|About THE SOPRANOS...
In our culture of hype, the currency of praise has been so devalued that no one credits it, even when deserved. The truth is The Sopranos, whether in one-hour slots, 13-hour seasonal chunks, or the 86-hour long-form marathon - however you choose to take it - is one of the masterpieces of American popular culture. A richly textured comic realism of a complexity and truthfulness that has never before been seen on television. An extraordinary blend of great psychological insight and social cartography, zany as well as poignant and resonant. A critical and commercial behemoth whose impact has recast American television almost - or at least, occasionally - into a medium for adults.
In our society we celebrate advertising as an art form, which it may well be. Advertising also helps keep the economy going. Yet no child grows up today without being aware of the gulf between the real world and the world as seen in television commercials and in much of the entertainment they support. Isn't it possible the resulting skepticism eventually can evolve into something more pernicious: an unfocused, deep-seated cynicism that explodes in violence of no easily recognized motivation? Such are the thoughts suggested by a show as fresh and provocative as The Sopranos, which has nothing to do with advertising but a lot to do with the temper of American life, especially with the hypocrisies that go unrecognized.
In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, which HBO first aired on 10 January 1999, a thickening son of Essex County, New Jersey, reluctantly visits Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a psychiatrist, at her office in Montclair. His name is Anthony Soprano and he has been depressed. Tony lives in a French provincial mansion in North Caldwell with his wife, Carmela, and their children, Meadow and A.J. He works as a "waste-management consultant," as he all too modestly informs his doctor; in fact, his interests extend to the docks, "no show" construction jobs, paving and joint-fitting unions, an "executive card game," a sports book in Roseville, loan-sharking, coffee-shop and pizza-place protection rackets, off-the-back-of-a-truck consumer goods, a strip club in Lodi, and extensive holdings in real estate, vinegar peppers and gabagool.
Tony Soprano, as everyone in north Jersey and beyond has come to know, is the head of the Di Meo crime family. He has been suffering from panic attacks. Business is uneven. His associates and his children lack focus. His uncle resents his authority. His wife resents his late-night romps with yet another 'goomah.' And his mother, the Medea of Bloomfield Avenue, never loved him (and may yet give the signal to have him whacked). The pressure is really something. Just recently, he tells Dr. Melfi, he was short of breath, tingly inside - "It felt like ginger ale in my skull." He collapsed while grilling pork sausages on the barbecue.
The Sopranos, which plays as a dark comedy, possesses a tragic conscience. From the very first episode of the series, Tony has been hounded by a sense of belatedness, a sense that the old ways are not going to survive in the highly computerized world of late capitalist commerce that is his children's to inherit. In their first session together, Tony tells Dr. Melfi, "The morning of the day I got sick, I been thinking: It's good to come in something from the ground floor. I came in too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over." She responds: "Many Americans, I think, feel that way." And so began Tony's quest for a renewed sense of family, heritage, coherent truths, mental health, and a prime cut of the Esplanade construction projects. In his first hour onscreen, Tony, played by James Gandolfini, still had a modest shock of hair and a Gleasonesque lightness to his step. He had not yet achieved the menacing rhino plod that would come with time, anxiety, and fifteen thousand buttered bialys. We'd yet to glimpse his rages, and his accent was less mobbed up, almost refined. He sounded more Summit than Newark.
In forcing us to empathize with a thug whom we watch committing heinous acts, The Sopranos evokes a profound moral ambiguity. He may hang out with self-serving thugs and aggressive, one-trick ponies, his wife may be self-righteous and hypocritical, his son may be a shortsighted, shallow dummy, his daughter may be smart mouthed and wishy-washy, but Tony - even at his most merciless - dodges our harshest judgments. We forgive him for his countless crimes and mistakes, for his recklessness and his rage. The man is full of sadness and longing and we can't turn away from him, no matter how depraved or unfair he becomes. But just when we begin to grow too fond of Tony, when we get all gooey about his plight as a misunderstood son and overextended executive and father, the show's writers have him do something to undercut out sympathy.
As the lead character in surely the most influential dramatic television series in the past 10 years, Tony Soprano has become an American archetype, embodying all the contradictions of the male psyche: the Catch-22 of wanting to be in charge of control, but also desiring love from those around him. The traditional man unsure of his place in a changing world, the alpha male struggling to gain respect from those who resent him for his domineering ways. A part of Tony's appeal lies in the fact that he has a kind of unlimited freedom which we all fantasize - every man watching Tony's access to an assortment of mistresses and girls from the Bada Bing club takes a moment to imagine what that would be like, and the fantasy of operating outside the law is a powerful one.
