There has been a lot of talk in the internet TV critic community about Sunday night's Sopranos episode and its use of Yeats' "The Second Coming". Almost all of the critics, in an attempt to keep their literary street cred, have felt the necessity to point out how cliched the poem is. Of course, they then feel it is necessary to point out how brave and original it is of David Chase to use such a cliched poem. This rather stupid argument does raise an important point: what function does a literary reference serve when used in pop culture?
Let's start with The Sopranos. In the episode, also titled "The Second Coming", Tony's mentally unstable, dimwitted son A.J. is sitting in an English class listening intently to his teacher read Yeats' poem. We then see him reading the rest of the poem in his room in the Norton Anthology. The point seems pretty obvious: A.J., endlessly concerned with the problems of the world and struck with guilt about his family's materialistic existence, is affected by the poem's portrait of civilization crumbling. In the context of the show, the poem is also commenting on the final season, in which Tony's life is falling apart.
Now, was it too obvious to use this poem? No. While we English major types may groan when hearing these all-too-familiar words repeated once again, The Sopranos, while appealing to us English major types, is not made specifically for us. It is made for a mass audience for whom this poem may be only vaguely familiar, or not familiar at all. It also makes sense in the context of the episode, as it is exactly the type of well-worn poem that A.J. would be reading an Intro to British Literature class, which the Norton Anthology tells us he is taking. It is also exactly the kind of poem that would connect with A.J. The powerful, horrible imagery grabs even the most novice reader. Those of us who remember first reading the poem in their own undergraduate lit class may remember how we too were shook by the poem and thought we were the first to see its eerie parallels to current events (I took my Survey of British Literature 2 class first semester sophomore year, which happened to be in fall 2001).
In The Sopranos then, the choice is dictated by plot. But what other purposes do literary references serve in pop TV shows. I was thinking about this because, as I have mentioned before, one of my other favorite shows, Gilmore Girls, ended recently. The reason this girlie show attracted a surprisingly large number of straight male viewers like myself is that it took the usual WB melodrama and embroidered it with a stinging intelligence. The show's trademark dialogue took the rat-a-tat rapid-fire delivery of 30s screwball comedies and Billy Wilder films and stuffed it with literary, historical and pop culture references.
Literary references were the show's specialty, propelled by its bookworm lead character Rory, who, especially in the early seasons, was rarely seen without a classic in hand. Literary references on the show ranged from offhand in-jokes (Lorelai, on her society matron mother's party: "I think Edith Wharton would be proud, and taking notes") to colorful background (in one episode, Lorelai's inn hosts an Edgar Allan Poe Society convention). Most significantly, books were relationship markers, as most of the show's relationships, romantic and familial, were signified by sharing a book, from Rory and her grandfather bonding over Menken's Chrystomathy to Lorelai remembering lost love Max when she finds his copy of Swann's Way.
What is the purpose of the literary reference in this context? The literary references were mixed in with references to cool music and TV showsand films both high and lowbrow. Gilmore Girls, in other words, attempted to make reading cool. And not just reading, but reading "the classics". Popular writers like Michael Chrichton were treated with the same disdain as lame bands like Linkin Park. For this show, then, aimed at a teenage audience, the references served an admirable pedagogical aim of making reading classic literature part of regular cultural diet. The Sopranos, on the other hand, is aimed at an adult audience who has either already been exposed to the literature being referenced, or, like its lead character, never will be. In this context, it serves as a reminder for those who get the reference and a moment of profundity for those who don't.