Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why professors in English should be happy about The Sopranos

We should be happy about The Sopranos.

I don't mean just The Sopranos, although that's been the focus of a media frenzy for the past few days. I mean any well-written television program that inspires the kind of response that viewers have had to shows recently--Buffy and the rest of Joss Whedon's creations, or maybe Lost (which I haven't seen) and some others.

As I read the media frenzy (which was excellent procrastination fodder, by the way), I came across the following items:

  • The HBO site actually crashed after The Sopranos aired because people were trying to get to it, presumably to enter their opinions (which are about 60/40 opposed to the ending, from what I've read).
  • The New York Times and other major papers covered the ending. Even NPR, which usually acts as if it has never heard of television and is above all that crass, plebian interest in the visual, weighed in.

    What I'm seeing, though, as a person who teaches about interpreting texts is . . . a huge interest in interpreting texts.

    Everyone has an idea about the ending (see some theories at the New York Times, and everyone passionately wants to share those interpretations. Isn't that what we dream about as classroom teachers?

    On interactive boards, people talked about symbolism and the meaning of the number three. They evoked Dante's Inferno to explain what David Chase was up to this season. They explored imagery, the length of shots, and point of view. They brought up allusions to literature, to the Bible, to music, to Italian legends about cats, and to previous episodes in the series. Every glance and gesture had meaning, and determining that meaning became the order of the day.

    And, when some people got too far off base, others would correct them: "Where's the evidence for that?" Do you hear that? That's the sound of "Where's your support for that in the text?" When someone posted a particularly analytical or insightful comment, others praised it. Those with a greater range of allusions chimed in with the information and were thanked.

    Finally, the final episode made these interpreters of texts deal with uncertainty. Multiple interpretations, undecidability, fragmentary glimpses of an ultimately elusive meaning, the wish to posit an author/authority function that frustratingly won't respond--hmm, have any classroom instructors dealt with that in modernist/postmodernist works before?

    I don't say that we have to teach The Sopranos, though there are a lot of critical essays on this and on Buffy already. What we ought to take away from this, though, is that there is a hunger for interpreting texts, if it's the right text and the motivation is there. Supplying those is our job.

    Bardiac said...

    Right! Good call on that. (I don't get whatever channel the show's on, but people sound upset!)

    undine said...

    I feel this way about a lot of current culture: if it encourages people to interpret, discuss, and look things up, isn't that a good thing?

    Anonymous said...

    Vile calumny on NPR! They cover tv plenty, especially at the beginning and ends of tv seasons and during awards show seasons and at least once a week if you include sports. Even more if you include Fresh Air.

    Just last week they did a piece on some hard-hitting crime drama with lots of violence about a female inspector while I was on my way to kindergarten (actually had to switch the channel as not quite appropriate for small ears).

    Anonymous said...

    have no idea how I wandered onto this post from 2007, btw...