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TV Review: The Sopranos, Gut-Churning and Visceral, Dark and Brilliant

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I grew up in Long Island, New York, among a broad swath of Irish, Italian, and Jewish families, many of whom emigrated out of the deeply ethnic ghettos of New York City. And not “The City” of Sex and the City and the like, but the New York of Brooklyn and The Bronx and Staten Island.

My stepfather was one of those guys, a tough Jewish kid with a big nose who literally bludgeoned his way out of the sweltering hell of The Bronx, escaping his own brutal father, a butcher, and into the relative luxury of the Navy, lying about his age to enter the military at the tail end of the Second World War. If not for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my step father would have bludgeoned his way into Japan from the tail gun of a naval fighter.

Something I’ve never written about before is how much James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano reminds me of my stepfather at times. It’s the little things. The raise of an eyebrow, a thick guttural roll to an expression, the sarcastic and dark twinkle behind a joke that could well be anything but, the dark brown eyes under thick eyebrows that always seem to sigh, “So what do you want from me?”

Of course, Tony Soprano is a fictional character, a mob boss who lives in a big house with his family of four in North Jersey, while my stepfather fell into a frustrated yet largely successful half-century as an accountant. But that Gandolfini can convey such a range of emotions, usually without words — especially now, in this sixth season of The Sopranos, coming back from a near fatal gut shot wound — is testimony to some of the finest acting I’ve ever witnessed.

I’m reminded of a scene in the pilot episode, when Tony discovers that his cousin Christopher (always played with powerhouse charisma by Michael Imperioli) is toying around with leaving the “family business” to write screenplays about the mob life. Enraged, Tony charges toward the camera and Christopher, a bull with hysterical energy and frightful purpose. At the last moment he pulls back, however, and extends a gaping paw and playfully taps Christopher’s cheek, his face now bright and cheerful, the face of the man you know you’re always going to follow because there’s no other way and no other choice.

And back to Season Six, we have a Tony Soprano continuing to recover, continuing to take back the reins on his North Jersey empire. Aside from a troubled and recently booted out of college son (like father like son, AJ will certainly be one to keep an eye on as the final extended season plays out), Tony’s domestic life has rarely been better. Indeed, wife Carmela (Edie Falco, who equals and at times bests Gandolfini pace-for-pace) seems relieved to give up her own inner moral qualms about living la vida mafia and thrilled with Tony’s reflective and family-oriented manner, never more so than when Tony sweetly explains to daughter Meadow the importance of living to see a new member to the family line sitting in his lap.

Now just well enough to be back at “the office,” Tony is acutely aware that his absence has produced a power vacuum. And as the oddly prescient Dr. Melfi alluded to during Tony’s first post-coma therapy session (perhaps she too felt Tony’s loss and was quick with advice to ensure his good graces?), when the cat’s away, the mice will play.

Meanwhile, a rather vast and sprawling B story line plays out, a pattern that series mastermind David Chase has used several times this season already. This week, we see acting New York boss Johnny Sack have a brief spell from prison to see his daughter Allegra get married. During the wedding itself, we see Tony give in to his cross-river rival and friend’s wishes for the second time. In this instance, he agrees to clip Rusty Millio (Frankie Valli), who Johnny refers to as a “cancer” on his own ability to strengthen his grip on power from behind prison walls.

When Tony asserts to Christopher (now a Captain in his own right, a man who orders hits with very little compunction) that they bring in a shooter from Naples to keep things quiet, Christopher immediately balks, calling it “a pussy move.” Later, at the end of a lavish wedding that straddles the line between classy and gaudy, Johnny Sack is forced to return to handcuffs by federal marshals just as Allegra and her new husband Eric (and don’t think that Eric’s non-Italian ethnicity isn’t a subtle foil for Meadow’s fiancee, Finn) are leaving the reception for their honeymoon. Johnny, as stoic and tough a New Yorker as they come, breaks down in tears on the way to the government-owned Suburban.

