In 1999 David Chase first unleashed HBO’s The Sopranos on an unsuspecting public. It took a little getting used to, at least for me. This was not the gangster formula Iwas used to and expecting; this was the postmodern gangster. In the first episode, when Tony Soprano spends long screen moments at poolside watching the deer I was confused. Soon I realized Tony was not the usual mob boss. He had problems of human nature. He went to a shrink, worried about his kids’ grades in school, had panic attacks and memories of childhood.

The first real clues that The Sopranos had both feet firmly planted in postmodernist turf began to pile up. For one thing, almost every one of the gangsters in Tony’s mob could quote long passages from The Godfather at length. And then there’s Tony’s viewing habits. He laughs his funny little laugh when he watches Cagney in old Warner Brothers films with delight. This is what postmodernists call Intertexuality, the way in which one text  refers to and influences the interpretation of another.

Speaking of interpretation, another major postmodern concern, Tony often finds himself in conflict with his own role as gangster as interpretted by society, especially when challenged by Dr. Melfi, his female shrink. On the one hand he will defend himself and his fellow mobsters as simply Italians who refused to be exploited by the Anglo establishment and who demanded “a piece of the action.” On another occasion he will say, “I’m just a fat crook from New Jersey.” But we know he’s also an animal lover, dreamer, lover, killer, husband, father, employer, friend to some, enemy to others.

And what about truth? Tony lies all the time:  to wife Carmella (although she sees through most of it when it suits her); to his kids (who aren’t fooled either); to the feds; to other mobsters (Oh yeah, your uncle Richie went into the wintess protection program). Only when he tries to lie to himself he has sufficient problems that he must consult Dr. Melfi and when she demands truth from him we find ourselves in some very gray areas. Is Tony’s mother a borderline personality who tried to have him offed or just a confused old lady who shot her mouth off a few times too many? Or both? After more than 87 episodes quien sabe?

Three years after the start of The Sopranos,  in 2002, Shawn Ryan brought The Shield to FX. Enter LAPD detective Vic Mackey, the postmodern cop. Arguably Michael Chiklis’ job of portraying  the violent and corrupt Mackey in a sympathetic way is even more challenging than James Gandolfini’s problems with Tony Soprano. After all, when it comes to societal role interpretation we expect mobsters to be violent and crooked, but something about cops who steal the proceeds of drug busts, torture and murder people rubs against the grain.

But like Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey has so many personal demons that we can’t help ourselves; we have to like this guy. There isn’t one area of Mackey’s life that isn’t Hell. He’s broken up with his wife, has a kid with a female cop, his Latina girlfriend tries to get him busted in a conspiracy orchestrated by an IAD cop gone off the reservation, everyone at “the barn” where he works knows he’s a rogue cop and can’t wait to get rid of him and more street thugs than you can shake a stick at want him dead.

Although stylistically The Shield lacks some of the surrealistic touches that embelish The Sopranos, like Tony’s dream sequences with talking fishes after he offs Big Pussy, nevertheless The Shield manages in its super-gritty way to call into question a number of important social realites. The basic question asked by the series is Who is a good guy? And conversely, Who is bad? The show doesn’t give us any definite answer, which is very postmodern.

Likewise is the show’s powerful depiction of the multicultural milieu of 21st century Los Angeles as played out on the mean streets of the fictional Farmington neighborhood. By focusing on The Other we see Mackey’s role as cop from the eyes of Salvadorian drug dealers, black activists, Latino pols, illegal immigrants, DEA agents and from each perspective he seems a different person. Is there a real Vic Mackey or just a series of different interpretations?

Both shows are near the end of their respective runs. When they are gone the DVD complete sets will and no doubt deserve to sell like hotcakes. One can only hope that their replacements can live up to their hard-bitten legacy.  


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