Lately I’ve been wondering why the general agreement is that character-driven dramas are good and plot driven bad. Call me simple but I’ve never understood what that was all about but now I think I have something.

This revelation came to me when I was watching CSI, Boom Town, and Sopranos back to back. The first two series – should you not know – are prime time cop series with a high popcorn factor. They’re quite strict in their serial form: each episode has a strict and clear plot line that has to be ran through within the 50 minute time limit. Therefore each episode can basically stand on its own. Sopranos on the other hand doesn’t play by the same rules. Themes are given time to develop. Things and people are brought front only to be forgotten for a while, then they pop up again at the most suprising places, and yet never feel contrived but always essential to what’s happening. And the key to that is the simple fact that Sopranos scripts are clearly character-driven.

Let me elaborate on that. What I realized today was that the reason Sopranos can have long-running themes that feel natural is exactly because no big fuss has been made of them in the first place. Whereas in, say, Knight Rider or MacGyver every time KARR or Murdoch appeared you just knew it was going to be another one-off battle between the arch enemies. Not so with Sopranos.

Personally I feel that having a character-driven series makes even more sense than having a movie fashioned in the same sense. Arguably the extra time a TV show can afford over its run make the characters feel even more lifelike, and therefore we as viewers attach more emotions to them. But of course good movies do just the same thing in the shorter timespan that they have been allotted. Also note that this sharing of emotion – I’m hesitant to use the word ”empathy” for some reason – doesn’t have to be positive, but everything can be shared. Now think back to the last action movie you’ve seen: Did you really care about the protagonist’s fate at all?

(I’m thinking of Phone Booth here.)

Could that have been because of the way all that happened seemed to revolve around the action and therefore feel predetermined ? I think this is the key. If you accept the notion that someone else has already decided what’s going to happen (and obviously I’m ignoring the material fact that the film/play/tv show has been finished before you came to see it), it becomes hard to attach any affection to what’s going to happen. This seems to run counter to the perceived truths about the basic rules of drama, but I do think that if a scriptwriter puts the cast through too familiar challenges and changes, no one’s going to give a toss.

In the light of all this it’s remarkable how Sopranos manages to pull it off. There are the small setpieces that keep the insulated episodes running, there are the character traits that don’t have to be reinforces all the time but can be allowed to submerge and change, and then there’s the frosting: fantastic dialogue with depth and perception, not to mention killer oneliners (my favourite one in the last episode being Tony asking Anthony Jr ”What do you think kept the church standing?” and he answers ”Bricks?” ), beautiful cinematography, ingenious use of music, good acting, and all those things I’ve missed but without which the show just wouldn’t be what it is.

Sorry about the rambling. I think I’m a little out of control on this Sopranos thing.