Summer DVD Club: "The Sopranos"
There was just something about "The Sopranos" that bugged me. The subtle stereotype of the title (soprano = opera = Italian = mob. We get it.) The way an upside-down gun replaced the "R" in all the print ads. The fact that, after "Godfather" and "Goodfellas" and "Casino" and "Donnie Brasco," did we really need a new story about gangsters, particularly in a drawn-out, series format?
So I avoided the show. Of course, its placement on pay cable and my inability to afford pay cable probably contributed to my evasion. Yet even if HBO were a viewer-supported PBS-like network (can you imagine the pledge drives during "Real Sex"?), I doubt I would have tuned in to watch Tony Soprano and his dueling family imbroglios. The truth is, the show quickly became more popular than panicking about Y2K, and I'm easily put off by anything that lots of other people enjoy. Tony Soprano may regret his mob ties, but I'd be damned if I was gonna cut my snob ties.
But then the show ended, in a blaze of hype, controversy and onion rings. And an interesting thought hit me (or rather, put a hit on me): Could I enjoy watching a show that, through years of media saturation and dissection, I already knew so much about?
The answer is, fittingly, fuhgeddaboutit.
"The Sopranos," it turns out, is one firecracker of a TV drama. But not even for the reasons I was expecting. Going into it — popping Season 1 Disc 1 into my player — I was expecting lots of requisite gunplay, explosions, tough-guy talk and cannoli. All of which I got. What I was not prepared for was the quiet, introspective tone, the realistic portrayal of family struggles, and the out-and-out quirkiness and heart of the characters. (And all the ducks. But more on that later.)
Consider the opening scene of episode 2, where Tony and the boys are sitting around the back room of mob-run strip club, The Bada Bing. They're counting money while watching a TV interview with a former mobster-turned government informant. After briefly touching on the rat's views concerning the death of the American mafia, the tough guys' conversation veers to, of all things, Princess Diana and cloning. ("You remember that Princess Diana?" Tony's protege, Christopher, asks the room. "You think the Royal Family had her whacked?") In that one throwaway scene, those mobsters suddenly became real people, the kind who have the occasional mundane chat, which makes all their future misdeeds and tragedies much more potent.
Even more powerful, though, and really a lynch pin of the entire season, is Tony's relationship with his mom — the abusive, manipulative Livia Soprano. Played with ferocious reserve by the late Nancy Marchand, Livia is not only one of the primary catalysts that sends Tony to the psychiatrist's couch (as reluctant as he is to admit it), she also seems to be actively pursuing her son's downfall as a mob leader. Nursing a lengthy depression following the death of her mob-boss husband — as well as appearing to enter the beginning stages of Alzheimer's — Livia plays the victim at every turn and makes everyone around her miserable, especially when Tony places her in a nursing home following a fire she caused at her house. Constantly bending to her every whim and whine, Tony can't bring himself to see the damage Livia is causing him, until her murky role in his unsuccessful assassination attempt is revealed.
Makes your mother's nagging about settling down and having kids seem pretty tame, huh?
But it's Tony's interactions with the woman who brings him to these realizations, his patient yet cautious shrink, that make the show work. Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco of "Goodfellas") works as a calming agent amid the family drama and whackings, and is often there to provide much-needed context — but she's far from a passive character. Over the course of the season, she develops something in Tony he desperately needs: his absolute trust. Through his revolving bouts of reticence, violence and (hilariously) amore, she remains a consummate professional — something a "businessman" like Tony surely appreciates.
And how about that Tony, anyway? Overweight, balding, definitely a few rungs up the schlub ladder, Tony Soprano is nevertheless a bulldog. While conflicted about his job, can still find the act of chasing someone down with his car supremely enjoyable, when that someone happens to owe him money. He loves his wife, but busies himself with a young Russian mistress (and, one guesses, several dancers from The Bada Bing.) He's fiercely loyal to his crew — Pussy, Christopher, and, my favorite, Paulie Walnuts — and is devastated when he learns that one of them may be an FBI informant.
Yet the thing about Tony that stands out the most, and what the show is smart to focus on, is his love for his family. No absentee father, Papa Soprano is never reluctant to sit down with his kids, daughter Meadow and son Anthony, for a little heart-to-heart. He's terrified that his lifestyle may somehow cause them misfortune or, worse, to shun him. This is beautifully established in the first episode, where Tony becomes obsessed with a family of ducks that have set up house in his backyard pool. Transferring his love for his family onto these feathered interlopers, Tony wades out with bread in hand, giddily calling for his children to come out and watch. But the ducklings grow up, and the flock flies away, and something inside Tony snaps. It was like witnessing his family disappear, explains Dr. Melfi, and it's encouraging to know that inside such a gruff, violent man — and series — there's a heart the size of Sicily.
So in the end, "The Sopranos" turned out to be an endlessly enjoyable, oddly affecting show, and one I feel fortunate to experience now for the first time.
— Adam Reinhard, firstname.lastname@example.org