Mob Scene

Living in New Jersey is always strange, but it's been getting stranger since HBO's hit series The Sopranos debuted last year. Suddenly the whole state is rediscovering its Mafia roots. At my local mall, the hairdresser can't even wait until the conditioner to tell me that he is related to one of the original five Mafia families in Little Italy; he moonlights as a lounge singer doing Frank Sinatra imitations at a casino in Atlantic City. "Everyone tells me I look just like that guy on The Sopranos," he boasts, and croons "My Way" into the blow-dryer. Now that The Sopranos has begun its second television season, will Tony and Carmela replace Jake and Tiffany as the most popular names for New Jersey babies? Will some North Jersey entrepreneur open a Mafia theme park with a pork store, a strip club, and a whorehouse?

Of course, Sopranomania has spread far beyond the borders of the Garden State. The show was nominated for 16 Emmys (but received only four). Fans have posted thousands of questions and messages on the HBO Web site about the brilliant cast, including James Gandolfini as angstridden, family-loving killer Tony Soprano; Edie Falco as his intelligent, unhappy wife Carmela; Lorraine Bracco as his prim psychotherapist Jennifer Melfi; Nancy Marchand as his monstrous mother Livia; and Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, Dominic Chianese, and Tony Sirico as assorted wise guys. Some of television's toughest critics acclaimed it as a classic; Salon's Joyce Millman praised its "Proustian feel." TV Guide mentioned Fellini. Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it a "pop masterpiece," akin to Greek tragedy or Chekhovian comedy. In another influential New York Times essay, Vincent Canby argued that The Sopranos created a new genre, the "megamovie," a marathon drama best experienced on video, where its scope, detail, and texture could be fully appreciated. Canby compared it to Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz and Dennis Potter's Singing Detective, and noted that it was "packed with characters and events of Dickensian dimension and color, their time and place observed with satiric exactitude."

In fact, The Sopranos has been a kind of cultural Rorschach test. Jonathan Mahler, in Talk magazine, says it is about "a family searching for a moral compass, a family with all of the lofty ideals and tragic flaws of any other." Others among the show's admirers point to Tony Soprano's millennial malaise and nostalgia, his lament to his therapist that he "came in at the end, that the best is over." They suggest the mobster is no more corrupt than other contemporary professionals and white-collar criminals in a sick culture.

Among the dissenters, Camille Paglia, in her current persona as Giuliani-style Catholic populist, denounced The Sopranos as "a buffoonish caricature of my people" and "an ethnic minstrel show," siding with various Italian-American civic groups that have publicly criticized the show's "stereotypes." Their literalminded attacks recall the criticism of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint by Jewish groups in the 1960s, and there are many similarities between the two works. Both Alex Portnoy and Tony Soprano confide their phallic fantasies and anxieties to a psychotherapist, as well as their Oedipal love-hate obsessions with a castrating mother. Livia Soprano is a sinister version of Roth's Sophie Portnoy.

In its representation of Mafia family life as a microcosm of contemporary American society, The Sopranos most obviously echoes Mario Puzo's 1969 best-seller The Godfather and the three Godfather films of Francis Ford Coppola. One of the postmodern pleasures of the series is the mobsters' fascination with these antecedents. They regularly parody The Godfather and roar with laughter as Silvio Dante (played by musician Steven Van Zandt), the manager of their strip club-office Bada-Bing!, does Al Pacino in Godfather III--"I keep trying to get out, but they keep pulling me back in!" When ambitious young wise guy and aspiring screenwriter Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) sees Martin Scorsese outside a club in New York, he shows off his film-buff knowledge: "Hey Marty! Loved Kundun!" The wise guys keep up a running commentary on Mafia popular culture; they affectionately call each other "Donnie Brasco," and a shrink refuses to treat Tony Soprano, saying he has seen Analyze This.

But The Sopranos is also very different from The Godfather. Thirty years ago, Puzo's novel chronicled the postwar period through 1955 when Italian Americans were becoming assimilated in American society, especially in terms of higher education. Michael Corleone goes to Dartmouth and marries a WASP, but he remains true to his past. Traditional patterns of manhood, patriarchal authority, and male bonding, challenged and shaken by the women's movement and youth culture of the late 1960s, were reassuringly affirmed in Puzo's nostalgic portrait of a world of strict family values.