In mob culture, the big dog rules while the rest of the pack drools. Anything that shows the hint of weakness, femininity, or softness is shunned at best and punished mercilessly when manifested (and yes, this week our dear Vito, while getting his dance on at a gay club, was finally outed in a way that could spiral into all kinds of complications for Tony and crew). When Tony witnesses Johnny Sack’s close friend and confidante Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) belittling the man, a man who had just been humiliated in front of all of his friends and loved ones, we can see the old mechanisms of the brutal crime lord that was slowly ticking and grinding and churning back to speed.

But Tony isn’t the man that he was. He wears an enormous vertical scar on his abdomen. He’s so weak that he collapses when forced to take off his shoes in order to pass through security at the wedding.

And it all comes to a head in a scene that easily takes its place in the very best of The Sopranos canon. I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention that this episode is directed by the great Steve Buscemi, who always seems to make his turn at The Sopranos helm one of the season’s best. We’re in the back of Satriale’s, a place where mob men are men and where guys who “had to go” get chopped up before transportation to local shallow graves. Tony sizes up his troops as the camera slows down to the pace of the leader’s thoughts. He’s heavy, hobbled, slow: the vulnerable leader of the pack. Finally, he seizes upon his new driver, a young kid with massive muscles and a quick temper. Tony lays into the kid with a made up story no better than a schoolyard charge of, “What’d you say about my mother?”

Finally, Tony takes a swing and puts the kid on the floor. But that’s just the start of it. Tony knows that the kid can’t control his temper, that he’s young and stupid enough to actually take a swing at “the skip” in front of all the other guys. And he does, too, and what follows is one of the most viscerally disturbing (satisfying?) yet brief on-screen scuffles I’ve seen in some time.

It ends with the kid driver passed out and Tony in the bathroom hurling his guts out, reddened chunks of himself launching, spiraling from his gut, payment of his physical self and spiritual soul to stay on top of the heap for one more stretch of time. In between bouts of vomiting, he stares into the mirror, grinning harshly, teeth pink.

For all of Tony Soprano’s cautious strategies and alliance building with the New York families, at heart he’s a guy who succeeds in a savage, simplistic world by punching the other guy in the mouth and then saying, “So how do you like that?”


I had a strange and often strained relationship with my stepfather. He couldn’t comprehend that I would never know how good I had it, what with my riches of the 1980s, the microwaves, the MTVs, the Nintendo products, let alone a constant and unending run of meals and electricity and a warm and safe house out in the suburbs. Many years later, before he became seriously ill, we enjoyed a period of improved relations. It was meeting the woman I would later marry that did it, oddly enough. I think I became a man in his eyes for the first time, something more than a soft child blind to the concept of hardship.

I should add in closing that while he would sometimes taunt me to hit him, I never did and, to his credit, he never threw the first punch.

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  • http://blogcritics.org Joanie

    Congrats, this review has been placed on Advance.net

  • DO NOT DEFAME ITALIANS

    these pieces which make all italians look bad make my blood BOIL. end of story.

  • http://jswynne.typepad.com/gropes/ Jim Wynne

    An excellent piece, Eric. It always amazes me that people like DNDI in comment #2 never actually read anything or pay any attention to what’s actually being said, opting for scanning the world for keywords and kneejerking their way through life.

    Here’s a clue for DNDI: the piece doesn’t make Italians look bad; some Italians do, but only to very narrow-minded people, such as those who think we’re all stupid enough to believe that all Italians are bad after reading a piece about a TV show about some bad Italians.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Thanks Jim!

    I would imagine that the other commenter feels that The Sopranos defames Italians in some way (something I strongly disagree with) and, therefore, the defamation continues with anything written about the show.

  • Janice Druckman

    Interesting article!

  • http://blog.myspace.com/blog/rss.cfm?friendID=19453654 J. P. Spencer

    “The Sopranos” doesn’t make Italians look bad.

    My family is one-half Italian, and though I can see similarities between Italians of all stripes (legal or otherwise), I was always told that Mafiosi are pigs and barely above human refuse in my house, and as I have grown older, I have seen no reason to alter that assessment, despite the best efforts of Hollywood to glamorize their behavior.

    Still, I never miss “The Sopranos”. We are well aware going in that these characters have one BIG fatal flaw, but this show does a very good job in displaying that there are truths universal to every Italian household, the most obvious of which being that Italians do INDEED spend most of their family time in and around the kitchen. I might add that Chase & Co. do a masterful job of showing the role of Catholicism in a typical Italian household.

