David Thompson says “The Godfather plays every year; The Sopranos in reruns will bore you.” Ross Douthat responds:
Well! The Godfather does play every year, but it’s also only three hours long, and thus a completely different artistic animal than The Sopranos, which clocks in roughly eighty hours when all is said and done. There’s no perfect analogy here, obviously, but on length alone it’s a little like comparing James Joyce’s “The Dead” to David Copperfield. Yes, Coppola’s masterpiece has a self-contained perfection to which a long-running television show simply can’t hope to aspire — and yes, as a result, there are episodes and even long swathes of David Chase’s show that bore upon reacquaintance, just as there are sections of Copperfield or War and Peace that I wouldn’t care to read and re-read every year. But trust me: I’m watching The Sopranos in re-runs right now, and as a cumulative experience — allowing for bumps and blind alleys and boredom along the way — it’s no less impressive than the first time or two I watched it.
Let me start off with the quick note that I took Fred Kaplan’s advice and recently rewatched the Godfather movies as re-released on Blu-Ray and was not disappointed. Ross is both right about this and also being somewhat too easy on The Sopranos. The relevant comparison here is to The Wire which, though not quite equal in length to The Sopranos, is comparable in scale. And the Wire, though I think it does flag a bit in seasons four and five, absolutely never stops feeling like a single coherent work that deserves to be watched uninterrupted from end to end. The Sopranos is extremely well-made television, but especially after season two it begins to get very “televisiony” — full of occasional digressions and sub-plots that feel like filler or stalling or efforts to spread screen time around rather than being crucial to the development of the story. If The Wire had never existed, one might be inclined to say that this is just intrinsic to the medium, but we while it is endemic to the medium we also know now that it’s avoidable.