Who Killed Dale Cooper?

July 11, 2008

During my childhood, I resolved early that I would grow up to be completely insane. Partly this was free will, but a small part of me believes it was predestination. Exhibit A in this was the fact that I electively watched Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks, for those that choose not to remember, was a completely ridiculous show created by the completely ridiculous David Lynch, who has fashioned a fairly notable career out of making movies that make no sense whatsoever. While he had some mainstream success with Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man, he was also at the helm for the ill-fated Dune and managed to cement his reputation as being batshit crazy in an industry known for its remarkably high tolerance for batshit craziness.

Unable to carve out funding for Hollywood projects, he tilted the scope downward, and Twin Peaks was born on network television. It was conceived as equal parts mystery, science fiction, serial drama (read: soap opera), and horror, with oddball characters doing oddball things on pretty much a constant basis, not unlike a sitcom or the World Bank. Of course, getting quirky characters to interact in unspeakable manners isn’t held in patent by the Coen brothers, and it was with this charm and wit and midgets talking backwards dancing to jazz in a red-curtained room that enchanted America for about three quarters of a season until they assumed everyone involved in the writing and production of the series was high on crack, and not in the good way.

Set in Washington State in the small town of Twin Peaks, a young girl by the name of Laura Palmer is found dead, wrapped in plastic. The FBI is called in, and Agent Dale Cooper—played by Kyle McLaughlin, who is contractually obligated by federal case law to appear in every David Lynch production regardless of outside factors, including each other’s deaths—attempts to find out who killed her.

Easier said than done, of course, since the road to solving this mystery was riddled with eccentric characters, drawn-out surreal dream sequences, and some strange metaphors about owls even David Lynch couldn’t figure out after a full day of colon cleansing and TM. Dale Cooper himself was a bit off, speaking to an unknown “Diane” when recording his notes and lusting after coffee and cherry pie. (K—I can actually understand that last part. That’s not so crazy.) There was the Log Lady, who was, well, a lady who had a log that talked to her. There was the sheriff, Harry S Truman. (Why not?) There was Lara Flynn Boyle, playing a girl that looks like she might have eaten a sandwich sometime in the last decade. This offbeat mix of elements was what made the show unique, and viewers flocked in droves, always eager to get one more piece of information about who, in fact, killed Laura Palmer.

Except that in the middle of the second season, they revealed who killed Laura Palmer. Under pressure from ABC, the network, the killer was revealed as the always-capitalized BOB, an entity that possessed people and caused them to do brutal, nasty things; namely, kill Laura Palmer. Why the network was so hard to remove the one thing that had made the show popular in the first place—a perpetual cliffhanger—is unknown, except of course for the fact that all network television executives hate with a passion anything that is creative and successful and will choke it to death it with their sweaty sausage-sized fingers.

And so, with a precipitous drop in ratings and a bewildered fan base wandering around the metaphorical woods, Twin Peaks died a lonely death after two glorious years.

However, as anyone can tell you, a prematurely cancelled cult-based television show is simply begging for a feature-length motion picture, and such was the case with Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With Me—the title of which has deep resonance with true fans and makes no sense to anyone else, though to be fair this actually applies to the entire movie itself—was released about a year after the cancellation of the series. Part prequel and part sequel, it sought to fill in a lot of the backstory as well as provide closure, and obviously Lynch decided that the proper way to do this is to have a scene in the middle of the movie where no one can be understood to the point of requiring subtitles even though the dialogue itself doesn’t make much sense anyway and everything on the screen is pretty much either flesh-colored or red, and then for added measure make this completely incomprehensible scene last somewhere upwards of eighteen hours. It was so bad even the French booed it. The French, who have not only tolerated but created both Gerard Depardieu and Amelie.

Thankfully, Twin Peaks has managed to weather cultural history, and routinely ranks on critics’ lists as one of the better shows of all time. Some theorize in today’s market, a basic cable station could have tolerated Lynch’s eccentrics and put up with long, complicated plots. Now, most fans will have to put up with a belatedly released subpar DVD box set and some glazed donuts. Or at least that’s what the owls tell me.

Kiss The Cooks And Make Them Cry

December 5, 2007

Emeril Lagasse’s “Emeril Live” show was recently cancelled by the Food Network, after ten years on the air. As required by law, I must point out that this kicks Emeril down a notch.

