The new If You Like book series from Hal Leonard is a slyly ambitious project. In form, each book is guide to recommended viewing and listening, analogous to Netflix's recommendation engine—"If you like this, you'll like that"—but within that format the series finds room to draw far-ranging and unexpected cultural connections, pulling together disparate works by thematic and stylistic threads.
Read the last Popdose on the Three Stooges.
The leadoff title, If You Like The Sopranos, sets the bar high for the series. San Antonio-based blogger and knockabout arts journalist Leonard Pierce places David Chase's Mafia saga firmly in the context of film noir. But Pierce—who has written for Nerve.com, McSweeney's, the Onion’s AV Club, and the Chicago Tribune, among other places—turns his restless intellect loose to find unlikely parallels with such things as European art films, Hong Kong action cinema and the Grand Theft Auto video games. Here, Pierce talks to us about taking on such an iconic TV show.
So you got paid to write a book about a TV show! I'm jealous as hell. Tell me a little about how you got the gig.
One of my editors put me in touch with the folks at Hal Leonard, and they let me know what they were looking for with the project. We talked about their expectations and desires for the series, and I sent them various samples of stuff I'd written, and it turned out to be a good match. I had to push [the deadline] a bit so we could get the book out by the holidays, but I think it turned out pretty well. It meant several months of sitting on the couch watching gangster movies—not that I wouldn't have done that anyway, but this way I got paid for it.
Why The Sopranos? Did editorial choose the subject, or did you pitch them on it?
The Sopranos was one of several possibilities. My editor, Mike Edison, wanted to pick topics that were both recent and influential, so that it appealed to modern audiences but was rich enough historically that there was enough to explore. I picked The Sopranos because I'm a huge fan of both the show and crime dramas in general. It's by far my favorite film genre. I could write about them for ages, and this gave me an excuse to do so.
I like how you use the show as a springboard to talk about what organized crime means—about ethnicity, about business, about city life. It's a sort of scholarly approach, something that you might not expect from a pop culture reference guide.
It wasn't hard to bring a more analytical approach to a book about The Sopranos—it's a show that deliberately encouraged that kind of analysis. It makes explicit what was previously subtextual in crime dramas: the immigrant experience and how it's changed; the nature of urban crime and how it's developed as cities have developed; the differences and parallels between legitimate capitalism and criminal profit-making—these are all issues that David Chase and his writers put front and center on the show. It was always a show about ideas, and how to present those ideas in a way that satisfied those who where looking for deeper context as well as those who just wanted gangster action.
And, not to flatter myself in the comparison, that's the same balance I tried to achieve with the book, keeping the original idea of a sort of consumer guide for fans of the show, while adding some deep reads of the show's precedents and antecedents for those who wanted more.
The idea behind the If You Like… series fascinates me. These books are basically trying to beat the Web at its own game of recommending related content—taking that function away from the algorithms and putting it back in the hands of human curators.
I'd say that's fair, and I think that human curators, as you put it, will always be superior to a computer algorithm, because a computer can only sort and prioritize various points of data: a film's director, say, or genre, or an aggregate of critical ratings. It can't capture the most essential elements of criticism, which are passion and value. A piece of art appeals to us is because it triggers our passions, our emotions, our deepest fears and desires. A computer can tell you what elements are present in a story, but it can't tell you why White Heat might be more likely to appeal to a fan of The Sopranos than, say, Mildred Pierce, because it only knows the similarity of the elements of those films, not the emotional triggers that made them what they are.
If you tell [an algorithm] you like film noir, it's only going to give you a list of them that are generally well regarded, it's not going to tell you the vast tonal differences between a movie like In a Lonely Place and Brute Force. Using only a computer-generated list, it might take you ages to get from Bonnie and Clyde to Gun Crazy, even though the two films are natural companions.
You've written elsewhere that you're less interested in plot than in voice, in how a story is told. What is it about how The Sopranos tells its story that interests you?
The Sopranos has postmodern qualities primarily in that it's heavily mediated. The characters live in a world where The Godfather exists, and they take their behavioral cues from it. They are aware, if not of their status as fictional characters, at least as their role as the inheritors of a mode of expression that comes from fictional characters.
There are a million tormented-criminal stories. The reason we remember ones like The Godfather and GoodFellas isn't because of the specifics of the story. It's because of the way they're presented. Plotwise, The Sopranos is nothing especially innovative. Its original gimmick, of a mob boss seeing a therapist, wore thin pretty quickly, and it recycled a lot of plot points [as the seasons went on]. But it was the presentation—Tony's dream-haunted life, Dr. Melfi's attraction and repulsion to her patient, Carmela's devotion to Catholicism as a way of masking her reluctance to leave the comfort of her blood-funded lifestyle—that made it so appealing.
Last one: If you could do another If You Like… book, on any topic of your choice, what would that topic be?
I don't want to give the game away here, because it's entirely possible that I will do another If You Like... book. But if could be on any topic, I could write about superhero comics until Doomsday. My favorite things to write about, in terms of popular culture, are film noir and superheroes. Eerily similar and incredibly different, one of which I became obsessed with as a kid and one of which I got into deeply as an adult.
So if you like Batman—even a little bit—I'd be happy to talk your ear off for a fortnight or two.
You can visit Leonard Pierce on the Web at ludiclive.com. If You Like The Sopranos is published by Limelight Editions, and is available at all our finer bookstores.
In this country, Jack Feerick knows, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get to be Critic-at-Large for Popdose.