During Sunday night's episode of The Sopranos, Paulie Walnuts, in a philosophic moment, asked one of those imponderables that not even Aristotle or Descartes dared to tackle. "Why," he wondered aloud to his mob colleagues, was the human body designed so that "pissing, shitting, and fucking all happen within a 2-inch radius?"
Why, indeed? The question might well be posed to producer David Chase himself, who has managed to fit more scatology and screwing into one of America's most protected zones—the television screen—than anyone before. Throughout its five seasons, critics have hailed The Sopranos for its revolutionary depiction of sex and violence, but those elements have always been eminently presentable on American television, especially on cable. Far more startling—and difficult to offer on any system dependent on commercial advertising—is the way that Chase has joined whacking and getting whacked to so many scenes of people pissing, farting, crapping their pants, or—most stunningly ordinary of all—sitting on the toilet.
Last Sunday's glimpse of the nude Carmela flushing the john after sex (and picking up a copy of her lover's bathroom reading, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise) is only the latest allusion to this ultimate intimacy. Adriana's irritable bowel syndrome in the previous week's episode was the show's umpteenth intestinal reference. As Tony cheerfully informed her, the illness runs in the Soprano family; his mother suffered from it all her life. That week we also saw how the people who work for Tony literally have to take his shit: After cleaning his shoe of dog excrement, he handed the stick to Christopher to drop in the garbage.
The numerous scatological scenes throughout the series make up what is without a doubt the most extensive—and jarring—collection of bodily functions in the history of television, far too alienating for a network audience. The characters may only be obeying nature's call, but references to this biological necessity are far rarer than nude or execution scenes—even in the history of the movies. You didn't hear a toilet flush on commercial television until 1971, on the premiere of All in the Family. Only the cartoon stick figures on South Park and the potty-mouthed puppets on Crank Yankers have been as explicit about this taboo.
The first scene of a person relieving himself that I remember seeing in a film—and I'm guessing that it made an impression on Chase, too—was in The Godfather in 1972. Peter Clemenza, a made member of the Corleone family, has been told to kill a bodyguard implicated in the assassination attempt on Don Corleone. Setting off in a car with the unsuspecting victim in the driver's seat and a hit man in the back, Clemenza decides to stop at a bakery to buy some cannolis. He tells the driver to pull over: "I've gotta take a leak," he says. While he's hosing down the weeds, the hit-man shoots the driver through the head. The scene closes with Clemenza's classic exit line: "Leave the gun. Take the cannolis." Decades later, in 1999, I found myself far more shocked by the scene in Eyes Wide Shut that shows the character played by Nicole Kidman on the loo, wiping herself while chatting with her husband, than I was by the orgy, even though the many gorgeous women parading around were completely nude and Kidman largely covered up.
So what's with all the shit? On this most Freudian of shows, it's perhaps not surprising that Chase would work over the body. Tony suspects that his problems with rage and fainting stem from his relationship with his mother, and that his head and bowels are connected. But Chase draws a larger—and more radical—connection: between stomach troubles and criminal consumption, between having to shit and "owning shit."
Compare, for instance, the joyless wealth of the New Jersey clan with Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw and her feel-good material girlfriends. Nowhere else on cable is American consumerism as scathingly portrayed as it is among Tony and his families. If Sex and the City caused its viewers to fantasize about A-list night-clubbing in Manhattan, closets stuffed with designer shoes, apartments in Soho, and eating out seven nights a week, The Sopranos is about rubbing our noses in the grossness of stuff. Once you tunnel under the Hudson River, the unchic nightclubs are packed with creepy guys ogling fake-breasted pole dancers, your clothes came off a truck, real estate is just another shakedown, and dinner is cold pizza.
There isn't anything displayed on the show—no $3 million suburban manor with pool, no home theater system, no work of art, no SUV, no leather jacket—that seems designed to make us jealous. Quite the reverse. The swinish greed of Tony and his gang is not only comical, it's also sickening—for both them and us. Consuming whatever he wants at any hour (food, cocaine, women, cars) Tony often ends up at 4 a.m. with diarrhea.
In a Feb. 29, 2004, interview he gave to Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times, Chase made us aware of his feelings about the nauseating consumerism built into his medium—he let it be known he'd much rather be making films—as he casually trashed his competition. Among the many things he found risible about commercial television was the idea that programs could be anything but vehicles for advertising. Every television show exists, according to Chase, "to make people feel good so they'll buy stuff." However high-risk a drama pretends to be—he didn't name The West Wing or ER; he didn't have to—the scheduled breaks for a few lucrative words from GM or Pfizer ensure that even the nerviest producer will push controversy only so far. Looked at this way, it seems obvious why network producers would avoid the scatological: People don't want to think about shit, and they don't want to buy things associated with it.
Chase can rightfully be called a hypocrite for licensing all kinds of his own crap to sell along with his show—everything from Bada Bing ties, to Sopranos barbecue aprons, to Artie Bucco oil and balsamic vinegar gift sets—and for sending lawyers to whack anyone who tries to capitalize on the marketable fame of his characters. But you have to think that he regards these items as even more worthless than the expensive junk Tony gives his wife and children to buy their loyalty.
Chase has earned my devotion for giving the finger to the traditions of American television. He has taken the greatest marketing tool ever invented and turned it against itself. By the end of the series' run, regardless of whether Tony and Carmela reunite by some cynical miracle, Chase will have produced a devastating and corrosive picture of the way much of America lives now. The Sopranos makes the hallmarks of the American family and of the American economy—the uncontrollable urge to own ever bigger homes and cars, to purchase more and more shit—look about as attractive as a fat man on the can with a bad case of the trots.