In the 1990s world of The Sopranos, these are the Mafiosi of the "old school," veterans of World War II, unquestioningly loyal, irreproachably virile. Tony Soprano has no educational interests--he barely made it through three semesters at Seton Hall--or longing for high culture, but in a moment of reflection with his therapist, he waxes nostalgic about the tough, stoical men of a bygone era, who kept their vows of silence and omertà: "What ever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong silent type?" In contrast, his generation is voluble and vocal. No more bassos or even tenors; they are sopranos--in other words, they sing like castrati, or women.

In the Mafia old school, according to critic Marianna DeMarco Torgovnick, women knew their place. "Above all, women are not to know, and not to ask, about 'business.'" In the new series, the Soprano wise guys love it when Silvio parodies the Godfather scene of Michael Corleone allowing his wife Kay to ask him--once--what he does for a living. Meanwhile, though, their wives know everything. When the Feds come to call, Carmela Soprano helps Tony pack up the cash and move the guns. The young hit men can't resist telling their girlfriends all their secrets. Even as Tony complains that his mother reduced his strong father to "a little squealing gerbil," he is asking his female therapist for nurturance and advice, and experiencing panic attacks, nightmares, hyperventilating, blackouts, and impotence.

Overall, the wise guys are feminized, orally fixated male hysterics. Tony, with his fat Cuban cigars, is on Prozac. Big Pussy (!) has psychosomatic back problems, brought on by his domestic burdens and, perhaps, his betrayer's guilt. Even old school Mafioso Uncle Junior has a secret knack for cunnilingus, and when his girlfriend brags about it in the nail salon, he is mocked and disgraced among his mobster family. Meanwhile, the women are sexually and intellectually frustrated. In one of the great scenes of the series's first season, Carmela is alone at home with a cold when the young priest Father Phil, who is adept at exploiting the loneliness of the mob wives, drops in to schmooze after dinner. They watch a DVD video of Remains of the Day, and Carmela breaks down during the scene where Emma Thompson pursues Anthony Hopkins into his study in a moment of acute sexual tension and rejection. Father Phil offers to hear her confession, but confession is not what this bright woman, eager to discuss comparative religion and foreign movies, and wounded by her husband's perennial infidelity, really needs.

Although it has 11 directors and a team of eight writers, The Sopranos is the highly personal story of creator David Chase's self-described rage against his domineering mother, against his sellout career as a writer for network television, and against a commercialized, phony American society. Chase is an angry man. As a child in a middle-class Italian-American New Jersey family, he told New York Times interviewer Alex Wichel, he was "crazy about the Mafia" and learned the lines of Public Enemy by heart. Now he is determined not to let The Sopranos capitulate to the feel-good pressures of prime-time success. The average network drama, he told Talk's Jonathan Mahler, is "supposed to make you feel that our institutions work and that the fabric of our society might be troubled, but it's still the best damn society we could possibly have. At the end of the hour it's supposed to be uplifting." At a network, rather than HBO, he told The New York Times, "they would have tried to make it that, on the side, Tony's helping the FBI find the guys who blew up the World Trade Center. That claptrap. That would have been horrible."

Now in the show's second season, Chase is worrying about keeping Tony ruthless and dirty. So far most of the critics seem to be happy with what he and his team have done. I have to disagree. Based on the first three programs, this second season seems to have lost touch with what made the series special the first time around--the powerful contrast between the mythic violence of the mob in a cutthroat postmodern society and the psychic upheaval caused by changing roles in the family, primarily the roles of women and men. In the first season, these contradictions were rooted in the relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi, and reinforced through Tony's complex feelings of pride, protectiveness, and bewilderment about his 16-year-old daughter, whose name--Meadow--comically suggests how far she has come from the urban jungle. Tony's mid-life crisis and his inability to imagine a masculinity that does not depend on silence, physical violence, and sexual swordsmanship were also reflected in the suicide of his police informer, an understated and memorable performance by John Heard.

In the second season, the cop is dead, Dr. Melfi will no longer speak to Tony, and two new characters--his long-lost conniving sister Janice and a monotonously sociopathic ex-con named Richie Aprile--cannot provide the grounding of decency that Tony needs to confront. Meadow, who should be an idealistic teenager, perhaps wanting to date nice college boys whose families would be horrified by the Sopranos, is instead becoming a slutty wise girl. Worst of all, Carmela, the most intriguing character of all, has been shoved back into her suburban soccer-mom box. Upcoming episodes will take the mob to Napoli in a James Bondish gambling scheme. The show's popular momentum will certainly keep it going for awhile, but I don't think it's going to last unless Chase can bring it all back home. ¤