The power of Fight Club was rooted in its claim that "They told us we would be superheroes and rock stars. They lied." The move argued that men had been emasculated by a culture of Ikea tables and women, a culture that encouraged passive consumerism over ACTION and CONFLICT -- the kind of action and conflict embodied best in genre fiction, and codified in Robert McKee's Story.
Frank Miller, in his introduction to an anniversary edition of Dark Knight Returns, talks about how the inspiration for that book came from an imaginative need for a Batman older than he was, older than 29 (as Batman is traditionally assumed to be -- though now Morrison has him at 35). Miller's Batman has much in common with Bruce Willis in Live Free Die Hard, and Sylvester Stalone in both the new Rambo and the new Rocky and even John Locke on Lost -- older, we have a psychological need to know there is some kind of action hero role model always out ahead of where we are now, so that it is not too late for us, if we have gotten to 29 and are not yet Batman.
Shows like the Sopranos, the Wire and even the Venture Bros. -- in spite of the major differences between them -- respond to this same imaginative need in a different way. The power of genre stuff such as the mob movie derive from the power fantasy -- but in the Sopranos this is less about the power to kill at will or accumulate vast sums of money. The quintessential Sopranos scene for me is the one in which Uncle Junior's cancer doctor starts ducking his calls because of a possible bureaucratic hassle with a medical board. Tony Soprano can simply show up on the golf course and intimidate him into being available and supportive of his uncle in a way the rest of us can only dream, as we sit waiting in emergency rooms or on hold with insurance companies.
And yet these little victories are short lived on the Sopranos and more often than not, the show, like the Wire and the Venture Bros. shows us a world of frustrated expectations, lives that do not turn out as the movies promise. Being a mob boss comes with serious stress disorders of the type that would dog any corporate leader, and the same kind of midlife crisis. A lot of fun has been made of the midlife crisis -- the flashy car or motorcycle, the toupee -- but it comes from a very real and very basic existential dread (even if they would not articulate it in these terms), the feeling of coming too late, of being too small compared to the giants of the past, real and imagined. You needn't wish you were a mob king, rather than climbing the corporate ladder, because at the end of the day, they have a lot in common.
The Wire's exploration of the corruption of related systems -- rather than people -- cannot be overpraised. Part of the power of the show is its vision of the world as corrupted far beyond anything we could do about it: we have the jobs we wanted, but we do not have the resources to actually do the job effectively. The quintessential Wire scene is the one in season three when Herc tells McNulty that he saw Barksdale (whose name he cannot remember even though he worked the case) driving around free -- we followed that case for a full year, and now 18 months later he is back on the street. Part of the sympathy the show generates is based in the same kinds of frustrations the viewers have in their own lives in their own jobs, no matter how small.
The Venture Bros similarly shows how the Dr Venture is both in the shadows of the titans of the past -- his own father, rather than Tony's metaphorical Godfathers of history and fiction (though Tony does have the shadow of his own biological father too). Like Tony, Dr Venture has to rely on pills to survive building on the sepulchers of the past. Dr Venture is also caught in the bond of absurd bureaucratic rules dictating, for example, the terms of his conflict with his nemesis. Hatred, something assumed to be natural and direct, is mediated and directed. The Monarch has to goad Dr. Venture's brother into trying to kill him and his men so he can then go after Dr. Venture -- he has to have revenge for lethal force as a motive, otherwise he has to leave him alone.
These shows create a really interesting middle ground between our genre-fantasy wish fulfillments (we want to be like them), and sympathetic identification (we are like them).