FEBRUARY 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 2


FEATURE | The Sopranos

LAST | On My Mind - A&E Thoughts

ARCHIVES | Television

At a Glance

Rick Roberts and Sheryl Lee - "L.A. Doctors" (CBS, 10:00 EST)

Amy Jo Johnson and Scott Speedman - "Felicity" (WB, 9:00 EST)
Peter Krause and Felecity Hoffman - "Sports Night" (ABC, 9:30 EST)

Joshua Jackson and Meredith Monroe - "Dawson's Creek" (WB, 8:00 EST)

Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall - "Cupid" (ABC, 9:00 EST)

Melina Kanakaredes and Tom Verica - "Providence" (NBC, 8:00 EST)


Dylan McDermott and Kelli Williams - "The Practice" (ABC, 10:00 EST)

- Kevin Ridolfi

  The Sopranos hit all the right notes
The Sopranos airs 9 pm EST, Sundays, on HBO. Encore performances Tuesday and Thursday nights.


"Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in." While I detest having to borrow anything from the atrocity known as Godfather Part III, I cannot help but echo Michael Corleone's sentiments. For years I have been a fan of the mob, a Cosa Nostra junkie. I've read the books, seen the movies, and - sometimes painfully - sat through the occasional television docudrama. So when ads began to appear for The Sopranos, the new HBO miniseries, I thought to myself, basta! How much more of this can there be? Surely such a display of stereotypical goons donning loud velvet sweat suits, muscle-t's, and the prerequisite gold neckwear would constitute an infamita to the serious Mafia aficionado.

Yet I was curious just how insulted I would be.

Even before the first episode aired, the reviews came pouring in. And literally every single critic from every single media outlet offered nothing but tribute. "...distinctive, absorbing, fresh..." said Tom Shales of the Washington Post. It offers "intelligence, feeling, brutality..." noted People. With raves like these, how could I refuse? So I tuned in on a Sunday night to catch a glimpse of this first episode along with 3.5 million other homes - the highest ratings for HBO in at least five years (no, I refuse to comment on their most beloved miniseries, the Far Pavilions, a story of forbidden love, starring Ben Cross and an orientalized Amy Irving).

It's hard to imagine why anyone would find this series fascinating. Most mob buffs know that life in the underworld isn't what it used to be. Gone are the days when the Don could fit politicians and judges in his pocket, skim generously from gaming outfits in Vegas, and dwell in armed Shogunate fortresses. South American drug lords control the most lucrative of trades. Chinese triads run an international organization with greater efficiency than some third world countries. Russian mobsters have become the new Al Capones in a black market once called the Soviet Union (experts who once compared Moscow in 1992 to the Wild West now say it has achieved Gangland Chicago status). The 1990s Mafia, on the other hand, generates income from HMO frauds, credit card scams, waste disposal, swag, and other minor rackets (in fact, one of the charges brought against John Gotti Jr. involves phone card fraud). They have had the least influence on our lives today than perhaps at any other time since before the rise of Lucky Luciano and Murder, Incorporated. So what compelled over three and a half million households to tune in?

First, the Sopranos is not your ordinary mob flick. Tony Soprano (played exquisitely by James Gandolfini) is not modeled stereotypically after Vito Corleone. Rather, he is a man of multitudinous imperfections. He recklessly cheats on his wife. He cannot control his own family - both a rebellious daughter and defiant mother who, in the face of senility, refuses to be banished to a nursing home. His nephew, Christopher, (played by Michael Imperioli - the doomed "Spider" in Goodfellas) is itching to "get made" at any cost while his Uncle Ju[nior] is both aging and eager to take over the crew. When his personal and official responsibilities cause Tony to suffer anxiety attacks, he does the unthinkable. He sees a shrink (a wonderful and ironic turn by Lorraine Bracco) and goes on Prozac. And through it all, we see how Tony Soprano, "waste management consultant," bears the enormous burden of hiding tearful human frailties behind the ruthless mask of an enforcer. It's a compelling portrait though it only explains half of our fascination with all things mob.

The second half of our Cosa Nostra compulsion involves our very own perception of the Mafia. Before Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 masterpiece, The Godfather, images of the underworld were based on Untouchables-like characters, Dick Tracy villains, wiseguys without loyalties. But with the release of The Godfather, a whole new world, dark yet alluring, was revealed. It was mind- boggling to imagine a secret society operating unbeknownst to most Americans - a darkly kept secret with all its traditions spanning centuries, its rules of engagement, its code of honor. That certain things were done (people gunned down, deals made controlling the lives of countless others) under the nose of state and local authorities was shocking. Even more shocking was the realization that some of these state and local officials, judges and politicians, were also on the take. But the general reaction was not one of outrage but of fascination. Add to this the sense of family, for better or for worse, that Americans yearned to be a part of.

The result is a winning combination at the box office, in best-selling books, and ultimately, television miniseries like The Sopranos.

VICTORINO MATUS , the associate editor of The Weekly Standard, is a contibuting writer for Renaissance Magazine.

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