Celebrity chefs are nothing new; the history of television is riddled with cheap to produce, moderately-rated programs they can shove in the mid-morning when only housewives and unemployed script writers are at home. While most of the early TV chefs were strictly local affairs, hiring the producer’s sister or the wife of the leading used auto sales owner in town, the national exposure was too tempting to leave even the kitchen out of mass media. Soon, networks and syndicates scours the kitchens of America looking for top expert chefs that didn’t look like they just stepped off the boat from the Island Of People Who Put Their Face In Meat Grinders.

Now, me, personally, I find very little use for television chefs for two distinct and unrelated reasons. Firstly, I do not have the cognitive abilities to 1) watch television and 2) do anything else at the same time, least of all prepare food. I would have to watch the program, write it down, then prepare it, and at that point, why not just buy a cookbook? Then again, I might miss Rachael Ray’s cleavage if I do that.

The second point is that I have a very dampened sense of taste, in the sense that pretty much all quality or gourmet food is lost on me. I just don’t have a taste for it, so any type of preparation beyond a certain time commitment is wasted effort. Now, there is the additional benefit of preparing meals for friends whose palates are not quite as dull, but that would make the rather radical assumption that I have friends who are willing to eat what I prepare. Or, friends.

Of course, there are plenty of chefs that have translated the fine art of cuisine into a lucrative television deal. They have had an impact on many households, from the majority of women who spend so much time and effort making unique and tasty dishes to the men who sit down and ask “What on earth is this? I thought you were making tacos tonight.”

Emeril Lagasse: The New-Orleans based chef (who isn’t, nowadays?) is known primarily for his laid-back and explosive demeanor while preparing dishes, including “Bam!” “Let’s kick it up a notch!” “Spice it up!” “Holy cats, look at me!” “Did you know I’m from Louisiana? I haven’t mentioned it for almost ten minutes!” and “I’m adding something hot to this dish to deaden all other flavors!”

Julia Child: Child is known for French cuisine, introducing that style of cooking to a wide audience desperate for foreign recipes. I’m joking, of course. Anyone not five years old watching PBS already knew how to prepare French cuisine, primarily by telling their fellow traveler cook to prepare a French meal while they when to their monthly Communist Internationale meeting to introduce new ways to infiltrate fluoridation into the local water system and organize the local grocery baggers for the front line of the revolution. People loved watching Julia Child because she was about eighteen feet tall and talking like someone shoved rags in her mouth and shot her gums full of Novocain.

Martha Stewart: Ostensibly the chick that started the whole thing off, at least in the modern sense of having about eighteen different cable shows and access to insider information. Of course, Stewart was much more than food preparation and sexual efficiency, she broadened her base of skills beyond the kitchen, bringing an army of women who think they cook but in reality cannot into the fold of women who think they can make pleasant looking centerpieces from homemade glitter and pine cones but in reality cannot.

The Frugal Gourmet: A staple on public television and sexual harassment lawsuits, he became one of the few public figures who was just as much about culinary mastery as he was about presentation. Low-key and highly cultured, there wasn’t much he couldn’t present to you in a pleasing and simple manner, especially if you were a male between the ages of 22 and 30 and spent all day in the kitchen with him.

Rachael Ray: A younger, hotter, and presumably more fertile newcomer onto the scene, Ray has polarized much of the audience of cooking shows. Some see her as a fresh face that will increase interest in the culinary arts, while others see her as an eye candy tart finding ways to misdirect her deep-seated physiological trauma from being forced to spit on her husband’s feet.

Gordon Ramsey: This Scottish celebrity chef actively disdains the celebrity chef moniker as he stars in a series of celebrity chef television programs. He is probably most well-known for Hell’s Kitchen¸ a competitive cooking show where he combines the charm of Simon Cowell with the misogyny of Sean Connery.

Each chef has their own style and their own opinions concerning food preparation, but they all have a common bond: of wanting to commercialize mass-produced frozen dinners with their name on it at premium prices and call it haute cuisine.

Workers of the World, Unwrite!