Without thinking about it very much, knee-jerk critics and programmers at more restricted networks ascribed The Sopranos' success to the public's lust for sex and violence (Oh, woe to civilization!), despite the fact that the entertainment graveyard is filled with thousands of trashy movies and shows that had nothing to offer but sex and violence. The Sopranos manages something much more difficult to do with an explicitly bad gangster character than merely promote sex and violence in a misguided attempt to "tell it like it is." Many cultural critics on the right have further missed the point of the show as well. Distracted by the assumption that Tony's charm, as well as the sex and violence - almost none of it gratuitous - may excite lower instincts for commercial advantage, it's escaped their notice that The Sopranos is one of the most morally conservative dramas ever to grace a TV screen. It rejects popular cant about self-esteem and self-discovery, and speaks in terms of good and evil. Through its stark world view redemption doesn't seem to be much of a possibility.
The central element of The Sopranos from the beginning is Tony's quest for self-discovery. This underlying structure is an important element in giving The Sopranos its epic feel, and offers viewers the chance to engage in some armchair analysis. Some of the series' finest scenes take place in Dr. Melfi's office. Tony's cool-headed psychiatrist drops all the right buzzwords, gently prodding her client toward insight into his childhood and his relationship with his parents, and dispensing anti-depressants and tranquilizers when needed. Her give-and-take with Tony has been praised by psychiatrists as the most accurate representation of psychotherapy ever depicted in a dramatic medium, and perhaps this contributes to our sense of a real human being.
One of the things we admire about Tony Soprano is his self-awareness. Tony's interest in the question of who he is puts him a cut above many of the people around him. It makes him seem more intelligent and more like we wish ourselves to be in this respect. Yet, in his choices, Tony struggles to live up to an ideal he knows he cannot ever attain. The audience sees Tony in all his many guises, including the inner Tony, a man not fully understood by his wife, his girlfriend, his passive aggressive mother, or his two young-adult children. Anyone who is self aware knows this struggle and sympathizes with it. So when Anthony Jr. reads the philosophers and begins to say life is meaningless, Tony is furious. Why? Because he believes life is meaningful? No, he wants to protect his child from an awful truth he confronts every day: The ducks fly away and we are here. Here on this darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night, and we know his loneliness. Then comes the panic attack, and he ends up on the couch.
It is hardly original for artists to blur the boundaries between the normal and the deviant. Hollywood has been in that game at least since the 1960s. But The Sopranos is much more than a wry juxtaposition of the Mafiosi and the Shrink. Furthermore, it is compelling because it manages to overcome its own smarts. As well as being a series shot, written, performed and soundtracked with remarkable subtlety, it is a compelling and moving piece of television that doesn't demand an adolescence misspent either in the library or a video rental shop to understand it. So it never fails to fascinate, creating a completely organic world in which it's easy to forget the art and artifice that go into realizing its creator's vision.
The Sopranos, like its predecessor, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, is about the ruthlessness of petty lying crooks. But the beat-downs, strangulations and shootings are the least of the violence. The series deals head-on with questions about family, community, crime and ethics that not even The Godfather films, which brought a new level of tragic realism to the cinema in the 1970s, dare address. The Sopranos is merciless with its exposure of the ordinary disappointments and tragedies. It has immersed us for years in an examination of addiction, recoveries, teenage depression, modern pharmacology, racism, dreams, suicides, sexual indulgence, family betrayals, financial manipulation, lust, control, accidents, heart attacks, cancer, sorrow, strokes, death and dying - and always, afterward, the inability to summon a language to equal the emotion. "Whaddya gonna do?" is the shrugging motif. A young, healthy thug dies reading a magazine on the toilet. An S.U.V. flips over on a rain-slick road. "Whaddya gonna do?"
No matter how much Tony would like to model himself on Michael Corleone, Tony's story is that of a man who has no destiny. There is no externally imposed order for him. Tony is more of a modern man caught in a meaningless universe, making his choices in order to create what resembles a destiny, but which never really is. One senses that, as a boss, Tony has lost his sense of humor and genuine connection to others, and although he tries awkwardly to keep his rapport with others alive, Tony can't tolerate the two-way street that real relationships demand. This has always been Tony's struggle: maintaining relationships from his high spot on the throne, when everyone from his kids to his cronies are wary of his friendliness, since he could turn on them without warning. As much as Tony desires real connection with others and craves honesty from them, he reacts violently against any hint of the truth, and has so little patience with anything but pandering so that the impossibility of any real love in his life is painfully clear. This is the patriarch charged with a ridiculous task, one part courageous protector, one part clown. Tony's obvious despair is largely a result of his conscience. He knows he's a reprehensible person, and he's half crying out to hear from someone.
