An Overview of The Sopranos

Starring:
  • Suburban Gangsters
  • The Mama's Boy
  • A Killer Theme Song

 

Directed by Violent Neurosis "You callin' us Negative Italian stereotypes? I guess we should just act like that jag-off Bennini and go around humpin' everything!."
The Brilliance of Pop Culture Tragedy

Even if the Mafia is really dead, as USA Today has informed me, I think that it will take a little more than some incompetent leadership and some new tricks by the FBI to kill the "myth of the Mafia." From the "heroes of freedom" that defied the dunderheaded Constitutional authority of the 18th Amendment during the 20's and 30's to the "Daper Don" and John Gotti's Brent Easton Ellis lifestyle in the 80's, the real mob leaders have fascinated the masses and acted as a measuring stick for the danger and the daring of our society. They have also inspired some of the most culturally important genres of film. How can one not look at the impact of Jimmy Cagney's canon developing our modern notion of the villain or the antihero? Is there any serious film debate out there that doesn't regard Francis Ford Coppola'sThe Godfather as one of the Great Films of All Time? Or what about the incredible contribution that Martin Scorceses' Goodfellas had on 90's cinema? These are undeniable forces of cinema. But there's almost something too glamorous about them. I mean, who lives like the Corleones? They were virtually a darker-skinned version of the Rockefellers. And while Henry Hill went from rags to riches, there was something about his cocaine-fueled lifestyle of partying and women that was never more than a worked-up fantasy for the audience. But The Sopranos, the hit that put HBO Original Programming on the map, shows us the dangerous world of the mobster but puts it into a context that feels so familiar and so....bland at times that the audience is sometimes shocked by how familiar the whole situation can be. Throw in a cast that is perfect beyond words and writing better than most anything at the multiplex and I think it is safe to say that The Sopranos is one of the best things to ever grace the medium of television.

While the character relationships and situations may be somewhat complicated, the arc of every season is not. Season 1 introduces us to Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) as general-in-waiting of the Garden State Mob scene and grand patriarch of a luxurious house in an unnamed New Jersey suburb. (It could just as easily be Colorado Springs or Johnson County, KS by the look of the neighborhood and the attitude of the neighbors.) His family includes Carmella (Edie Falco), the put-upon wife who has to deal with the implied knowledge of Tony's mistresses and his Work while making sure she keeps on a happy face while lunching with the other wives in the same situation. Then, they have their (almost) 2.5 kids: Meadow (Jamie Lynn-Sigler) and AJ (Robert Iler), a pair of spoiled brats who either do too many drugs (Meadow) or vandalize too many pieces of school property (AJ, in kind of an ode to young Iler's criminal record.) Our first image of Tony is in his delighted confusion to a family of ducks that have just nested in the family swimming pool. He takes a real liking to the gaggle of foul but ends up having a panic attack when they fly away. It seems like this attachment Tony developed was replacing some missed nurturing in his life. This is confirmed when the audience gets a glimpse of his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), a nearly manic-depressive woman who is impossible to please and who always sees the worst in everyone and everything. This attack ends up being the straw on the camel's back that sends Tony to psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Malfi (Lorraine Bracco). Seeing a shrink is a big no-no among made men but Tony justifies it by pointing out that Malfi is Italian name and so she's all right. In addition to the headache of his mother, Tony also has to deal with the death of Family boss and best friend Jackie Aprile (Michael Rispoli). This leads to a power struggle between Tony and "Uncle" Junior (Dominic Chianese). By the end of the season, Junior sets up a (botched) hit on Tony based on Ma's prodding and the only progress with Dr. Malfi seems to be Tony's enhanced sexual attraction as well as a threat to her life.

