loud moments, not least of which includes Nick’s son’s attendance at a school called “St. Euthanasius.” Rob Lowe puts in a few hilarious moments as a ridiculous Hollywood executive who dons a kimono when he’s alone. The humor overall is certainly dark, but not so dark that you feel disturbed leaving the film. Which perhaps is the biggest part of the problem: Nick Naylor as a character manages to charm–even seduce–the audience, with his regular-guy, dedicated-dad persona, in such a way that you almost want to forgive him. You almost want him to win–despite his horrific allegiances. Which means that somehow if you end up with the least bit of sympathy for Nick, you are de facto sympathizing with Big Tobacco and the firearms and alcohol lobbies by default.

It’s amazing what a persuasive character can do. Or is it just that there’s a little redemption in everyone–no matter what they stand for?

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A Little Ethics Before “West Wing” Ends

posted by doug howe

“The West Wing’s” great run is on its last leg, but producers are making a run to the finish, which will include special guest appearances (Jon Bon Jovi’s on next week) and cameos from the show’s former stars. I was also glad to see—at least for one final time—”West Wing” return to its roots of leveraging its political plotline to engage in the kind of moral and ethical dilemmas that should always matter for a spiritual seeker. When Ron Silver’s character Bruno (who advises Alan Alda’s Arnie Vinick in his presidential campaign against Jimmy Smits’s Matt Santos) finds Santos’s briefcase with damaging information inside, he confronts Vinick with the opportunity to take Santos down with the information inside.

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“It will make you President,” he says.

Vinick’s absolute resolve to “give it back immediately” turns into “I don’t wanna know anything about it” to “let’s sleep on it” to “keep it,” as he becomes aware of the secret hidden inside. This, I believe, is the kind of moment that defines the true spirituality of any person: Can we do the right thing, even when it may keep us from achieving an ambition or living a dream? Vinick eventually chooses to give the briefcase back, but there’s still room for the secret to get out.

I’m curious to see what they do with this one, and will tune in for the kind of typically bold writing that often marks a show’s final weeks. And even if it’s lame, I’ll at least get a Bon Jovi song, some reunion cameos, and the memory of a show which often moved past politics to ask the significant questions of life.

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For the Wives, “Big Love” Falls Short on Love & Respect

posted by donna freitas

Now we are beyond the second episode into the premier season of HBO’s new family drama “Big Love“–and I am disgusted. I blogged earlier about my concerns for what looked to be “Big Love’s” attempt to “normalize” a polygamous relationship–and after Episode 2, my fears have been confirmed.

Poor, poor Bill Hendrickson! He’s popping the Viagra to keep up with all three of his wives, who are just dying to bed him as he makes his nightly rounds. And though Barb, Nicki, and Margey bicker and fight over who gets him when and how much, they still submit to what Bill calls “the principle” (polygamy within their breakaway version of Mormon faith) and his God-like rule over the family finances, home life, and sex schedule.

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Whether it’s Carmela’s staying in a seriously problematic home life on “The Sopranos” or the three “Big Love” wives who negotiate whatever power they can grasp, TV’s message about women and religion lately seems to be: Just do the best you can with what you got! Grin, bear, and work with it.

I find that seriously depressing and unsatisfying. While I cringe at times watching Carmela’s sacrifices, Barb, Nicki, and Margey just take the cake on “Big Love.”

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