The Chicago Syndicate: American Metaphor

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

American Metaphor

Bada bing! 'The Sopranos' is back for its sixth and final season. But what does it say about family, about women, about the Italian-American identity? And how did it become the biggest phenomenon on television?

NEARLY two years since its last new episode aired on HBO in June of 2004, the dark, startling, multiaward-winning series The Sopranos will return to cable television this Sunday (March 12, 9pm) for what the show's creator and mainstay, David Chase, says will be its final season of 20 episodes. A dozen will air this spring, with a coda of eight more beginning in January of 2007.

Although getting information on the upcoming season has been almost as difficult as locating bin Laden (though, unlike HBO, at least bin Laden sends out preview tapes), rumors and sources close to the show (I communicated with someone who has seen the opening four episodes) indicate that a major "hit" takes place in the season opener and that bloodshed between one of New York's major five mob families and the rogue northern Jersey-based Sopranos gang flows freely during the new first four installments.

All of the series' major surviving characters are back for the final run—at least at the beginning: the show's lead and center of gravity, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), his enabling wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), his nephew and heir apparent, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Tony's psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and his aging albeit sly uncle, Corrado "Junior" Soprano (Dominic Chianese).

Tony's two kids are back, too, of course: his ever-blooming daughter, Meadow, (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and his sullen, petulant son, Anthony Jr., or "A.J." (Robert Iler). Their respective passages through adolescence over the past seven years have been truly something to behold—both painful and enchanting at the same time—and their simple biological transformation has added an element of veritas to the show that no story line ever could.

Rounding out la famiglia Soprano, both through blood and by oath, in the final run are Tony's consiglieri Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), capo Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), the dignified New York crime boss, Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni (Vincent Curatola), now sitting in an orange jumpsuit in the federal pen, and his volatile underling, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), filling in for him with a vengeance on the mean streets of the Eastern seaboard.

It takes more than a scorecard to follow the action on the Sopranos (there have been 65 episodes to date over the past five seasons, going back to 1999), and for the newly initiated or just casual observer who wants to get into the swing of things, HBO provides plenty of background information on both character relationships and plotline at And all five seasons are now available in DVD.

Season 5 culminated in a vortex of violence, with Tony whacking his cousin Tony Blundetto (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), and Silvio brutally taking out Christopher's girlfriend Adriana (played with equal brilliance by Drea de Matteo in an extremely limiting role), who had been turned over by the feds.

That's not to mention an escalating series of murders between the New York and Jersey families, with Leotardo seeking revenge against Tony. That conflict promises to be central to the new season and at the heart of the show's epilogue. The inside word I got is that Paulie Walnuts and Tony's son, A.J, are at the center of this early drama.

Growing Up Soprano: Tony Soprano, as played by James Gandolfini, combines the fathering genius of Homer Simpson with the insane anger issues of Ralph Kramden. Is this the American father?

The new season begins just about a year after we last saw the family, with Tony escaping the feds and Johnny Sack on his way to prison. Tony and Carmela are apparently reconciled, though the terms of their cease-fire are cloudy at best.

Unlike in past series openings, however, there's not a new antagonist brought in to serve as Tony's season-long foil. The plotline turns inward. There's been plenty of shit left on the table during the first five seasons, and the characters go at each other trying to put it all back neatly in place. Murder becomes the mode de jour for finding order amid the social entropy.

There's also every indication that Chase is taking the show's physical violence—of which there has always been plenty—to astonishing new heights, while at the same time focusing more on the individuality of the show's major characters separate from their respective broods.

I also have learned that the theme of the concluding season is drawn from a prose fragment by the late junkie Beat writer William S. Burroughs, about the Egyptian belief that we have seven souls. A passage from the fragment, set to music, serves as an epigram to the first episode: "Number six is Khaibit, the Shadow, Memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives ..."

So no one seems to be quite happy with their plight at the beginning of Season 6 (welcome to the new millennium, baby); indeed, everybody in the show—and I do mean everybody—has an acute case of agita, nearly all of whom blame Tony for their fate in la vita.

Except, of course, the anxiety-riddled Tony himself, who blames everyone else. There are rivers of underlying psychological themes to The Sopranos, and three of them are denial, rationalization and projection of responsibility.

I, for one, have never taken the show's often gratuitous violence too seriously; there's a slightly cartoonish quality to it all (and to some of the made guys for that matter, most notably Paulie and Silvio, with the dolled-up hairdos).