When all is said and done, Tony is an evil man with some vestigial traces of a conscience lurching through a world that has decided that feeling warm and fuzzy about yourself is more important than being a decent person. And everywhere Tony goes - Dr. Melfi's office included - he finds people willing to indulge that view. From his encounter with jargon-spouting school administrators who tell him his restless teenage son A.J. has Attention Deficit Disorder ("So it's a sickness to fidget? What constitutes a fidget?" Tony growls), to Dr. Melfi coddling Tony with Prozac, one of the show's main themes is the vacuity of our therapeutic culture. The Sopranos makes a pretty convincing case that it's not a lack of information but the erosion of filial bonds, the trumping of instinct by intellect, the cult of emotional adjustment and the spread of malignant individuality that causes most of the world's problems. It's a show in which little is spared. Therapy is challenged as an institution. The Catholic Church is questioned. The only social institution that survives the critique is Italian cooking.
Even Tony's sharp-tongued but maternal wife Carmela, played by Edie Falco, benefits from Tony's depravity in exactly the same ways that he does: Her comfortable life and her social position rest on rot. She is willing to set aside her occasional outbursts of umbrage for the price of an Hermes scarf. "They say it's the best," Tony informs her, and the marital storm passes. And while Tony's daughter, Meadow, has left most of the material trappings, she knows that she's gotten as far as she has because her father is a monster. Worse, she loves a fallen father who loves her.
But isn't that how we all get by in life without tearing ourselves to pieces? For aren't all values relative? In such a moral climate where everything is viewed on a sliding scale, it's easy for Tony to excuse himself, and say, adopting his best macho swagger, "You gotta do what you gotta do." In his best-selling book The Psychology of The Sopranos, Dr Glen Gabbard quotes Alfred North Whitehead approvingly: "What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority then and there happen to like, and immorality is what they dislike." Warming to his subject, Gabbard continues: "Is it moral to convince people that they should buy something they don't really need? Or to increase profits by employing children at low wages abroad?" Yes, when you think about it, what bright line can we draw between our actions and those of a multiple murdering crime boss? We're all guilty, and so none of us are guilty - anyway, it's all relative, isn't it? These are the themes that have made The Sopranos so powerful: Ethics may judge us, but we're guided by pettier concerns. Weakness is a more powerful force than power. And it's not simply that there's humanity in each of us. Rather, we are all ridiculous, every one of us.
For The Sopranos subscribes unblinkingly to the absurd view of history, which is the version that most of us live by even if we don't know it. In the absurd view of life, it's people's little quirks and kinks that make big things happen. Modern wars and coups are just as likely to be the products of mood swings, temper tantrums, ruffled pride, and childish score settling as the outcomes of ideological and spiritual crusades. After all, hasn't the world always had its share of Caligula-like despots who rule without rhyme or reason and sometimes destroy whole societies?
The despot in The Sopranos is Tony's widowed mother Livia, an ominous matriarch who subtly coerces her mobster brother-in-law Uncle Junior to take out a contract on Tony's life. Why would a mother do such a thing? Out of paranoia and spite, it turns out. She resents him for pressuring her to leave the home she is no longer able to manage to go live in a ritzy retirement home which he pays for, but which she believes is a nursing home. On learning that Tony has been seeing a psychiatrist, Livia is seized with the outraged certainty that he spends his therapy sessions denouncing her. Tony's uncle Junior, who orders the hit, is as believably crazy in his way as Livia is hers. When his loyal longtime girlfriend boasts in the nail salon of Junior's prowess at performing oral sex, the news filters back to Tony, who mercilessly ribs Junior about bedroom etiquette that Tony and his macho cronies scorn as unmanly. Junior's humiliation and fury seriously deepens the potentially murderous breach between uncle and nephew.
Over the course of the series' hour-long episodes, these and other wounds accumulate the force of Greek tragedy. Or is it a Chekhov comedy played in the foul-mouthed street language of New Jersey hoodlums? For if The Sopranos is often laugh-out-loud funny, the laughter it elicits doesn't come from one-liners but from a deeper recognition of the screaming little baby inside every grownup. With The Sopranos, we get its mordantly funny creator, David Chase, unfettered in all his glory, spilling out uncharacteristic but jewel encrusted madness, making you laugh and cry, while at the same time wondering at his brilliant storytelling and perfect ear for dialogue. No matter how funny or blatantly cartoonish some of the supporting players are (the extraordinary characters like 'Paulie Walnuts' Gaultieri and Silvio Dante seem to hover in the no-man's land between cartoons and nightmares), the mobsters and their families in The Sopranos are a recognizable reflection of all of us.