November 11, 2007

There’s something particularly odd about the Writers Guild of America strike. I mean, I understand the mechanics and the reasons behind the strike, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to work up a proletariat lather about Harvard graduates making $200,000 and up a year in a dream job because they’re not making a few cents every time someone in Madrid decides to watch streaming video of the Jimmy Kimmel show making fun of the mentally handicapped.

I actually do remember the previous writers’ strike, a little over twenty years ago, when I was in my formative years and pretty much the entire reason for my existence was very close to being destroyed. Television had effectively halted, and every frame of reference I had to American culture and life in general was about to be stopped cold, replaced with a so-called decathlon of comedy that threatened to replace my own core of being with the Billy-Connely era Head of the Class episodes. It took almost six months for the strike to end, a time I can only equate with the Bataan Death March in terms of horror and impact.

The most disappointing part of the strike is that if there is one thing that solidarity amongst comrades universally creates, it is a vaguely defined chant with which to slightly embarrass their bourgeoisie oppressors. Alas, even though these individuals are writers, their chants so far have been pretty lackluster. It’s been a week of such gems as “Hey, hey, ho, ho, royalties for internet streaming video and DVD compilations of sketches we have written have got to grow.” Apparently, being on strike means not writing, even if that means writing slogans directed at your corporate bosses, and the union bosses won’t allow the quality of writing to exceed anything above the level of USA Original Comedy Series.

The actual details of the strike are, like pretty much all sets of negotiations since the first shot was fired in Homestead, a series of increasingly mundane details that become astronomical in the aggregate. And, of course, it’s also a large part of corporations and union workers trying to swing their junk around like lightsabers to see what connects first and with the most impressive display of fireworks. In this case, it’s mostly a matter of royalties. The biggest issues are DVD sales and internet episodes, which writers get a small and zero amount, respectively. Writers are generally ranked well below the actors, directors, show runners, advertisers, costume designers, set designers, and random audience members in terms of respect, pay, and recognition.

The DVD issue is simply a renegotiation of an existing price. Currently, the rate set for residuals for the home video market was agreed to when VHS tapes were pretty much the province of pornography and what I can assume four billion versions of Gallagher stage shows, neither of which tend to rely on the expertise of writers. As time as gone by, of course, VHS and then DVD sales have exploded to the point where it is many times higher than the actual box office and first-run network television. The writers are contending that the rate should be doubled…from four cents to eight cents, approximately, a figure that is almost comical in its minutia until one realizes the sheer number of copies of Lost that have been sold this season, at least in terms of how many used sets I see for sale in college fire sale pamphlets.

The other main issue, internet episodes, is probably of more concern. Currently, writers get a big goose egg in terms of royalties. The studios are concerned that these episodes are mostly an unknown commodity; the internet itself has just now set up a shaky alliance of funding in the form of unstable Google Sense ads, tiered paid access, and elaborate pyramid schemes that apparently hinge on sending email greeting cards en masse.

Many actors, producers, and other Hollywood elites have joined in support of the strike. One of the stranger alliances is that of Jesse Jackson. This does seem to be a bit odd since Jackson’s presence seem to fit too diametrically opposing entities, his role as a defender of African-American interests, and the interests of network television, the collective lot of whom could easily be mistaken for the audience at a Fallout Boy concert.

While the strike continues, one individual is trying to work behind the scenes to see if an agreement can be reached: Arnold Schwarzenegger. He seems oddly appropriate for the role; since he is an actor, he has a somewhat legitimate reason for being involved (though, certainly, not as a writer, unless you count that article for the Nietzsche Review he wrote decades ago) and, as a politician, would like to broker (and, not coincidentally, take credit for) an issue that has effectively been grinding a rather major industry in his state to an embarrassing halt. Whether he will be successful or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, a rather informative documentary about unfunny lesbians called Caroline in the City is about to start. I hope it’s good, because 22 weeks is a long, long time.

So Much For The Afterlife

November 4, 2007

Sometimes, being deceased isn’t the end.

It’s kind of creepy when dead people come back to life. Granted, this only occurs in television, movies, and the South Carolina senate delegation, but, still, it’s weird to think about it. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about zombies and vampires or anything like that. They’re kinda creepy in their own special way, the same way that hummus and watching that show on the Discovery Channel where they show doctors removing benign hip tumors are creepy. You don’t really want to watch, but you’re about 90% certain it’s all just spray-painted foam rubber and macramé processed by Industrial Light and Magic anyway.

