Thursday, January 20, 2000

Unless you’ve been living on Mars or Pluto, you’ve heard about (and probably watched) “The Sopranos,” the popular HBO show that returned with overwhelming fanfare to the new season this week. Like everybody else you’ve probably wondered why it’s such a sensation. I’ve got a few ideas.

It’s a deconstructed gangster story, a drama about good and evil where absolutes can no longer apply. Tony, the hero, such as he is, is both brutal and domesticated. His woman is not peripheral, but feisty wife and mother of his children. He’s also an adulterer, and she knows it.

A complex man who is born to use violence on behalf of kith and kin can no longer be a laconic cowboy. The western is gone with the frontier and you can’t see high noon because the malls block the sun. Instead Tony’s a loquacious Mafioso who visits a psychiatrist. He doesn’t brood, he analyzes. Mafia mythology is urban born, but has moved to the suburbs. As in gangster films of old, there’s the “raw meat of reality.” The reality has changed.

Morality is in the eye of the beholder. Tony’s job is “waste management” in a moral wasteland. The Mafia is “Family” with all the usual “family” distresses. The dons complain about the high cost of college just like the rest of us.

One scene is emblematic. The immediate Soprano family, mom and pop, their son Anthony Jr. and daughter Meadow, are having breakfast. Meadow, a teen-ager, talks about sex, rationalizing the conversation at the table because everybody’s talking about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Her father asserts his patriarchal power: “Out there it’s the 1990s. In this house, it’s 1954.” That’s the sociological grid for the show.

Tony is a mobster, but not at his breakfast table. He may be confused about what’s wrong with the Mafia, but he’s not confused about what’s right for his children. It doesn’t take a village to raise his children, but he counts on an extended family. Shading is important. In the post-modern, edgy world of the Soprano family and in more muted ways for most of the rest of us adults fear they are losing control to computers.

One of Tony’s lowbrow philosopher buddies, whose last name is Dante, is outraged when his kids discover his mob connections on the Internet. “It’s hard to raise kids in the information age,” he says. This is an earthly Inferno, ripe with nostalgia and satirical wit, where adults genuinely fear being left behind.

You might call Tony’s attempt to kill Livia, his mother, a post-modern motive in self-defense that Freud might have allegorized. Livia, a woman who makes Medea look saintly, had put out a contract on her son because he put her in a nursing home. (Now there’s a post-modern issue.) The son’s actions weren’t sanctioned by the Family’s rules of an earlier generation, but they’re understandable in this family. When the son visits a psychiatrist, not a priest, Livia worries about what he says to the shrink about her.

Civilization Soprano-style has lots of discontents. Livia’s daughter returns to take care of her, presumably to get her hands on money and goods. She’s a New Age exile from an ashram who describes herself as a “seeker.” Relativism meets realism.

These episodes suggest an implied comparison to the ethics of the legitimate world. I grew up as the daughter of a bookie, an illegal trade in the 1940s and 1950s. Then the state took it over and called them lotteries. I grew up with firsthand knowledge of what was and what wasn’t “legit.” My father left gambling behind to become a builder when I was a teen-ager, and I can still remember how disappointed he was to discover that the ethics of the legitimate bankers and builders, his new colleagues, did not always measure up to the standards of the hustlers he knew from the old days.

“The Sopranos” is no morality play. It’s insightful rather than instructive, clever and sardonic entertainment about family life, the wages of sin, fear of losing control (especially for the men) in a world with changing rules and technology. It’s a human comedy for the new millennium.

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