Season 2 starts with Ma is in the hospital with convenient senility, Tony's sister Janice (Aida Tuturro) shows up to "help" out with Ma but seems to just be around because she has the house to herself. She ends up getting involved with Richie Aprillo (David Proval), Jackie's brother who comes up to "help" run the Family but turns out to be a rather dangerous sociopath in a business of some pretty dangerous sociopaths. In addition to all of this, Tony has to deal with the realization that one of his closest friends from childhood into professional life, Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), may be an informant for the FBI. The relationship between Janice and Richie ends up being messy but not nearly as bad as how Big Pussy's role as turncoat finishes. There's a great deal of transition for Tony in these episodes which is cleverly contrasted by Carmella's desire to keep Meadow from going to Cal-Berkley and keeping her closer to home at Columbia. The shrewdness she shows in her mission is almost as impressive as anything done down at the BadaBing, a strip club that acts both as Tony's hangout and headquarters of operation. Season Three opens with Ma's death (Premature in the character's development to corelate with the loss of the fantastic Marchand to cancer) which seems to lift a weigh off of Tony's shoulders. This weigh is only later applied with the arrival of Ralphie (Joe Pantilioni), a connection from Miami with a kick for cocaine and violence. Meadow gets involved with more trouble while going to college (At yes, Columbia) including getting involved with Jackie Aprile, Jr (Jason Cerbone) a young thug in training who seems to be more trouble than he or his family lineage is worth. Tony finds some relief from all of this with a sexy car dealer (Annabella Sciorra) that he meets while waiting in Dr. Malfi's office. But guess what? It turns out that she's seeing a shrink because she's crazy and Tony literally has to threaten her life before she gets the hint. The season ends with several of Tony's mostly loyal associates getting fed up with disrespect and Tony and Carmella contemplating whether they will send AJ to military school.

Whew! And I didn't even get to mention Uncle Junior's cancer or the Russian Mafia subplot. The Sopranos has a very grand scale, and the episodic format of television gives the series a chance to breathe and to grow. While the scope of the series is operatic (Hence the appropriateness of the family's name), it all feels so familiar. Never have we seen a Mob boss deal with his sexual dysfunction and his ulcers back to back without being used for the mere sake of lampoon. Never has an audience seen the workings of organized crime at this petty of a level where guys fight over frozen turkey hijacked off of a truck. These problems, at home and at work, take on the normal trappings that anyone in the audience can relate to and puts them in this "glamorous" lifestyle. Who doesn't feel anxious about their childhood or about their children? Who doesn't hate their jobs? I mean, this series seems to argue that the murder and corruption that is so glazed over in gangster films makes the job all the more miserable. This is why this show works so well: It understands the history and the myth of the Mob but at the same time makes it something that is totally recognizable. David Chase, a TV veteran (He wrote and produced shows as diverse as The Rockford Files and I'll Fly Away), has created this incredible arc and has also allowed for some of the best writing anywhere. When Carmella joins Tony for a session with Dr. Malfi and the doctor notices a lot of tension in the relationship, Tony chimes, "You must have been at the top of your f---- class!" And yes, they do use the F word quite a bit in the show. But I would argue that none of it is done without the proper context and that some of the more emotional stuff is far more raw than any of the profanity. The scene where Tony breaks down about sending AJ to military school ("We can't send them to that place", Tony utters between breaks in his voice, sturdy in keeping his emotions in check) should be studied in acting classes. Maybe even more so than the relationships, the way these actors read into the relationships is what makes the show connect.

But to be honest, it's hard to wrap three seasons up in one review, even if it is as long-winded as what we usually write. As much as it pains me, last week's Entertainment Weekly reviews every single episode aired and they do a pretty good job of tying it all together. So the homework assignment for this week is to rent the first three seasons on DVD or VHS and then catch the first episode of Season Four next Sunday night. Chase has said, as the pattern would suggest, that this new season will focus on Tony and his wife as Tony's business life starts to fall apart. If the past is any indication, then should prove to be a continuation of insatiable drama unlike any other.

The Pitch:
3 The Godfather
Plus
2 Archie Bunker
Equals
5 The Sopranos
See It For:
Tony and Crew looking glum after the Sex and the City premiere.