So the new television series Pushing Daisies has a premise very similar to this. Only instead of the fictional undead, the main character can bring deceased individuals back to life, but only for up to a minute, and touching them again kills them permanently. One would assume this would produce a lot of much-needed closure for families and law enforcement, but it pretty much is boiled down to proclamations of “I was expecting the white light to be a bit more dramatic” and “Dammit, I told you we should have switched health care providers.”

But fictional deaths are only disturbing up to a point, since we all know it’s just smoke and mirrors, like carnival games and S-CHIP. One step above that are people who are celebrities, who are almost but not quite fake. Celebrities, you see, are successful media personalities, their impact of which is felt long after they are dead. Forbes magazine recently released their list of richest dead celebrities.

That’s right, they ranked the most profitable celebrities that are no longer in this mortal coil. These individuals still get royalty checks and direct deposit in the afterlife. Topping this list is, with no particular surprise, Elvis, who one presumes is spending it on sequins and OxyContin.

In fact, speculating on what the top ten or so rich dead celebrities would spend their coin on is a creative and fun exercise we should all try just once in our life:

John Lennon: J.D. Salinger’s head on a platter
Charles Shultz: Minoxodil and Prozac for Charlie Brown
George Harrison: Money is a tool of the oppressive Western-based soulless society! Also, hash.
Dr. Seuss: Worblefeets and Gumgotrans, whatever the hell those are.
Albert Einstein: Cheeseburgers, stock in Lockheed Martin.
Andy Warhol: Crystal meth, taste.
Tupak Shakur: I thought this was a list of dead celebrities. I assume bling, here.
Steve McQueen: Wait, Steve McQueen is on this list? Really? Steve McQueen, of, uh, Bullitt, and a bunch of other TNT-on-Sunday-afternoon movies? I mean, c’mon. I assume he spends his money on bribes to the editor of Forbes Magazine.
Marilyn Monroe: Starch, Valtrex
James Brown: All monies earned are redirected to a fund to pay child support to his approximately 18,000 children.
Bob Marley: You only get one guess here.
James Dean: Catastrophic health insurance, seat belts.

There are a few surprises on this list, not only for who is on there, but who isn’t. For instance, I’m rather shocked that Keith Richards is nowhere to be found, and I can only assume they’re still airing Larry King Live. Maybe they both got a raw deal on syndication rights or something.

And, of course, we all know that politicians may die but that doesn’t mean thy stop affecting policy, much like how FDR’s actions shaped the modern world, or the frozen, animatronic figure of Ronald Reagan guides our current president’s day-to-day planning. Gerald Ford’s thoughts about the current state of affairs have finally been released, taken down by a biographer before his death earlier this year. His sentiments were simple yet refined. Well, maybe.

In a book teasingly entitled “Tell It When I’m Gone,” Ford knew exactly what he was doing—saving up one last salvo of hard-hitting invectives against a political system that unnecessarily tainted him with scandal and denied him his chance to prove his political worth in favor of a picket-fence toothed peanut farmer who buggered up the economy and single-handedly ushered Iranian hostages into the embassy, and wiped his feet on the way in. And, of course, doing it long after he’s checked out of this realm.

Although, Ford being Ford, the criticism seems…well, it seems very 1974-ish. He called his former chief of staff Dick Cheney’s role in the Bush administration “not the asset I was hoping,” apparently surprised that offshore platforms do not produce electoral votes. He called Al Gore a “bore,” which puts Ford on the same realm as every other person on the face of the planet, and Warren Christopher a “dried up prune” a rather unusual insult for someone whose main impact on modern political life was to make Lloyd Bentsen look like a cross between Orlando Bloom and a milk crate full of poppers.

And, of course, Ford stated that he wasn’t sure that America was ready for a “lady president,” a phrase I find endearingly charming and suggestively condescending. No one is called “lady” anymore unless you’re in a Jerry Lewis movie, at a Styx concert, or a former Prime Minister of the UK.

Then again, America wasn’t ready for an unelected President, either. And the unfortunate thing about being dead is you can’t stick around to claim otherwise.