    This was a great review of a great show. Thanks Eric.

  • Bliffle

    “The Sopranos” doesn’t make Italians look bad, it makes humans look bad. Amazing to me that we’ve lionized gangsters so greatly in this society. Is this evidence of hidden, violent, poorly suppressed hatred of society itself?

  • http://notesfromnancy.blogspot.com NancyGail

    Let’s see, several of the cast members are Italian and this episode was directed by one. Exactly how does this piece defame them?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Bliffle, on the contrary, The Sopranos is so compelling because of how subversive it is, how it plays with the notion, the lionization of the gangster (or gangsta, if you will, if you’d like to take it out of the Italian-American stereotype), and turns it on its head. Tony Soprano is at base utterly human: he takes out the garbage, his wife yells at him, his kids don’t listen, etc. Just when you feel for him — and Gandolfini makes you feel for him through the magnificent range of human emotions and flaws he portrays — he figuratively punches the audience in the gut by revealing his capacity for detestable actions.

    That most — myself included — tend to generally “root” for him nonetheless as the anti-hero of the story is where the truly interesting questions come into play.

    It really is a show that works on multiple levels. I can’t help feeling sad that some people won’t allow themselves to see that.

  • Bliffle

    I’m sorry you feel sad. It makes me sad. But not nearly as sad as when I watched “The Sopranos” and realized how sad and frustrated so many people must feel that they find Tony Soprano interesting, and that egregious garbage disposal humanizes a despicable person. What sad deprived lives my fellow citizens must lead.

  • http://jswynne.typepad.com/gropes/ Jim Wynne

    Bliffle said,
    …and that egregious garbage disposal humanizes a despicable person.

    The interest is in the idea that despicable people are human, and in finding the humanity and examining the conflicts between despicableness and being “normal.” There is at least some tiny spark of despicable in all of us, Bliffle, whether we choose to admit it or not.

  • Bliffle

    Personally, I have a large spark of despicable in me, but I don’t think a TV show should be made about it. It’s bad enough that a few days ago my guard dropped momentarliy and I suffered a few moments of chagrined reflection on some of my past despicable behaviour, but to have it played across the TV screens of the nation would be just too punishing.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Yes, what kind of drama or fiction (or non-fiction!) avoids “despicableness” of some sort, human frailty of some variety? This is the very stuff that makes us human, I’d argue! The ability to choose between good and evil.

    What’s fascinating about Tony Soprano is that he chooses to believe that he is good, that most of the choices that he makes serve and protect himself and his two families. The Shield, another fine show, works very much along the same lines through conflicted anti-hero cop Vic Mackey.

    So explioiting despicableness in human nature (such as Faces of Death or some such rubbish) for “entertainment value” without some redeeming quality or qualities is to be condemned, yes. And I think it’s perfectly fine and acceptable to not enjoy The Sopranos for any number of reasons. But I don’t think Bliffle’s argument — that those who enjoy stories that center upon “bad” characters lead deprived lives — holds.

    What kinds of storie or shows would you deem appropriate, Bliffle?

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    EB, this is a marvelous piece of writing you’ve done here. Just fantastic. Great insights and the self-disclosure only makes it that much more effective. I can’t wait to talk about this on BCRadio this week. Well done.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Thanks DJR and likewise!

    I should add that for more Sopranos talk, you can usually find yours truly over on the BC Radio, which is nonetheless a fantastic contraption of a radio publication helmed by our DJRadiohead.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I put a link to this fine piece on the BCRadio page for this week. It’s all about the cross-promotion, man.

    In all seriousness, I did enjoy this and I do encourage everyone to go listen to BCRadio and catch EB’s great segment on the show.

  • Bliffle

    “So explioiting despicableness in human nature (such as Faces of Death or some such rubbish) for “entertainment value” without some redeeming quality or qualities is to be condemned, yes. And I think it’s perfectly fine and acceptable to not enjoy The Sopranos for any number of reasons. But I don’t think Bliffle’s argument — that those who enjoy stories that center upon “bad” characters lead deprived lives — holds.”

