Thursday, June 20, 2013


Apparently, if people cannot find satisfactory social contacts in a small group, they attempt to compensate by forming pseudo-contacts with celebrities, who have been converted into super-optimal stimuli by the visual magic of television.
—Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect

Except for some teenage rebellion and a few lapses duly confessed and absolved, I didn’t start watching TV or movies until recently. My old church isn’t just opposed to R rated movies; everything dramatized is off-limits. If there is acting going on, and it’s not just some historical reenactment in a documentary or something, then it’s probably not suitable material for a child of God.

Even now, over a year after leaving the religion in a very public way, I still don’t have any live connection—no antenna, no cable. Just Netflix and iTunes. Wasting brain cells watching commercials, slanted “news” coverage, or pointless gladiator matches between overpaid sweaty men is not something I’m ever likely to do.

James Gandolfini, aka Tony Soprano, in 2011.

But drama fascinated me, and still does. With a lot of catching up to do on my pop culture, I consulted Google for lists of the best dramatic TV shows. One of the tops in the search results was some mafia show called The Sopranos, and I bought an episode on iTunes.

There were ducks in a swimming pool, a creepy overweight mafia don who looked uncomfortably similar to a certain relative of mine, and a shrink’s round office. Weird stuff, I thought, but let’s give it a chance.

Another episode. Now I started getting into it, appreciating the subplots, the characters, the wry humor. Fine, I said to iTunes, go ahead and “complete my season”—the first one, over ten years after it first aired.

Then another season, and another. I savored each episode of every one of those six seasons (except for the disjointed and maddening finale. The mob violence wasn’t pretty, but as the star of the show remarked about his subject matter in an interview, “These aren’t nice people.”

Brief light before darkness [Flickr page]

That star, James Gandolfini, is now dead at age 51. It feels odd to be feeling sad and reflective about the loss of a person I’ve never met, who never knew of my existence, who made a fortune from his appearances on my iPad screen and millions of TV screens around the country. I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way; Gandolfini’s death is headline news, and you don’t have to look far on the Internet to find eulogies by devoted Sopranos fans. The fact is that many of us have spent more time in the virtual presence of this man, as mob boss Tony Soprano, than with our next-door neighbors or the parents of our kids’ friends.

Avoiding this artificial, one-way social situation is one thing that my old church gets right. Its rejection of dramatized video keeps members from taking the easy way out. Instead of just filling their hours with images and sounds of story people, they interact with real ones across the coffee table or living room. Their spouses and kids are usually friends with each other’s spouses and kids, too.

It is a closed little society, self-assured and self-contained, but for many there, it works. And when it is working for you—with the right network of siblings and cousins, shared interests, willingness to toe the party line about religion and politics—it can seem like there is no better place on earth to be.

Photo of Gandolfini by Gordon Correll. Regarding the Sopranos finale, see the Wikipedia article on the series. Regarding the LLC’s rejection of dramatized video (now widely ignored by everyday members), see An Examination of the Pearl, §4.6.1 – Entertainment.