The Very Best of Television, 2007

September 16, 2007

The Emmys are on this night, a place where television executives, administrators, and critics vote to award those programs they feel are most deserving, selecting among those series that most outstanding, entertaining, and creative, with the only stipulations being that they were cancelled after about four episodes or so.

This year’s ceremony is hosted by American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest, ensuring that the show will be mostly milquetoast placeholder commentary punctuated by occasional impassioned pleas that he is straight.

Here are a few highlights of tonight’s contested categories:

Outstanding Drama to Most Efficiently Fulfill The Social Obligation To Have A Show About Homosexuality, the Environment, and How Rotten Priests Are: This one is tough. Boston Legal is almost a sitcom; any show with William Shatner as a lawyer has to be a comedy. I just still haven’t forgiven them for firing the best parts of Marla Sokoloft. Gray’s Anatomy just isn’t my thing. If I wanted to hear a dozen attractive young people flirt, show unnecessary cleavage, create drama, and throw out anti-gay slurs I’d just go to a viewing of High School Musical in Atlanta. I never got the appeal of Heroes; “Save the cheerleader, save the world” is a motto I came up with during the years of my sophomore through senior years in high school, only my definition of “saving the world” was pretty much confined to the back seat of my car. The Sopranos kind of oversaturated the entertainment coverage this year and has pretty much shot itself in the back of the head by a guy wearing a Members Only jacket. House would normally be a shoo-in, but any votes made for an angry, misogynistic, morally suspect egotist will be best reserved in the GOP primaries next year.

Outstanding Collection of Jokes About Erections and Hoo-Has Strung Together To Last About A Half Hour
: This collection is a little brighter. The Office and 30 Rock are both quality programs. Ugly Betty is a critics’ darling, no doubt because most television critics used to be 14-year-old girls who are so insecure with their self-identification that they grew up to be televisions critics. Entourage is too clever by half, by which I mean it’s not funny and is incredibly boring and you still have to pay good money to see it. And…Two and a Half Men? Are you serious? Did every other single sitcom on the face of the planet somehow manage to make itself ineligible to be nominated?

Outstanding Scripted Programming That Is Advertised As Reality Programming Even Though The Concept of Reality in Hollywood Means Their Plastic Surgeon Drives a Domestic Car: I don’t really watch that much reality television, mostly because despite the clumsy flirting I engaged in with that cute brunette who wore that tight shirt at the lottery kiosk last week I have at least a small modicum of dignity. Project Runway seems like it takes the dreams and aspirations of young teenage girls and destroys their souls, converting them into lifeless husks full of diet pills and heroin and slathers them with painted chemicals and duct tape so they can sell clothing that is pretty much only going to be worn by individuals attending the Primetime Emmy Awards. American Idol and its lesser-known, Munster-like cousin, Dancing with the Stars, bring nothing particularly new this year except one less leg and one more trip to detox. The Amazing Race is a quality program, which is of course by no one watches it. Top Chef is a highly rated program for its genre, and its demographics skew largely to the female audience. I could be a chauvinistic prick and state this is because it’s a show about cooking meals, but instead I’ll be an incredibly chauvinistic prick and state this is because it’s a show that has a collection of reasonably attractive male judges.

A few other highlights from the nominees:

Broken Trail: I’m surprised this one was eligible for Outstanding Miniseries, considering that it aired in the summer of last year and as far as I know is still going on.

Forest Whitaker
: He is nominated for his role as a cranky patient on ER. This is an unprecedented move on the ceremony’s part, since as far as I know ER hasn’t been on the air for about five years or so.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: This low-rated and disappointingly bland show was nomination for approximately 15,000 Emmys, all of which it will win since the show was created by, written, produced, directed, starred by, key gripped, and copulated with by Aaron Sorkin, who in his lifetime has somehow managed to be the single greatest powerful force in Hollywood despite the fact that his track record for hit programming hovers around the Dabney Coleman success level. Sorkin either is a gifted talent capable of creating quality programming on a consistent basis, or else he is providing massive amounts of cocaine to all of the voters. Longtime viewers of the Emmys already know which one this is.

Just D’oh It

July 26, 2007

The Simpsons has been on for a long time. I mean, irritatingly long, as in kids who are graduating high school this year have never lived in a world where Fox wasn’t producing new episodes. And that just makes me feel very, very old, the same reason I dislike telling people what magazines I subscribe to and going to the mall on Saturday nights.

