The Fanboy As Critic

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Do you know what I really dislike? Extremely long critical essays that describe their subject, often in painstaking and florid detail, without bothering to interpret it. Like, for instance, this NYRB essay on The Sopranos: In more than 5,000 words, Geoffrey O'Brien manages to tell us almost nothing about the show that a reasonably literate viewer doesn't already know. This is the essay for you if you never noticed that on The Sopranos, "bad or misconstrued information bounced around in a world defined by random breaks, mostly unlucky," or that "any throwaway line could encapsulate a scarily decentered world," or that "a single episode could juxtapose a certain number of disparate elements, and the high pleasure was in the jarring elegance of the juxtaposition." Or if it interests you to learn that "Coppola's Godfather films and Scorsese's Goodfellas [were] crucial reference points for The Sopranos." Or if you need a critic to explain that "Chase's neatest trick was to make a show about the mob—a show that laid out in gratifying detail the workings of scams and hits, political connections and techniques of intimidation, internecine maneuverings and FBI infiltrations—that constantly suggested that the mob was not what the show was really about." The whole piece is a fan's letter, not a critic's analysis, thick with plot summary, favorite scenes and bits of dialogue, written in the pantingly verbose style of an overeducated version of Harry Knowles: "These Soprano women made iridescent the masculine monochrome of the gangster genre ... the mere sight of [Tony] padding yet again in white bathrobe toward the refrigerator evoked a disheveled Wotan worthy of a show whose capacity to extend and savor its transitions could seem Wagnerian." Gag me with a spoon.

Contrast O'Brien's vaporings, if you will, with Emily Nussbaum's justly-praised post-finale reading of the show. Nussbaum takes up some of the same concerns that O'Brien does, particularly the audience's complicated relationship with Chase's characters, but then actually advances an argument about that topic, in an essay that's a model of clarity and economy - two-thirds the length of O'Brien's, and eight times as interesting.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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