I'm sorry, but the talking-fish scene after Tony and his boys bump off longtime pal and confidant "Big" Pussy Bompensiero (played by the much missed Vincent Pastore) in Season 2 took away the edge—and tragic horror—of Pussy's hit. This was dark dramatic comedy at its best.

If The Sopranos gets back to the complexities of its characters in Season 6 rather than focusing on the free-flowing sausa marinella across the screen, it will be all for the better.

After the series gained force in its opening season with its precise focus on character development, particularly around Tony and the complex relationships with the women in his life (most notably his mother, his wife, his shrink and his mistress), it lost its way during the second season by getting sucked into its own stereotypes, only to find its way again, if in bits and spurts, during the last three seasons.

Chase, a Stanford film school grad from the '70s who was raised in an Italian-American family in New Jersey (his family's real name is DeCesare), wrote and directed many of the initial episodes (while, amazingly, executive-producing all the way through) and has continued to guide the writing and the overall arc of the plotline to its conclusion.

Chase admittedly has been captivated by mob movies since his childhood. "The Mob provides an essential set of contradictions in Tony Soprano's character," Chase said in a 2001 interview. "It also gives you the possibility of danger and then hours of non-danger. And it gives you a world that is something allegedly private and secret."

In the end, Chase, like Tony, will be the point guy responsible for the show's concluding triumph or failure.

With such an evaluation in mind, I think that it is fair to claim that no American television show—not even All in the Family in the 1970s—has captured the American consciousness and mind-set for such a sustained period as has The Sopranos. And make no mistake about it, The Sopranos is rooted, and rooted deeply, in television's half-century portrayal of the dysfunctional American family.

Contrary to the perception of most American television critics, who have attributed much of the show's artistic success to its cinematic lineage, there is, in fact, a good deal of The Honeymooners, The Flintstones and, perhaps even more, The Simpsons ingrained in Chase's portrait of the American family than there is of the Godfather trilogy or other great American mob films. It's a soap opera writ large.

Certainly, the character of Tony—so often henpecked and repeatedly challenged by his kids and underlings, while confused and irritated by life's minutiae—resembles Ralph Kramden or Fred Flintstone far more than he does Vito, Sonny or Michael Corleone.

Tony is bumbling, clumsy and, at times, inarticulate. And he kills lots of people. He is the ultimate anti-hero. He makes silly, even stupid, jokes that he laughs at, gets cute with his therapist and even awkwardly tries to seduce her.

He is vulnerable in ways that no mob boss has ever been portrayed in American dramatic film, and it's there, in that vulnerability, that the audience can actually identify with Tony and even like his character, relate to it and embrace it, in ways that we never could with other filmic dons. He is an American everyman—good and evil wrapped into one.

I should confess at this point that I have had conflicted feelings, over the past seven years, toward the show. I was raised, through my mother's side, in a fourth-generation Italian-American fishing family on the West Coast, one with loose connections to crime families in both Chicago and New York (and later Los Angeles and San Francisco) that stretch back to the rum-running days of Prohibition. I grew up knowing how the mob worked and to respect it from a distance.

Even with that background context, I have been offended at times, as have some of my family members, by the ways in which Americans of Italian descent have been portrayed in gangster films in general, dating back to the early '30s (with the likes of Little Caesar and Scarface) on through to the present-day Sopranos.

Celebrated author and cultural critic Camille Paglia recently skewered The Sopranos on these very grounds. "They all act like Joey Buttafuoco. It's a travesty," she declared. "It is a debased characterization of Italians." But as I recently explained to a very close cousin of mine who doesn't watch The Sopranos because of such feelings, one of the reasons I'm attracted to the show is because I miss (and miss desperately at that) so much of the Italian-based culture that is portrayed in the show.

From the food to the music (I love those little dabs of Sinatra and Dean Martin, and even more, Bob Dylan imitating Dean Martin) to Roman Catholic ritual to men publicly embracing each other to the bonds that are demanded in a close-knit family structure—that which constitutes stereotypical Italian-American behavior in so much of cinema and television—is exactly what I loved and cherished during the early decades of my life. And long for so much today.

That said, there can be no doubt that Italianess—that which is perceived to have Italian roots, both good and bad, in American culture—is what attracts so many Americans (along with audiences worldwide) to such depictions. And this is even more true with The Sopranos, where so many of the portrayals are over-the-top.

Italians, in this cultural vernacular, are spontaneous, romantic, sensual, impulsive—all traits that have been suppressed by modern Wonder Bread American culture. To be Italian is liberating, if only vicariously, through the silver screen or, now, the plasma. Italians have yet to be incorporated into cultural sensibilities of "whiteness;" they remain on the margins of the mainstream, ethnic and unassimilated.

