The Boston Phoenix
February 11 - 18, 1999


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Whacking eloquent

The Sopranos has staying power

by Robert David Sullivan

The Sopranos After six episodes, the mobster drama The Sopranos (new episodes on Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO) has developed a killer instinct that puts its lead character to shame. The original premise -- anxiety attacks send a mob boss to a shrink -- suggested a cheerful black comedy along the lines of Prizzi's Honor. But the scope of the story and an ever-more-intriguing performance by star James Gandolfini quickly raised the stakes. I found myself actually caring whether Gandolfini's Tony Soprano would get the better of his wiseguy rival, a chillingly bitter old man known as "Uncle Junior" (Dominic Chianese, so natural that I expect him to notice suddenly that he's being filmed, and I don't think he'd react well to the discovery). Next, I wondered whether to root for Tony Soprano as a relatively moral man in a subculture of violence -- an Iranian moderate, so to speak -- whose Prozac-stoked conscience will finally assert itself. But no, The Sopranos won't settle for such an easy theme. Tony is learning a lot about interpersonal relationships from his therapist (Lorraine Bracco), but he's more eager to use her advice as a professional tool than as a way of mending fences with his abrasive mother (Nancy Marchand).

Like only a handful of great TV series, The Sopranos is so true to itself that you're apt to give up questioning the scriptwriters' motives and simply enjoy the ride. Executive producer David Chase (I'll Fly Away) has created a world of quirky juxtapositions that never stray too far from real life (as opposed to the pointless quirks of, say, Twin Peaks). At a captains' meeting, one mobster objects to someone's calling his kid a "cripple," saying the correct term is "physically challenged." Tony's wiseguy patron lies in a hospital dying of cancer, prompting Tony to cry, without irony, "What kind of God is this?" And when the godfather's death is announced on TV, one dancer in a mob-run strip club mournfully says, "I'll always remember where I was on this day."

Some of the best scenes come when the criminal world brushes up against what we think of as "decent" society. Tony's teenage son, Anthony Jr., reveals that a car was stolen from his science teacher, and later the teacher finds a brand new car in his parking spot . . . with fresh blood on the cover of the trunk. One lazy weekend afternoon, Tony's at a gardening store when he runs into another parent from Anthony Jr.'s school -- who backs away with undisguised terror. In the most recent episode, Tony takes his daughter, Meadow (as in Meadowlands?), to look at colleges in Maine and meets up with a guy who had testified against the mob and fled into the Witness Protection Program. This "water rat" turns out to be something less than a reformed citizen, and I was greatly relieved that Tony catches the breaks in this confrontation. It further clouds the moral tone of this series that the most despicable character to turn up so far has been a dirty cop (William Heard) under Tony's thumb.

The Sopranos does have its share of unambiguously sympathetic characters, most notably Tony's wife Carmela (Edie Falco), who tries to act like a suburban mom. ("You kids are going to have to learn the value of a dollar," she tells Anthony Jr., and it's more of a sad wish than a prediction.) As for Anthony Jr., I initially took him for a lazy bully who would make the most of his mob connections. Then came the episode in which his older sister lets him in on a few secrets ("How many guys who work in `waste management' have a house like this?") and directs him to a Web site for Mafia aficionados. The two kids could have deadened The Sopranos with pathos, but the low-key performances of Jamie Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler give the series another fresh take on Mafia mythology.

The acting on The Sopranos is uniformly good, but Gandolfini holds the series together with a powerful and enigmatic performance. Eyes shifting uncomfortably when he's caught in a lie, Tony Soprano reminds me of mild-mannered Bob Newhart (maybe it's the mental-health setting). A few minutes later, he may be hammering someone's head against the sidewalk, his eyes flickering with raw hate. A college dropout, Tony seems particularly eager to inflict violence upon people he suspects of looking down on him ("Hey, Mr. GQ," he snaps before taking a staple gun to a well-dressed henchman), and you won't always feel sorry for these victims.

Confronted by his daughter about his mob life, Tony Soprano admits, "Some of my money comes from illegal gambling . . . and whatnot." He's never totally honest with anyone, not even his therapist (who would be obliged to report any incriminating confessions), which makes you all the more interested in his every word and facial expression. Maybe he'll finally crack up under the pressure and start an all-out war ("This is Scarface time!" says his hyperactive nephew in one of many movie references), or maybe he'll see the light and get his wiseguy crew involved in a new venture: dangerously addictive TV series.

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