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The Sopranos: still the Greatest Show On Earth

The latest batch of tales from New Jersey's mafia lowlife shows this series has its finger right on the pulse of US society.

Neil Davenport

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DVD box sets have become a familiar fixture in the post-Christmas ‘what to buy with those gift tokens’ list. Faced with shelves groaning under the weight of the overrated (Desperate Housewives) and overcooked (Spooks), the casual purchaser could do no better than buying a box set of The Sopranos, season six.

In the UK, the first 12 instalments ended at the beginning of December 2006. You’d be forgiven for missing it, as once again Channel 4 has shoved it around the cable network like an unwanted orphan seeking a home. Last year, repeats of The Sopranos were broadcast on the ‘serious’ More4 channel. This year, The Sopranos was inexplicably dropped into E4, the defiantly teenage entertainment channel. Quite how a heavyweight drama like this was scheduled alongside repeats of Hollyoaks and Porn: A Family Business is anyone’s guess – though it’s fair to say the dead hand of populism explains why The Sopranos is no longer considered viable for mainstream, terrestrial viewing.

It is worth recalling that prior to the grim arrival of Big Brother, The Sopranos was Channel 4’s flagship programme and was promoted extensively via TV trailers and national billboard posters. It became a huge international hit, too, and vindicated how high-quality drama can have universal appeal. The only one to doubt this is Channel 4 itself.

For the uninitiated, The Sopranos revolves around New Jersey mafia boss Tony Soprano, his family and his mob underlings. While drawing on, and even referencing, the iconography of The Godfather trilogy and Martin Scorsese’s peerless Goodfellas, it goes much further than either of those films. For a start, the format allows far greater attention to what the mobsters do, say and think – and it’s rarely flattering. Far from The Sopranos offering a schoolboy enthusiasm for outlaw gangsters, Tony Soprano’s charges are portrayed as inept and uneducated, loners and losers. Even Soprano himself despairs at their glaring inadequacies. And even Soprano finds the callous nature of his business hard to stomach.

The day-to-day activities of the mob, however, are only half the story. More often they are simply devices to explore the moral uncertainties of contemporary America. As a firm believer in ‘the spirit of Gary Cooper’ and the American pioneers ‘who got things done’, Tony Soprano rages at the culture of caution and timidity. Above all, it’s his perception that America no longer has values ‘that hold the line’ that causes him to flare up. He sees it passed on in his son’s school text books (‘Christopher Columbus was responsible for genocide? What is this crap? People thought the world was flat before these pioneers’); in the relativism expressed by his right-on daughter Meadow in the elegantly observed season three; and when his charges play the (historical) victim card with American Red Indians.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, Tony Soprano can’t help being influenced by these retrograde trends himself. After all, since when do self-styled mob hardmen end up in counselling? Here, Soprano is both attracted to and repelled by therapy (though he is most certainly attracted to his therapist, Dr Jennifer Melfi). So he rails against the self-defeating circularity expressed in therapeutic psychobabble, but at the same time quite likes the flattering ‘everyone else is to blame but you’ comfort it also brings. Soprano’s relationship with his therapist is a sign of the times in another way. For while he adheres to strict Catholicism on issues to do with divorce, it’s clear the therapist has triumphed over the priest regarding weekly confessions.

In season five, some of these probing subtleties were lost. Casting a well-known, if brilliant, character actor such as Steve Buscemi didn’t quite work – this series relies on clever sleight-of-hand writing, not big names, to see it through. The over-emphasis on mob shoot-ups and slice-ups veered it towards ignominious Guy Ritchie territory (for once, the programme lived up to what you might think a mafia drama could be all about). Finally, the lack of a story arc also robbed the individual episodes of centre and guiding purpose.

For much of season six, though, The Sopranos regained its questing dissection, its steadfast intelligence on the current mores of American society. After the slightly wobbly coma sequence in episodes two and three, the weekly instalments became almost the equivalent of watching great lost American films from the early 1970s (a still rarely acknowledged Golden Age of cinema, if ever there was one). Much of this season seemed to rip asunder the glamorising of gangster culture itself. The moral bankruptcy and idiotic infantilism of lowly mob members was frequently referred to. And in particular, the parasitical and hostile relationship the Mafia has with the working masses was a common theme. Indeed, it’s worth remembering how the Mafia have long been virulent anti-communists and anti-trade unionists, with a history of providing strike-breaking muscle for employers.

In season six, there were all kinds of antagonisms between working people and Soprano’s mobsters. Although restaurant owner and chef Artie Bucco enjoys a harmonious relationship with Soprano’s mob, it seems he has been harbouring rather different thoughts all along. After a small-time mob associate, Benny Fazio, pulls a credit-card scam at Artie’s restaurant, years of resentment suddenly erupt. ‘Regular guys are just stupid to you, aren’t they?’ he roars, before delivering a spectacular knockout punch to Fazio. An attempt at reconciliation by Soprano – a jaunt on his luxury yacht – only seemed to enrage Artie’s sense of injustice further.

