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Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica: The Moral Universes of Television Drama

First of all, a disclaimer for the folks who are already shocked that I would watch Sopranos: I’m a teacher of literature. I’ve taught plays in which sons murder their fathers and have sex with their mothers. I teach (or some day hope to teach) atheist poets and Nazi philosophers and novels involving preachers who apparently will sleep with anyone available. (If you have already identified all of the works to which I’ve alluded, congratulations. If not, I’ll put answers at the bottom of the post.) Yes, I’m aware that there are cuss words and naked women in Sopranos, and frankly, I agree with the folks who think that it got extraneous and stupid in a hurry. But since HBO still seems to be at war with the Victorians (they’re dead, folks!), it seems that some of the best writing on television is going to be laden with such things.

Disclaimer over.

To begin with Sopranos, I have to say at the outset that, as far as the crafts of storytelling and character development go, the writers certainly knew what they were doing. Tony, the show’s central character, exhibits a depth that most TV characters don’t show, and all of the principal characters remained interesting for all six seasons. The worlds of mobsters, suburbanites, college students, FBI agents, and psychiatrists overlapped and informed each other in complex ways, and none of the episodes went nuts in ways that messed with the world’s plausibility. Moreover, the cast was uniformly convincing, which is hard to maintain.

My reflection here is not about the sophistication of the show but with the morality that informs its drama. Although the show was well-made and interesting, it was exhausting to watch, mainly because of what the drama asked of the audience morally. Unlike some movie mobsters, Tony is not simply a Greek tyrant living in the wrong era; he’s also mean. By contrast, if one imagines Vito Corleone, one imagines a figure hunted by the law and hated by his enemies but who, at the end of the day, takes what he can take for the sake of a conflicting good, namely the advancement of his family’s fortunes. One might disapprove of his influence peddling and extortion, but one never questions that he has the best at heart for those loyal to him. Tony, on the other hand, has a nihilistic streak that leads him deliberately to tempt and try people with addictive personalities (and not for money–I realize that gambling is part of the gangster mythology), to seek sexual encounters with people whom he found repulsive mere episodes before, and to swear and forsake loyalties with little apparent pattern.

Tony’s not the only depressing character; the other principal mobsters, although they do have some clever lines (and I’ll admit when humor is bad), are variously misogynistic, given to betrayal, mercenary, and generally jerky. What do I expect, right? They’re mobsters. But in the world that the show created, the good people are only players in the same, grand nihilistic game. The FBI agents don’t seem all that dedicated to justice so much as a general sense of resentment for the gangsters. The college liberals are simpleminded and self-righteous. The psychiatrists are variously voyeurs and blind idealists.

So how does the series keep viewers in? By introducing, at various points, true sociopaths. At various points in the series, Tony’s mother Livia, the gangsters Ritchie and Ralph, and rival gang boss Phil Leotardo present foils to Tony and his lieutenants that are so much more murderous, treacherous, and volitale that we the viewers are, I presume, supposed to be glad that we’re following around and living inside the heads of the less rotten eggs. By the end of the sixth season, my own ability to live for the less wretched was exhausted.

By contrast, when we started into the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica a few weeks ago, we set forth into a universe that, although cruel and deadly, nonetheless is filled with good people.

The contrast seems impossible; after all, although Tony and his crew are rotten, the world goes on around them, neither better nor worse as a whole than it would be had other gangsters filled their vacuum. In Galactica one faces the Judas who betrays the human race to their robotic exterminators for pure vanity, a starship officer who retreats into the bottle whenever the survival of the human race is on the line, and a space anarchist who does not seem to understand that in fact the Cylons will in fact exterminate humanity if the military loses to them. Then there are the Cylons themselves, the android descendents of the original slave-robots that rebelled against their masters. (Whoever conceived of the show must have known the origins of the word “robot.”) In this series the androids seem to be (I’m just in season 2.5 right now) devoid monotheists as compared to the polytheistic, quasi-deistic, and atheist humans. They operate under the impression that they’re sent and chosen by the one true God, and the ones who fall in love with their Carbon-based counterparts (two have fallen for human men thus far) seem genuinely devoted.

What I realized the other night is that unlike the nihilism and relativism of Sopranos, Galactica seems to be operating with a theory of privative evil. For those who have not been in my Boethius class, two of the more popular theories of evil are positive and privative. For the former, evil is something, an entity that can occupy a position in space and which could, theoretically, exist apart from good, which is itself a force opposed ontologically to evil. John Milbank, in Theology and Social Theory uses Babylonian mythology to illustrate this theory of evil: Tiamat and Marduk are opposing and warring forces, and whichever wins will do as it pleases with humanity. That good won out is largely contingent upon the way the fight went, and there is nothing inhering in the Babylonian universe that makes Tiamat or Marduk ontologically prior to the other.

By contrast, in Christian theology (and in NeoPlatonic philosophy), evil is always privative, or nothing. Such is not to say that evil can do no harm but that evil has no being in itself but is some sort of good deprived of its proper aim. The prime example is Satan–he derives his existence not from some substance called “evil” but from God, the source of all being. Insofar as God has given him gifts, he is the most gifted creature in all of creation–the highest of the angels. But because his own overreach deprives him of a proper intellectual aim, he turns inwards and eventually towards the destruction of humanity. Thus a great good becomes evil, not from a second source, but because he turns away from the source.

The characters in Galactica, as harmful as they can become (the human race is mostly wiped out by the end of the first few episodes), are all obviously good beings corrupted and turned away from harmonious existence. When the military becomes dictatorial, they believe they have the best interests of the human species at heart. When the anarchist attempts to assasinate the president, he does so in the name of freedom. Even the Cylons, enemies of humanity, believe that God wishes them to do as they do. Because evil is privative, Galactica, like Lord of the Rings before it, sets up a far more compelling moral universe, one in which flawed creatures can genuinely be heroes, one in which even the most destructive ones can ellicit sympathy. In terms of literary sophistication, it does not quite do what Sopranos does. But for my money, I’ll take a good story over a sophisticated narrative.

Yes, that’s the sort of English teacher I’ve become.

Oh, and if you were still wondering, the play is Oedipus Rex, the novelist is John Updike, the philosopher Heidegger, and the atheist poet… you can take your pick.

Cross-posted from Hardly the Last Word

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

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