That said, I understand why the Italian-American Defamation League has been so strongly critical of The Sopranos, and they are absolutely correct that no such series would ever be allowed to wallow in such vicious and archaic stereotypes against another American ethnic group (save African Americans, of course, who are traditionally depicted as criminals and welfare schleps, including, I should note despicably, in The Sopranos.)

Both the best and worst of these Italian-American depictions take place in a beautiful yet emotionally chilling and artistically disturbing scene at the climax of Season 3, during the wake of Jackie Aprile Jr., (the son of Tony's former boss and the ex-lover of his daughter, Meadow).

Tony's uncle Junior, ever edging toward the outskirts of senility, breaks into a beautiful rendition of the Italian ballad "Curore Ingrata" ("Ungrateful Heart") amid the food and wine and trivial conversation in a corner of the room. He is encouraged by those assembled to embrace center stage, and they break into tears as he continues the song. As did I. But not Meadow, nor her younger sibling and cousins now four-generations removed from immigration and well stirred into the melting pot. They all giggle snidely as an inebriated Meadow, angered by the fate of being a mobster's daughter (though loving the perks) and sensing (accurately) that her father might have had something to do with Jackie's death, begins pelting her great uncle with bread from the table.

When Tony realizes that his daughter is the perpetrator of the assault, he goes to confront her, only to be further disrespected by his daughter, singing the banal words of Britney Spears' "Oops I Did It Again," her Ivy League pretensions and postures oozing from her smirk. But she knows trouble is coming and she dashes out the door.

This I can tell you. If one my siblings or cousins had ever disrespected an elder of ours like that in such a situation, there would have been a close-fisted response to the males, and an open-handed slap to the females. I can envision no other scenario. But that was two generations ago. Tony follows Meadow to the sidewalk, where she yells at him, "This is such bullshit," and stumbles across the street, nearly getting hit by a car in her escape.

Tony can only watch. Despite his power and his position, his agency is severely limited, and the chasm at that moment between Tony and his daughter, and between Tony and the generation that will succeed him, cannot be bridged.

It is a devastating realization for Tony.

The Feminine Mystique: 'The Sopranos' has often been accused of misogyny, especially in the third season, which featured extreme violence against women, including the rape of a central character.

No small amount of ink has been spilled assessing the portrayal of women in the show. And much of it focused on the first two seasons' relationship between Tony and his cold-hearted and poisonous mother, Livia, played to the freezing point by the late Nancy Marchand.

My family was full of Italian matriarchs, and I was raised by women from the first three generations (my great-grandmother, grandmother, aunts and mother), and I never encountered that level of bitterness or evil in any of them. Nor did I during the time I spent in exile, living in my family's hometown in Italy, where, in a social phenomenon called mamismo, something like 60 percent of the Italian male population live within three miles of their mothers.

As such, Livia's portrayal seemed exceedingly foreign to me, a ravaging exception to my personal experience of the Italian-American matriarchy.

That is not to say I haven't seen such behavior; I have. But to me it was so antithetical to the norm that I found its centrality in The Sopranos' opening two seasons patently offensive: We're talking the deep spaces of the cold storage unit here, beyond where they freeze the pork.

Chase has publicly acknowledged in several interviews that the portrayal of Livia was based on his own mother. "My mother was so downbeat, so relentlessly pessimistic," he noted, "and that, in Livia, all [came] from her."

In the pilot for the series (Episode 1), Tony declares: "My dad was tough, he ran his own crew. A guy like that, ... and my mother wore him down to a little nub. He was a squeakin' gerbil when he died."

Chase was obviously working out some dark family issues with that dialogue.

So be it. The relationship apparently fascinated much of America; it didn't me. In fact, it was one of the early turn-offs to the show.

Of course, in the absence of his mother (Marchand was ill for much of the first two seasons with lung cancer and died after filming the second), Tony's relationship with his wife, Carmela, assumed center stage. Once again, while many writers have viewed the growth and transition of Carmela in feminist terms, I find her character often weak and enabling, and astonishingly hypocritical. Most importantly, unlike Tony, she has little agency of her own.

Carmela, too, visited a shrink, and he told her candidly to leave Tony and his criminal ways. "One thing you can never say," he implored her coldly, "is that you haven't been told."