A recurring storyline in season six also dealt with the fate of Vito Spatafore, a married mobster who was ousted as a ‘practising homosexual’. In the backward, deeply misogynistic world of the Mafia, these things are still punishable by death. So Vito goes on the run, ends up in a small town and falls for a café chef-cum-voluntary firefighter, Jim Witowski. Initially, Vito is impressed that anyone would volunteer their time for free, particularly for something as potentially dangerous as firefighting. But Vito’s noble savage feelings for Jim and his proletarian mates slowly give way to contempt. He can’t understand, for instance, why they’re not up for playing cards until 4 in the morning. And when Jim provides Vito with work as a handyman, we begin to see how ‘hard’ this tough guy is. After two days of wage-labour graft, he bolts back to New Jersey and seeks forgiveness from Soprano. Vito understands the potentially dangerous repercussions of his reappearance in New Jersey, but even this seems preferable to an honest day’s work.

Sigmund Freud in Civilisation and Its Discontents argued that it is sex, not materialism, that lays the motivating basis for human action. The writers of The Sopranos, however, seem to understand that Marx was right all along. Vito’s spurned lover was understandably nonplussed at Vito’s materialist appraisal of his situation. ‘It had nothing to do with you missing the kids’, he said. ‘You missed the money and easy lifestyle.’ He then added a familiar motif for this season: ‘You and your kind just laugh at people with ordinary jobs, don’t you?’

If the mobs are out-of-place among working people, they’re out of their depth with the glitterati, too. In perhaps the most memorable episode of the season, Tony’s ‘nephew’ Christopher Moltisanti attempts to pitch a film script he has written to Sir Ben Kingsley. Aside from only seeing this distinguished actor in the Brit-gangster flick Sexy Beast, Christopher is only really interested in the end result of fame, not the perseverance it might take to get there. As soon as Christopher sees the free goods ‘Sir Kingsley’ receives at an awards ceremony, he starts hustling and pestering him for freebies like a hyperactive eight-year-old. As a damning portrayal of contemporary ‘be here now’ presentism and shallow, instant gratification, this was a sly delight.

Season six was also notable for Soprano’s dopey son, Anthony Junior (or AJ for short) coming of age. His lack of any motivation and aptitude has been a constant theme in recent seasons – and a particular bugbear for Soprano Senior, too. Often he blames his wife, Carmela, for mollycoddling AJ, though Soprano’s recognition that America’s wider cultural values are no longer inspirational to the young is perhaps closer to the mark. The scene where AJ befriends a group of decadent and slightly untrustworthy rich kids is an example of how The Sopranos creates eerie and unsettling atmospheres. Nothing particularly unsavoury is going on in those nightclub scenes, but there’s a foreboding tension that suggests AJ is heading for some kind of fall.

As with previous storylines, it might not work out that way after all. But the fact that things are never quite what they seem with The Sopranos is always one of the programme’s towering strengths. A friend of mine, the green-baiting tourism lecturer and writer Peter Smith, makes the point that everything you need to know about The Sopranos is contained in the show’s evocative, opening credits. The rolling shots of Manhattan’s awe-inspiring skyline give way to Soprano’s journey past smoke-belching industrial plants towards ‘down state’ New Jersey. Far from being the ‘King of New York’, in reality Soprano is simply a small-time hood out in the sticks lacking any real social power or clout. The programme might play on Mafia iconography, but only to put the bravado and machismo into some kind of true perspective. Again, things are never quite what they seem in The Sopranos.

Alongside all this, there’s still plenty of levity to lighten the load, too. Most of this relies on the malapropisms of Soprano’s mob charges, particularly the tragic, but engaging, Peter Paul ‘Paulie Walnuts’ Gualtieri. For example, he mentions what he thinks caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and a female waitress queries ‘wasn’t that a meteor?’ – to which Paulie dismissively throws back ‘they’re all meat-eaters’. Paulie also believes snakes reproduce spontaneously. And when mobster Tony Blundetto becomes involved in a business dealing with a Korean, Paulie cautions him to ‘remember Pearl Harbor’.

Much of the ‘Pine Barrens’ episode in season four was devoted to the failings of Paulie and Christopher as they attempted to survive in a snowy wilderness over a single day and night after an execution gone wrong. In this episode, Tony tells them to be careful with the subject of their execution as he once allegedly killed 16 Chechen rebels while working for the Russian Interior Ministry. Yet, when Paulie repeats this claim later, he says that the subject killed 16 Czechoslovakians and was an interior decorator. Even here, among the levity, the sly gags can’t resist making more serious and pointed comments. In season six, Carmela goes on a trip to Paris with fellow gangster moll, Rosie. As Carmela is discussing her plans with Tony, he points to his beloved History Channel and with a smile says ‘oh look, there’s a bit of French history for you’, only to see Nazi German troops marching through the Champs-Élysées.

The show isn’t quite over yet. There’s an eight-part finale due to be broadcast in spring 2007. Already there’s speculation about Tony Soprano’s fate. Will he get arrested and incarcerated? Will he get ‘whacked’ for seeing a therapist (surely an agreeable form of rough justice)? It is arguable that The Sopranos has been running for perhaps one season too many. And certainly, season five showed signs of fatigue. But with this latest instalment, once again it showed why American popular culture is so superior and why The Sopranos is still the greatest show on earth.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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