Much of the joy in The Sopranos lies in its inspired casting of a universe of miscreants with human foibles; its creation of at least a dozen indelible characters whom we come to know as intimately as close friends. The epic is peopled with every variety of 21st century character imaginable, and a sharp-eyed observation of dozens of different worlds: Mobsters, yes, but also the shadow communities of smug and equally troubled psychiatrists, incompetent FBI agents, neurotic priests, immigrant "caregivers," cynical teenagers, overbearing girlfriends, earnestly self-indulgent Columbia students, disillusioned men, dependent women. It is an Essex County of Italians, blacks, Jews and Americans, but also of new immigrants: Koreans, Russians, Ukranians and Arabs. Other television series have guests, character types who make a purposeful one-night stand and then are replace with new types in new situations. In The Sopranos, characters arrive and take full human shape. Children grow into adults - and sometimes, without explanation, like a Russian mobster fleeing through the snowy woods of the Pine Barrens, they inexplicably disappear and frustrate our TV-shaped need for lessons and resolution. It doesn't matter that we come to "like" Adriana La Cerva. David Chase has no use for our sentiment. He kills her off with a .38.
The Sopranos, more than any other American television show, looks, feels and sounds like real life as it's lived in the United States in the cluttered environment of the Internet, mall shopping, rap music and a runaway stock market. Watch any episode and you're likely to come away with the queasy feeling of consuming a greasy slice of here-and-now with its surreal mixture of prosperity and brutishness. The series knowingly hits cultural nerves by responding to the present moment. Tony's New Jersey mob boss isn't an exotic king holed up in a fortified stone castle. He is a balding forty-something upper middle class Joe who, except for his occupation, is not all that different from the rest of us.
Like John Updike's Rabbit series of Phillip Roph's novels of the past decade, The Sopranos teems with the mindless commerce and consumption of modern America. The drama and the comedy are rooted in the particulars of life as it's lived from Pulsaki Skyway to Bergen Avenue. The larger events of the world are never completely sealed from view. There are always televisions playing in the background - the local news in offices and hospital rooms, the "Hitler channel" in Tony's living room - and so world politics is the undercurrent rumbling beneath the ordinary nights in New Jersey. History echoes the domestic catastrophes. In one scene, Uncle Junior's sad-sack underling Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri puts it with dire resignation, "Quasimodo predicted all of this!"
To an astonishing degree these characters and ideals - comic, dramatic and social - in The Sopranos were in place from the start. Even though its godfather David Chase never had the luxury of a novelist's control of length and narrative destiny, he has rarely faltered. The show evolves in the manner of a sprawling social novel of the nineteenth century, constantly sprouting new plot lines, developing recurring jokes, images and characters. Charles Dickens would have seen a kinsman in the creator of "Paulie Walnuts" Gualtieri. Besides, there are fewer dull patches in The Sopranos than there are in The Mystery of Edwin Drood - all due respect.
The Sopranos, while consistently working critics into a frothy, adjective filled lather - is also complexly unpredictable and strangely misunderstood. There is a collective belief out there that The Sopranos is a guns-a-blazing, mob-centric action series. Yet the fact is it is never been about the big bang. Ever. The Sopranos has always been a thoughtfully paced, introspective drama that uses silence and choked-off discourse, with infrequent bursts of gunplay and rampaging that shatter the mundane daily lives of two families. It has never been Goodfellas, not even at its most operatically violent, but the emotional residue it leaves by the close of each season often makes us feel that way. As rich and alive as these characters are to us, the real genius of David Chase is that, instead of ever pounding us over the head with on-the-nose dialogue and clear-cut scenes that ring with the impending doom of, say, an FBI crackdown or an explosive fight that will tear the family to shreds, these characters' lives unravel just as real lives do, slowly and eerily, in both violent and barely discernible ways. They stumble into uncharted territory with few intimate friends or heartfelt principles to guide them. Their relationships are littered with lies and confusion; their old tricks are powerless to deliver them from the kind of isolation that inevitably leads to self-destruction.
As dark, inscrutable external forces close in on the Sopranos, one thing becomes clear. Rugged family values are giving way to soft individualism. And friendship, loyalty and love don't stand a chance against the icy incursions of economics, psychiatry and the law. The thought of a crazy crime drama such as this one being a mirror image of the world we live in may seem extreme, but the truth is that society is much more like The Sopranos than we would ever like to admit.