Anyone from my generation can tell you when they first watched The Simpsons. It’s just like the Kennedy assassination or the time Sally Wiggin went on the air without her makeup; everyone knows the time and the place of their first viewing of this remarkable animation.

Well, okay, I don’t. I remember watching the first episode about Santa’s Little Helper, but I also watched the shorts on the Tracy Ullman Show, and I have no conceivable reason to remember when I first watched this. All I remember is that it wasn’t Scooby Doo and it wasn’t the Snorks, thank goodness, but I certainly didn’t know what the hell it actually was and I knew I wouldn’t get half the jokes until I was in my early adulthood, which at that time was approximately 2,000 years away.

It was revolutionary in more ways than one. It was a cartoon aimed at adults. Sure, there was the Flintstones, and on a bad day you could spend an afternoon reading the cultural subtext of Inspector Gadget. But c’mon, cartoons were produced foremost for kids, what with their bright colors, nonsensical situations, and devotion to supporting an industry that pays Malaysians about ten cents an hour to color in cells. This wasn’t Bugs Bunny dressing like a cocktail waitress or Mickey Mouse chasing jogging dandelions or whatever the hell that fruit was doing in Fantasia; this was jokes told by badly drawn yellowish folks about the perils of middle age, the gifted program, the boredom of the suburban housewife, and electroshock therapy.

And today’s kids, processing South Park at a normal rate of shock and awe, have absolutely no idea the impact The Simpsons had on the parents of the day. Bart’s deviance was nothing new to television; youngish scamps getting in trouble was a tired plot device back in the tube’s glory days before TV was even invented. The difference was that back then, youngish scamps who got in trouble repented after an appropriate punishment was metered out, like being grounded or ratting out commies. But in Bart Simpson’s world, he wasn’t only an underachiever, but he was, as a T-shirt so eloquently put it, proud of it, man.

Simpsons apologists cranked up their noise level, pointing out that Edgar Allen Poe was an opium addict and Lewis Caroll enjoyed the company of youngish girls, apparently hoping to point out that while Bart may sass his elders, at least he’s not high and hitting on Girl Scouts. Still, promoting charging $12 for a plastic key chain that says “Don’t Have A Cow, Man” in a muffled Nancy-Cartwrightish voice that cost about a quarter to make isn’t exactly a dismissible crime, either.

What makes The Simpsons so peculiar is how they’ve managed to keep it fresh and topical for so long. Here, I am assuming that you stopped watching The Simpsons around 1996 or so. The Simpsons, like many other television programs, tend to rely on formula to crank out season after season of programming. As a general rule, episodes were structured as thus:

1. Some completely arbitrary series of events concludes with the introduction of some current hot social topic, like gay marriage or influenza;
2. Homer screws it up;
3. A secondary character utters some random line every ultrafan on the intraweb will have as their signature for the next month;
4. Lisa has a solution she presents as pretentiously as possible;
5. Several self-referencing jokes are made;
6. A celebrity voice unrelated to the plot is crammed into the show’s sequence;
7. Some random deus ex machina wraps everything up;
8. Joseph Barbera dies just a little inside.

The culmination of all 400 episodes so far produced the holy grail of Simpsons fans: the Simpsons Movie. Even thought the plot is largely an expanded version of a regular episode, and the animation is a touch crisper, it permits the writers to expand their creativity to fit the big screen, a format known to encourage creativity, as evidenced by this summer’s blockbusters Live Free and Die Hard, Evan Almighty and Air Bud 8: Dog Plays Lacrosse Or Some Other Shit Like That. Actually, I strongly suspect it’s going to have the humor quotient of a regular episode, expanded out to about an hour and a half, and you gotta pay eight bucks to see it. Still, it will be nice to see what happens when writers and animators are no longer restricted by the medium of televsion and are given a chance to be creative that they would not find anywhere else, except perhaps HBO. Or books. Or the comics. Or straight-to-DVD collections. Or basic cable. Hmm. Perhaps the motion picture industry will be presented with a very cromulent opportunity, after all.

