By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
The first time I saw The Sopranos last year, mob boss Big Tony Soprano is standing out by his swimming pool -- where he goes to escape the FBIs electronic surveillance -- and he turns to one of his henchmen and says, Get the #%*!!@#* out!
Now thats talk I can hear from young punks on New York subway platforms or from mothers wheeling their baby carriages on the streets of Jersey City. Ninety-nine percent of the worlds greatest literature has been published without using any of those words.
Today 25.5 million Americans, about 25 percent of the nations 102,200,000 TV owners, pay HBO to pipe those words into their parlors on Sunday night. Countless more, who dont get HBO, rent and buy the tapes, or, like me, borrow them from friends.
And if we can filter out the trash talk and let the show work its power, The Sopranos emerges as an American pop epic, a family saga in which we recognize all too much of ourselves -- or rather, the family down the street who may fascinate us but whom we would under no circumstances invite into our homes.
Though its audiences reach is small compared to the networks, for yuppies and the media elite its the top bar and cocktail party conversation topic, generating articles in The New Yorker, Newsweek, The Nation, and The New York Times. Local papers devote long Monday columns to text analysis of the previous nights show.
In Hudson County, N.J., where Sopranos spills its blood and dumps its corpses, a Sopranos $30 tour bus guide will point out the Turnpike entrance, graveyards, bars, strip joints, landfills and murder sites weve seen on TV. For balance, the guide informs us that less than 1 percent of New Jersey Italian-Americans have been convicted of Mafia-related crimes.
Meanwhile, the Newark Star Ledger, which Tony staggers down his driveway every morning in his skivvies and bathrobe to pick up, reports on his fictional ups and downs as if he were one of several real New Jersey Italian-named top politicos -- like Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli -- soon due for indictment, impeachment or oblivion.
A New Jersey congresswoman, Republican Marge Roukema, who has not seen the show, has introduced a resolution condemning The Sopranos for its stereotypes. Other ambitious politicians, like Mario Cuomos son, Andrew, now running for governor of New York, say they dont watch it, although Cuomo commissioned a poll on whether it was popular with voters. Meanwhile, two weeks ago, on its first post-midnight broadcast in Italy -- dubbed in standard and Neapolitan accents -- the show broke records. Real Italians, it was said, know who they are and are not embarrassed by offensive stereotypes.
What puts The Sopranos critics on the defensive is that its good. Why? Three things stand out: its realism; the narrative flow that keeps several plots and sub-plots humming; its ability to raise larger issues -- family disintegration, status-climbing, race, the replacement of religion by psychiatry, old age and physical decline -- in the context of what on the surface is a gangster soap opera.
Its defenders rush to say that its not about the mob. Just as Survivor was a metaphor for capitalism, The Sopranos is about corporate America, where all the CEOs who know their corporations thrive by crushing weak people in this country and abroad come home to their families and try helplessly to control their teenage children.
Tonys daughter at Columbia was dating a mixed-race boy; Tonys son, Anthony Jr., struggles with high school sports to please his dad. But he knows who and what his father is. Caught cheating on an exam, the boy is expelled, and his father determines to send him to military school to get some discipline in his life.
By realism I mean the blunt, sharp-focus photography, not the warm chiaroscuro that helped romanticize the Godfather trilogy. The characters are, for the most part, ugly and fat. One, Paulie Walnut, is played by an ex-mobster-extortionist who would threaten to carve his initials in the foreheads of those who didnt show respect. Anyone who likes to imagine that Mafia types are basically just businessmen who dabble in victimless crimes like gambling and who struggle to put food on the table and send their kids to college like everyone else will see here a ruthless bunch of ignorant cynics who bump off human beings -- including those they love, hug, pat and kiss -- as easily as they wipe their noses or spit.
The plot is so complex that the Star Ledgers TV critic, Matt Zoller-Seitz, has to bring readers up to date with regular summary-analysis including his own amateur psychoanalysis of Tonys shrink, Jennifer Melfi, a divorced Italian woman obviously drawn to this beefy capo. Tony suffers from panic attack syndrome, and Jennifer knows he is a ruthless murderer, but her professionalism will not allow her to judge.
And there are moments when we, too, cheer for Tony. When Tonys predecessor as mob boss, his Uncle Junior, discovers he is suffering from cancer and cant get his doctor at a prestigious New York hospital to return his phone calls, Tony tracks the doc down on the golf course and shoves him into a pond up to his ankles and says: Return calls.
Surely at that moment every sick person in America who cant get a doctor on the phone is rooting for the New Jersey mobster and wishing there was one in his or her hometown.
As everyone knows, however, The Sopranos this season has changed. The writers have upped the ante. Sure, they killed a lot of people last year; but in recent weeks weve been wiping the blood off our screens. A hotheaded jerk, nephew of one of Tonys asthmatic, aging soldiers, pounded in the skull of some guy on a city street with a golf club. Against the protests of the old mans son and his own uncle, Tony sent the old guy to whack his own nephew. So the old man blasted the kids brains all over the wall, then killed himself in a coughing fit that made him crash his car.
Then the psychiatrist was raped by a Puerto Rican in her parking garage. It was a relatively long rape, as she screamed and wept -- an encounter that transformed her personality, made her ugly and hostile, spouting @#^&*!, and tempted her to ask her patient to avenge her when the incompetent police let her assailant go.
The shows defenders argue that the writers, in a flush of social responsibility, are trying to distance their audience from the characters.
An NBC executive has whined that the networks cant compete with The Sopranos because the networks cant talk dirty and shed blood.
Sopranos defenders respond that the networks cant compete because they wont allow their writers to write well.
My own impression is that the writers have upped the sex and violence to hold their audience, to create a buzz, to induce the 75 percent of us who dont get HBO to sign on or be left out of all the good conversations. I also sense that they know they have hit the ceiling. They may have at most one season left and they are looking for a way to go out with a bang. Maybe a car bomb. Even the star, James Gandolfi, has muttered to the press that the violence is starting to bother me personally. But how will they bring closure?
The New York Daily News critic, Eric Mink, predicts that when Anthony Jr. starts having panic attacks and passing out under pressure like his old man, Tony will finally realize that his way of life is destroying his family, will snitch on his comrades and join the FBIs witness protection program. After all, what do real sopranos do? They sing.
I see three scenarios.
1. The Rashkolnikov solution: Tonys wife, Carmela, has been seeing a psychiatrist on her own. Although her priest has told her to stay with her husband, her therapist, a Jew, tells her to leave. If she will not leave, the therapist says, make Tony read the last chapter of Dostoevskis Crime and Punishment, where the killer, the young law student Rashkolnikov, confesses, goes to a Siberian penal colony, reads the New Testament, finds God and repents.
2. The Network Rescue: NBC sends its team from Law and Order over to HBO to apprehend Tony and convict him. He is sent to the same prison featured in the other HBO sensational show, OZ, where, in spite of wardens, guards and therapists, prisoners murder each other every week. Boss Soprano can be kept on ice as a character in this other show, until he buys a pardon through the intervention of a prominent New Jersey politician and returns, after a year off, to his own series.
3. More likely he will die as he lived. For three years fans have watched him blow away, strangle and brutalize anyone who stood in his way, including relatives and friends. One night when hes watching Jimmy Cagney in the old film Public Enemy on TV, when we come to that final scene where Jimmys mother gets a phone call saying her son is coming home, and the mob delivers his trussed-up corpse at the front door, Tony will get a knock at the door. A bunch of his friends will be there with baseball bats. Including his own son.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit Community Professor of the Humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J.
National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001