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The best stroke in HBO’s 13-part series The Sopranos, premiering January 10, is that it isn’t conceived as farce. The premise is inherently satiric, with a successful mafioso (James Gandolfini as waste-management kingpin Tony Soprano) presented as your typical, demoralized, middle-aged suburbanite — unfulfilled by his privileges, nagged by troubles at home and business associates who don’t appreciate a great tradition, and leaking nostalgia for the “golden age” he thinks he’s missed out on. The Godfather equated gangsterism with American capitalism at a lordly level; this is the middle-management version, making a troubled, doleful thug the mouthpiece for the white bourgeoisie’s sense of loss. The forlorn way Gandolfini plays Tony, he’s like a bear who’s discovered Kierkegaard — and can’t see what to do about it, because he’s still a bear. But what makes the joke resonant is that the treatment is sympathetic, inviting us to identify with a hero whose plight we find poignant only to find ourselves complicit in what he does for a living. At its best, the show is audacious — Mario Puzo rewritten by John Cheever.
Then again, David Chase also has a surfeit of readymades to build on — and the paradox is that I like his series better than most of the stuff it’s in hock to. Like vampires, mobsters have become a universal pop trope; our familiarity with the lore makes irony automatic. The Mafia has already been domesticated in Married to the Mob and deglamorized — supposedly — in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. But Scorsese has always equated the ordinary with the banal; his trademark excitability valorized his hoodlums’ murderous prowess while condemning their vulgar manners and crummy taste in home decor. Inevitably, The Sopranos is full of nods to Scorsese — who turns up as himself for a droll cameo in the January 17 episode, entering a nightclub like a rock star while the show’s real-life goodfellas goggle behind a velvet rope. But the series strikes notes that he’s never bothered with, and its lack of hyperbole is refreshing; for all it’s tricky mix of tones, it’s appealingly straightforward. The excellent photography serves the material without indulging in look-ma-no-head razzmatazz, and the performances pass up all sorts of chances for lurid shtick to keep the characters grounded in plausibility.
Predictably, the other hand-me-downs on display come from Quentin Tarantino’s fakebook — an influence that shows up most archly in baroquely waggish moments like one goon bemusedly opining, “Sadness accrues.” All the same, I’ve never understood what Tarantino thinks he’s being a smartass about, and in some ways, a style as extravagant as his is less objectionable once its innovations percolate down to journeyman level. Inadequate as a sensibility, it’s peachy as a source of riffs. Unlike his exemplar, Chase — whose last series was the unimpeachably virtuous I’ll Fly Away — isn’t a flagrant wiseacre; he’s assimilated these post–Pulp Fiction moves into his own taste for humane naturalism, adding dimension to one and no less welcome snap to the other. Derivative or not, the badinage he’s devised is plenty flavorful: when Tony considers ditching waste disposal for an HMO scam, one minion protests, “Hey, garbage is our bread and butter.”
Needless to say, this being HBO, tits accrue too — with a few scenes too many set in a topless joint whose name I didn’t catch, but suspect is the Casaba. Yet the second episode’s fade-out redeems even that; in a lovely shot, the strippers come together like a mute Greek chorus to contemplate Tony’s tragedy, then shrug it off and start wiggling again. Overall, the sense of milieu is richer than the TV norm — even when you can’t sort out the skulduggeries being plotted, the atmospheric grace notes keep you engrossed. While the series abounds in pop allusions, they’re usually organic; after all, it makes perfect sense that these mobsters would know the Godfather movies by heart, and — except for Part III, of course, which left them as dejected as everybody else — see the Corleones’ saga as the ideal that their lives fail to live up to. It’s typical of Chase’s gift for particularizing detail that Tony’s wife Carmela (Edie Falco) not only laughs about her husband watching Godfather II over and over, but offhandedly adds, “He likes the part where Vito goes back to Sicily” — the part where businesslike, practical-minded Vito reverts to the primitive satisfaction of revenge. And even a viewer as tired as I am of vintage rock songs trotted out as satiric commentary got a giggle out of the second episode’s kickoff tune — the Kinks doing “Where Have All the Good Times Gone.”
In the debut, Tony spends most of his time being harassed — by peevish Carmela, their contemptuous daughter (Jamie Lynn Sigler), and the querulous mother who, just like many another boomer, this dutiful son guiltily hopes to coax into a nursing home. As baleful, intimidating Mom, Nancy Marchand goes at her harridan role with such alarming energy that you suspect she’s grown as bored as the audience with the refined dowagers she usually plays. (Disconcertingly, she’s also — can this possibly be deliberate — a dead ringer for Pauline Kael.) In an affecting, nicely Cheeverish touch, Tony’s only consolation is the flock of wild ducks that has taken to visiting his swimming pool; whenever they appear, he splashes around delightedly, while his family looks on stone-faced. It’s when the ducks vanish for good that Tony goes into a tailspin, suffering the anxiety attacks that land him, on his doctor’s orders, in the office of psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
This couch gimmick may have you groaning, since the list of movies where it’s been treated facetiously vies only with the list of movies where it deserves to be. But the device works better than you’d expect. For one thing, unless I’m getting soft in the head, Bracco isn’t that bad; her career as the Lucy Ricardo of the gangster genre may make her presence here both inevitable and ominous, but she’s underplaying her own brassiness for once. For another, Tony’s blustering laments about our vanished greatness are often funny. “Gary Cooper!” he bursts out. “Now that was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings! He just did what he had to do. What they didn’t know was that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, he wouldn’t be able to shut up!” I even like the dumb joke when Tony admits that he’s worried about RICO, and the psychiatrist asks, “Is he your brother?” You also don’t need much more of a tip-off to the hero’s Oedipal hang-ups than the moment when, pleased that his new shrink’s a paisan, he beams, “My mother woulda loved it if you and I got together” — and you realize that’s his idea of a come-on.
Gandolfini’s performance is one of the best reasons to tune in. He’s wonderful at conveying Tony’s confusion — the way he finds his own emotions bizarre, and tries to accommodate them to his swaggering view of himself. (When he’s distraught, he doesn’t wring his hands; he wrings his fists.) Wife Carmela greets the news that her husband’s on medication with such delight that it turns Tony grumpy — “You’d think I was Hannibal Lecter before, or something.” His bamboozled face is the key to a double-edged tone I wonder whether Chase can possibly keep up; if this series turns into straight burlesque, it’ll be tiresome, but if it goes maudlin on us it’ll just be gaga. A wistful mobster on Prozac as the incarnation of middle-class America was a metaphor that was waiting to happen.