When she throws Tony out at the end of Season 4, she seems, finally, to be taking her destiny into her own hands. But when push comes to shove—when she has to decide between the material pleasures and safeguards provided by Tony and the mob vs. the unknown of life on her own—she chooses the former, in what is nothing less than a quid pro quid arrangement. If that's liberating, then we're all in trouble. Carmela is the ultimate Material Girl.

And then there is Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played brilliantly by the veteran New York actress Lorraine Bracco, who would seem to be the show's most independent woman. She is bright, intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive, but when it comes to Tony, she is duplicitous about her own attractions to him and, ultimately, cannot let him go as a patient.

She wears short skirts that she's constantly tugging at during her sessions with Tony, showing off her legs in a manner cinematically reminiscent of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Anne Bancroft in The Graduate. At a base level, Melfi understands the power and attraction of Tony's life in the mob, and she is drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

I know many women who like The Sopranos—my wife included—but come a long way, baby, we have not.

In an interesting essay for Salon titled "Is The Sopranos a Chick Show?", Rebecca Traister conceded the show's feminist and "empowering" limitations, but pointed out that many of the issues addressed in the show, most often through Carmela, are those avoided by popular drama: "the trade-offs between fidelity and cold cash, Catholic guilt over divorce, stifled professional and sexual desires, a biting jealousy that threatens to overtake her happiness for her daughter on the brink of a much happier life than she will ever know."

That's all true. And The Sopranos has dealt with these and other issues of modern-day family life on an exceptionally high and rigorously nuanced plane. The series is, in Traister's words, "engrossing, and confusing, and genuine." With that I concur.

Yet when Carmela confronts Tony on his continuing indiscretions, Tony sends back a zinger that has no answers; it pierces the facade of the unstated trade-off in their marriage: "Yeah, 'cause what you really want is a little Hyundai and a simple gold heart on the chain."

It's the most devastating hit he delivers in the entire series.

In the end, portrayals of violence, family, organized crime, Italian-Americans, New Age parenting, the educational system, navigating adolescence, designer drugs, gender roles, Xanax and Prozac, et al., are not what ultimately captivates us about The Sopranos. They are all wrapped up under the larger rubric of American culture—and the American polity—as we stagger into the New Millennium.

Chase's vision is on a scale that is grand and epic. He is casting about for the American character, the American way of life, on a level comparable to that of Alexis de Tocqueville in his marvelous 19th-century study, Democracy in America. The Sopranos is as big as that.

It's a long way from the Jersey Shore to San Jose, but there are many ways in which The Sopranos resonates with the boom-and-bust years of the Silicon Valley economy. And local politics as well.

I couldn't help but think of Tony—who lines the pockets of politicians up and down the Jersey shore—when the whole garbage deal scandal oozed out of City Hall last year. Remember, Tony's listed occupation is as a "waste management consultant." But it goes farther than that. Virtually every character in The Sopranos is after the quick and easy buck. Everyone wants to be a millionaire, but no one wants to put in the time. Even Tony's newly emigrated Russian housekeeper steals from him—cutlery and gourmet capers from the pantry. "They have so much," she rationalizes.

The Sopranos is about greed and avarice and materialism and gluttony and unbridled ambition, all with no moral compass but the id. The Enron and Savings & Loan scandals and the hit on the World Trade Center and the war in Iraq are all backdrop plots to The Sopranos.

The Sopranos is about the American Dream turned inside out. And, of course, that's what did in the real Mafia. During the 1950s and '60s, the major mob families moved into drugs, particularly heroin, with their high profit margins and low overhead, and when busted, the lower end mobsters chose to squeal rather than doing the 10 to 15 years that came with a federal drug rap. And squeal they did, to the point where the Five Families of New York and the unsanctioned gangs of New Jersey have been essentially decimated.

The Sopranos are loosely based on a couple of Northern Jersey families, the DeCalvacantes and the Boiardos. They are not unknown to me. During the initial season of The Sopranos, in 1999, the feds actually wiretapped the real mobsters speaking about the TV show.

"Hey, what's this fucking thing Sopranos?," one of them asks. "What are they? ... Is this supposed to be us?"

In the end, the DeValcantes and the Boiardos and what was left of the families who weren't dead or in prison were left to petty crimes, like hustling cigarettes and running Viagra and or turning out fake "vintage" comic books. It has not been a pretty, or particularly fabled, denouement.

"Lately, I'm gettin' the feelin' that I came in at the end," Tony lamented in Season 1 about this era of mob history. "The best is over."

We'll see if the same holds true about the remarkable television series that bears his family's name.

Thanks to Geoffrey Dunn

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