David Kelly looks at Sopranos lit in the NY Times:
- Literary critics and historians, neo-Marxists and theoretical feminists, postmodernists and pre-post-post-structuralists are scrambling to stake their claims to David Chase’s series. The name-dropping in these books borders on the felonious — why stop at Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese when Mikhail Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin are available? — but unfortunately the RICO statute doesn’t yet apply to the academic racket.
Glen O. Gabbard, a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, is impressed, as you might expect, by the character of Dr. Jennifer Melfi. According to him, once you allow for the conceit of a mobster as a patient, ”the degree of psychiatric realism in ‘The Sopranos’ is unprecedented.” I have no reason to doubt him, since ”The Sopranos” gets exactly right other things — northern New Jersey, Roman Catholicism, gentlemen’s cabarets — in which I am better versed.
”The Sopranos” is surely the best comedy as well as the best drama on television, and Gabbard promises that ”The Psychology of ‘The Sopranos’ ” will offer a somewhat ”lighthearted” take on the show — even though, as he tells us, ”viewers resonate with the existential dilemmas . . . so vividly showcased” every Sunday night. Indeed, ”the human condition involves psychological conflict, the inevitability of strife in intimate relationships, existential loneliness and crises of meaning. These psychological struggles are writ larger than life each week on ‘The Sopranos,’ and we are drawn to the show because of them.” Later he acknowledges that we are drawn to the show ”for all sorts of reasons, including great acting, clever dialogue, gruesome violence, nude women and scenic views of New Jersey.”
….If you don’t want to read about Christopher Moltisanti’s ”sense of existential meaninglessness,” you can try ”A Sitdown With the Sopranos,” which is intended to be ”an intellectually substantial collection” focusing on Italian-American culture. Edited by Regina Barreca, a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, it consists of essays by ”eight leading” Italian-American writers, including Jay Parini and Regina Barreca.
Some contributors sound as if they’re probably happier watching HBO’s hearse opera, ”Six Feet Under.” Sandra M. Gilbert starts by announcing, ”I’m only inditing such a piece because the editor of this volume made me an offer I couldn’t refuse — couldn’t refuse once I realized it would give me a chance to meditate on a subject that’s long troubled me: the vexing representations of ‘my’ people in all too many media megahits.” After much soul-searching, she concludes, ”If I introspect with sufficient seriousness, I’d have to admit that it’s ultimately been the figure of Dr. Melfi who has reconciled me to watching long swatches of this show.” Disrespecting the Bing, Barreca says that the mob stories provide ”the least interesting parts of ‘The Sopranos.’ ” It’s worth watching for ”the harrowing psychological recklessness, the relentless rush of emotional fireworks, the uncompromising believability and juicy precariousness of the characters’ inner lives.” Don’t forget the scenic views of New Jersey.
….”Tony Soprano’s America” analyzes the show — just barely — from a sociological perspective. David R. Simon, a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley, and an adjunct professor at the University of North Florida, spends most of his time lecturing us on American wickedness. For him, ”The Sopranos” is ”a symbol of our national pathologies.” Crowding virtually every page with statistics, he expounds on the military-industrial complex, the Warren Report, Vietnam, Iran-contra, Enron and so on. Occasionally he returns to Tony’s ”inauthentic existence” and his organized-crime family, which represents ”the tip of a transnational crime iceberg.” In the final chapter, Simon details ”what it would take to rid ourselves of our Tony Sopranos.” All well and good, but what would it take to rid ourselves of our Antonin Scalias and Camille Paglias?
In ”The Sopranos on the Couch,” Maurice Yacowar sets out to ”read” every episode. Yacowar, who teaches film at the University of Calgary, seems to have spent a great deal of time studying ”The Sopranos.” Maybe too much time — he should consider giving the DVD player a rest. This is his comment on Big Pussy’s mild case of food poisoning in Season II, Episode 13: ”Of course, apart from the safecracker’s wind-breaking in II, 8, the only previous note of flatulence in this series was also struck by Pussy on his release in I, 11.” Of course. Yacowar is a respectful guide, though you might prefer someone who doesn’t confuse Paulie and Silvio, who knows the difference between Connie Francis and Connie Stevens and who is aware that ”Angela’s Ashes” is a memoir, not a novel. Or you might not.
The most quotable book is ”This Thing of Ours,” edited by David Lavery, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. It is a collection of academic essays, some of them written by scholars and some of them written by professors of communication. Along with an intelligent piece by Ellen Willis that first appeared in The Nation, there is an essay about ”a Canadian experience of ‘The Sopranos’ ” and another entitled ”The Eighteenth Brumaire of Tony Soprano.” The television professor Robert J. Thompson is here, and it’s good to know he’s at work on ”a major study of ‘St. Elsewhere.’ ” Everyone in this volume seems to think of ”The Sopranos” as a ”text” or a ”meta-narrative” or a ”feminist metatext.” But let’s allow the writers to speak for themselves. On male girth: ”Fatness is a signifier with many overlapping and even contradictory signifieds.” On male behavior: ”Nearly all of Tony’s ‘business’ relationships . . . are characterized by a phallocentric, linear representation of self.” On female agency: ”Media self-reflexivity operates throughout, as well as being embedded right into the very form of, the ‘Sopranos’ text.