Remember The Sopranos?

Here's what I had to say about the first great HBO series...

We Are All Sopranos
By MARTHA BAYLES

After a one-year hiatus during which loyal fans had to content themselves with reruns, HBO's hit series, The Sopranos, returned to the airwaves this fall amid worries that it might have lost its resonance. One danger was that the producers would start believing the cliche that the show's amazing popularity stems from cable TV's ability to push the envelope on the depiction of sex, drugs, profanity, and violence. It's easy to speculate that 13.4 million people tuned in to the season premiere of The Sopranos because they relish hearing curses, ogling silicone-enhanced breasts on the Bada Bing dance floor, and watching wiseguys get offed. And it's just as easy to condemn The Sopranos on the same grounds, as William F. Buckley Jr. did when he cited its "arrant exploitation of sex, exhibitionism, murder, sadism, cynicism, and hypocrisy."

But such judgments are obtuse. Most people do not love The Sopranos because it pumps vulgarity and venality into their homes any more than they love it because it stereotypes Italian-Americans (pace groups like the American Italian Defense Association). People love The Sopranos because it takes something tried and true -- the Mafia drama -- and uses it to explore social class, the ordeal of immigrant assimilation, the ethical compromises of the workplace, and other aspects of contemporary American life barely touched on in film and television, except in the most pious and didactic fashion.

It beckons us, first, with its humor. The show's premise -- the well-heeled, well-educated psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi treating the boss of the northern Jersey syndicate -- is comic on its face. Back in the 1970s, Saturday Night Live's John Belushi played the Godfather attending group therapy. More recently, a feature film along the same lines, Analyze This, has spawned a sequel, Analyze That. The Sopranos is not above milking the spectacle of rough, burly Tony working with mild, bookish Dr. Melfi on issues like impulse control and depression resulting from his own mother trying to have him whacked.

Yet as every fan knows, there's a lot more going on in The Sopranos than gags about waste management meeting anger management. (If you're catching up with past episodes, you might want to hold off on reading more.) For starters, Dr. Melfi and Tony (Lorraine Bracco and James Gandolfini) are antagonists, in the fullest sense of the word: two people involved in a contest of wills that, while leavened by wry humor, can feel, at times, like a struggle unto death.

In that respect, The Sopranos draws directly on its gangster setting. Like the Western, the gangster drama dwells less on a particular place and time than on the clash between certain modern virtues (reason, order, process) and certain ancient ones (honor, loyalty, vengeance). When one code fails, as the former did when Dr. Melfi was brutally raped and the rapist went free on a legal technicality, the alternative -- Tony's ability to carry out swift retribution -- can look pretty damn good.

Hence the emotional intensity of the scene when Dr. Melfi, back at work bruised and limping from what she says was a car accident, aches to tell Tony what really happened. Battling with herself, she bursts into tears. Tony's response is to get up from his chair and walk over to hers. Every other time he has done this, it has been in anger. Now the gesture is one of comfort, and the moment is powerful precisely because the small distance between the two chairs is so laden thematically. When Tony asks, "Do you wanna say something?" and she says, "No," we understand that she is going to abide by her own code, even though right now it is making her the victim of an unpunished crime. I dare say this was the only time most viewers actually wished Tony would order a hit.

At the same time, Tony's ancient code seems to be unraveling before our eyes. A constant refrain is the loss of old-school mobsters, the kind who would do time rather than rat, and the decay of organized crime into disorganized crime. The mob characters are like many other Americans, deploring what they perceive as a breakdown in the values of older generations.

Which brings us to the real secret of the show's success. While some of the conflicts it depicts are rooted in the specifics of the Mafia code, most of the show's funniest and finest moments have nothing to do with a clash between the mainstream and the Mafia, but with the ways in which the mainstream irritates various traditional sensibilities. If the crude appeal of the Mafia theme were the crucial ingredient, then there would be a dozen successful clones of The Sopranos out there, and there are none. What makes the show unclonable is the skill with which it uses the gangster genre as a device for bringing undercurrents of shared emotion to the surface. Indeed, the very familiarity of the Mafia genre allows viewers to distance themselves from certain painful feelings while at the same time identifying with them.