The Godfathers of Premium Cable

April 2, 2007

In a few weeks, the last few episodes of The Sopranos will air, thus leaving the only program on television to effectively portray an intricate blend of crime, family, drama, and every combination thereof, to be Dateline NBC.

The Sopranos is a highly popular HBO series detailing the lives of a mafia family and the situations they encounter while traveling throughout ancient Rome running a funeral service along with four middle-aged sexually frustrated harlots. Despite the rather violent nature of the scripts, The Sopranos plays out much like a traditional soap opera, only instead of, say, disclosing an intimate affair during a formal dinner party with a well-timed barb over dessert, the protagonists will inject a bullet execution style at a Perth Amboy loading dock. Plus there aren’t nearly as many product placements for Playtex.

The standard mob drama has been strangely absent from television, excepting just about every other episode in the first three seasons of Law & Order. Given its propensity for reasonably exhilarating twists and impressive production values to snatch at least one of those Emmys for costuming they award at like four in the morning the day before the red carpet is rolled out, one would think there would be more attempts than have been made. The rather aggressive nature of the mafia, along with the salty language and their gruesome solutions to immediate personnel problems, have probably contributed to the networks’ aversion to producing such shows, allowing Martin Scorsese to specialize his talents in Hollywood instead. So it’s no surprise that HBO, unrestrained from the fickle wiles of the FCC, picked up on it.

The Sopranos depicts the events surrounding a mob family in (where else?) New Jersey. The family patriarch, Tony Soprano, is encircled by the requisite comically-nicknamed and numerously extended family, including (but, as always, not limited to) the legally obligatory patient wife who doesn’t approve of the life of crime but does like its benefits so is at pains to reconcile her conscience with her lifestyle; the 100% trusted family member everyone grew up with who still somehow surprisingly turns out to be an FBI informant and therefore must be assassinated by a childhood friend; the headstrong daughter who tries to escape the life of the mafia by choosing a profession outside of organized crime but will probably ultimately use that profession to return to help out the family; the elder mother who manipulates everything behind the scenes and is often depicted as the real power within the family; the head of a rival family that they keep good terms with but someday will cause a gang war; and the young upstart who believes he has paid his dues and ultimately dies as a result of his hubris. Chances are I didn’t need to point any of these characters out, since they have been in every depiction of every mafia family in every screen adaptation ever made about the mob, but I figured it’s better to be safe than sorry.

While The Sopranos is busy murdering originality, it at least injects a device never used before in a drama—extensive dream techniques. These dreams, rather that being a cheap, ineffective way to bring about resolutions that scriptwriters can’t seem to create what with their grueling schedule of writing 13 episodes about every three years or so, are more like…well, okay, that’s exactly what they are.

The series’ depiction of Italian-Americans has caused the cast and crew some slight embarrassment. They were denied access to a Columbus Day parade due to objections from an Italian-American advocacy group, a rather ingenious self-reference to a previously aired episode where the Sopranos threatened a Native American group from protesting the parade. And when filming the series’ final episode, set in an ice cream shop, the local council waffled between permitting, then denying, then permitting again their right to film, as the council couldn’t decide whether the series was 1) an insult to the stereotypical depiction of Italian-Americans, or 2) the slow, burning realization that whether you are propagating negative portrayals of Italians, Poles, Native Americans, Chinese, or African-Americans, the banks still clear the checks the same.

The cast of The Sopranos is also playfully self-referential in their run-ins with the law. Of all the cast members combined, they have been either arrested for or convicted of grand larceny, armed robbery, assault, possession of heroin, DWI, forgery, second degree murder, and, rather laughably, “criminal mischief,” the latter charge which seems more akin to TPing the roller rink than smacking your girlfriend’s forehead against the gearshift of your Trailblazer.

Still, there’s plenty to both love and hate about the show. It’s a rather well-written show with plenty of cliffhangers, artificially intriguing plot developments, and likable if flawed characters. Then again, it does a surprisingly effective job at glamorizing a violent lifestyle that doesn’t show the uglier sides of organized crime, which probably includes a lot more jailhouse buggery and visitations to disgusting trailer parks to pick up crates of crystal meth and surplus Oxycontin than media portrayals would like to admit. The biggest crime committed by the Soprano family, however, is stretching a three-hour Goodfellas knockoff into an 86-episode, six-series production.