With the death of actor James Gandolfini, Clive James has written a short new introduction to a brilliant essay he wrote ten years ago celebrating The Sopranos, which starred Gandolfini and which was the show that arguably began the modern renaissance of TV drama.
In fact, 'renaissance' might not be a strong enough word; TV has never been as good as it is now. Even Spielberg and Lucas agree that it's better than modern cinema, and James argues in his essay that The Sopranos is better than the Godfather trilogy.
Which is where the political angle comes in. Back in 2009, John Hulsman and A Wess Mitchell produced The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable, arguing that modern American foreign policy dilemmas could be understood through the lens of the movie trilogy. Clive James, without making it explicit, seems to draw similar lessons from The Sopranos. Foreign policy realists would embrace this as a description of the role of violence in world politics. My emphasis:
When the soldiers toe the line and the civilians keep up their payments, life can go on peacefully from episode to episode.
But if, God forbid, one of the subordinate wise guys should get ambitious, or some innocent citizen should get the idea that there is a real law beyond the one that the wise guys impose, hell briefly but effectively breaks loose. It hardly ever does, because every member of the crew, whether a made man or not, has proved in his youth that he will go on kicking and hitting until the victim expires.
Murder is the nuke. It spends most of its time not needing to be used.
Outside the house, his powers are unlimited. Inside it, he can affect the behaviour of others only to a certain extent, because they know he won't kill them. Vivid as it is, this is a real conflict, genuinely subtle and complicated, continually surprising.
Tony's wife, Carmela, and his children A. J. and Meadow, are for ever cutting down to size the very man who would take a long knife to them if they were not his property.
The Sopranos reveals life in the state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. As James concludes: 'If you want to know just how exciting life would be if there were no law, here it is.'