Some of those feelings are about social class. As many critics have observed, Tony and Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) are rich enough to live in an upscale suburb, where they mix with professionals and corporate executives. But they don't feel entirely comfortable there, and most of their discomfort stems not from being Mafiosi but from trying to learn the peculiar folkways of upper-class America. For instance, after their son, Anthony Jr., or AJ, helped some other boys in his elite private school to vandalize the swim coach's office, how many viewers shared Tony and Carmela's chagrin when the headmaster refused to mete out punishment?

Beyond class, The Sopranos takes an indirect but refreshingly unorthodox approach to immigration and assimilation, themes rarely touched on because identity politics have made them fragile almost to the point of taboo. Italian-Americans are hardly recent arrivals in America, and despite the occasional Russian, African, or Middle Eastern character, The Sopranos is not about any other group. But the Sopranos' experience -- their relatively rapid movement into the affluent suburbs -- is shared by millions of other first- and second-generation immigrants today. And while only a tiny minority of those other newcomers have any connection with crime, the vast majority have much in common with the Sopranos.

It is, for instance, laughingly hypocritical of a crime boss to want a school to discipline his son. That hypocrisy resonates with assimilating groups, however, because as children pick up new ways of thinking and acting, their elders reflexively want to reassert authority. Yet because wielding that authority would work against their offspring's social mobility, the elders just as often retreat. Either way, both generations are prone to feelings of shame, of imagining that just because they are who they are, they have something to hide, even if that something is usually not a thick file with the FBI.

The Mafia connection is also essential to another immigrant-related theme, which is the disdain many people feel toward their jobs. Cynicism inevitably creeps in when we encounter the hypocrisy, ambiguity, and ethical compromise involved in every work environment -- blue, pink, or white collar. We persevere in spite of that, abiding with our bad consciences by telling ourselves that it's all for the sake of our families. But as we see with Tony, that rationalization can be hard to sustain when the family is less than holiday-greeting-card perfect.

In The Sopranos, such ambivalence balances delicately on the characters' criminal dimension. When Tony discovers that his lifelong friend and associate Big Pussy has been "flipped" by the Feds and made to wear a wire, together with his (more or less) loyal associates Silvio and Paulie, Tony takes Pussy out on a yacht, shoots him, and dumps his garbage-bagged corpse overboard. Because the scene delicately parodies the classic tableau of the Mafiosi executing a traitor to uphold the code, it is too stylized and predictable to do great damage to our identification with Tony, although I for one was glad to see him haunted by a nightmare in which Pussy appears in the form of a reproachful talking fish.

In sharp contrast is the earlier episode in which two aspiring goodfellas, Sean Gismonte and Matt Bevilaqua, try to impress Tony's rival, Richie Aprile, by ambushing Christopher, Tony's nephew and designated heir. Christopher is gravely hurt but survives, and in retaliation Tony and Pussy execute Matt in an especially gleeful and cold-blooded way, only to follow up the deed with a hearty steak dinner, during which they reminisce about their good old days as young mobsters. The grotesque sequence belongs in a Quentin Tarantino movie, not The Sopranos.

Some critics cheer every time the series takes such a "dark" turn. But for the majority of fans, too many adventures like that on Tony's part and the whole carefully balanced edifice would start to topple. The show's writers apparently felt the same, because right after Matt's killing they created a foil in the person of an eyewitness: a snooty, self-righteous type who plays the good citizen until he discovers that the perpetrators were Mafiosi. At that point he rushes from his library to call his lawyer, while his wife panics. Pegging the guy for an upper-middle-class coward, we revert to our usual fondness for Tony as the opposite of all such phoniness. For good measure, a later episode shows Tony haunted by the memory of Matt crying "Mama!"

Most of Tony's violent deeds are carried out either with cold calculation as a necessary cost of doing business, or in the heat of passion, as in the current season's vengeance killing of the despicable new capo, Ralphie. In Tony's universe, familiar but alien to us, he's fighting himself and fighting to make it in America. When he does something patently evil, the tenuous threads connecting him to us fray and break. But don't expect Sopranos creator David Chase and his smart, talented colleagues to break too many. For if they did, we would no longer recognize ourselves in these striving, conflicted compatriots.

Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

August 1, 2005 6:30 PM |

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