    Nothing new in that concept going back to Shakespeare. I was reminded that the fine NY Shakesperean critic X (whose name eludes my age-addled mind – such are the privations of having survived long and too well) interviewed on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago pointed out that all that we know of modern human emotion proceeds from Shakespeare. For example, before Romeo And Juliet we knew nothing of the emotional life of a teenage girl.

    Since Shakespeare told the story so well and so thoroughly, why tell it again? To provide temporary employment for a wretched writer? In fact, why even watch the Shakespeare story again? Isn’t that redundant? What have I to gain from seeing “King Lear” again? The only reason I can think of is concerning certain commercial interests. I know that every hour of network TV is burdened by 20 minutes of commercials, and that Sopranos are on cable, so the question is: how many minutes of the Sopranos hour is consumed in commercials?

    “What kinds of storie or shows would you deem appropriate, Bliffle?”

    I’m glad you asked (I’m far too shy and reserved to offer my opinion on such important matters unbidden). This morning I watched childrens TV cartoons with my 7 yr. old faux granddaughter (she knows this is an infrequently exercised vice, a privilege occasionally granted so she can stay current with her chums). An old Scooby Doo cartoon, in bad French, with incessant commercials for Coco Puffs, empty of any content, just reciting the stupidities of the shallow characters. Then, after dinner we watched “Micropolis”, an excellent film of insect life. Twice. She’s a big insect fan and has been for about 3 years. She has discovered most of the filmed beetles already in the field, understands metamorphasys and sex and preying, partly through her own experiments, and identifies insects differences and various behaviours. Tomorrow morning we’ll drive to the actual Micropolis in Aveyron, birthplace of the fine French entemologist Fabre, whose book on the dung beetle is so fascinating, my wife says, that she couldn’t put it down until she’d finished it.

    That’s what we need: more fact and less (spurious) fiction.

  • http://dracutweblog.blogspot.com Mary K. Williams

    Eric
    I read this a while back and never commented. Very powerful. I don’t follow the show too much – but I have seen it a few times. I can see why it does have the following that it has.

    Thanks for sharing the personal. Wanna pass some of those guts over this way? (not the visceral kind – the bravery kind)

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Thanks Mary, though I’m sure you’ve got a good pile of bravery-guts all your own !

  • Etienne

    Biffle,
    Interesting point with regard to “Critic X” and his contention that “all we know about human emotion proceeds from Shakespeare.” Your larger point about man’s capacity for violent entertainment and, unfortunately, for violence in general is also well taken. We may percieve ourselves as a civilized society, but for all that, we’re not far removed from killing one another with stones and axes.

    Personally, I enjoy The Sopranos a great deal. Certainly, it’s not Shakespeare, but I think that it does have as similar a popular appeal in our day as Shakespeare’s work did in his own time. Perhaps it does say something about my own nature that I relish David Chase’s depiction of Tony Soprano as, in many respects, a guy with everyday problems. Of course he’s not simply that; he’s also a monster in human clothing, no matter how much I and others may identify with individual aspects of his personality.

    I think Eric hit it right on the head when he tied his own experiences to Gandolfini’s acting abilities. I see my own father’s temper in Tony. Simmering, explosive anger that echoes in Tony Soprano’s nose-breathing. I’m reminded of old friends and some family members and acquaintances from when I grew up in North Jersey. I watch the show, I enjoy it because I recognize bits of myself in the characters. Which, naturally, is what so many people find compelling about the show.

    That being said, I’m not sure that the Soprano’s popularity points to the sorry state of humankind as much as it does to the simple fact that we all love a good yarn and an intrinsic part of a good yarn is that we can identify with the characters on some level. I like shows about bugs, too, mind you, and all manner of other things, but so long as violent fare isn’t your only sustainance, the Sopranos makes for a pretty tasty condiment.

    All that being said, I prefer a good book. Something by Cormac McCarthy, perhaps…

  • http://plastic-bag.trafcor.com Foktes

    Arreda Ferghuty!
    Thanks.

  • kamal

    One of tvs best shows. Never black and white. Lots of character depth. Funny commentary. This show was money. One of the best. Great pick-up HBO.