Arrivederci Tony -- and Good &%$@ing Riddance!

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

Finally! It's OVER. The pandering, pretentious, overblown, over-wrought, over-interpreted, over-rated series about a loathsome subculture of brutal cowards who feed off the poor, the weak and one another, who despise anyone not of their race and express their displeasure with baseball bats (provided the odds are solidly in their favor) and manifest their manliness or loyalty or code or some such drivel by bravely shooting, stabbing or garroting their (preferably unarmed) victims from the rear.

No I'm not talking about the Republican presidential debates. I'm talking about The Sopranos.

My loathing for the Sopranos hasn't made me particularly popular over the last few years at dinner parties, but now that the much beloved stream of conscience-less-ness has finally breathed its banal who-cares last, it's time to slink around the Escalade and put a moon-roof in its head.

For nine long seasons I've listened slack-jawed to friends of whom I'm otherwise fond, raving on about how 'The Sopranos speak to our times' or 'The Sopranos are us or encapsulate the decline of the nation. I doubt if any series has ever had so much groveling or self-aggrandizing intellectual hot air blown up its butt in all of television history. About the artistry of its creator David Chase and his endless inventiveness, superlatives about the brilliance of locations, casting, 'message' the Sopranos' Shakespearian sweep and grandeur, its raw and flawless realism, and above all about Tony's 'conflicted' life, his essential 'sweetness'

Gandolfini sweet? Gandolfini couldn't play sweet if you waterboarded him in molasses.

I never understood the mass delusion that seemed to grip otherwise intelligent well-informed and even sensitive people about the Sopranos, but I understand that such monumental shared delusions can happen. At Fatima in 1917 for example, tens of thousands believed the sun stood still in the sky. In the weeks immediately following 9/11 vast numbers of people persuaded themselves that George Bush wasn't a worthless moral homunculus. But perhaps we can all rub our eyes now, blink away our delusions and start examining what on earth it was that cast its demon spell on us all these years.

I honestly tried many times over the years to get into what seemed to be so unanimous a national experience, but every time, however skilled the supporting cast (in particular Edie Falco or my one-time colleague Nancy Marchand) I just couldn't get past Gandolfini. Unless in a blind rage he was so flabby, so tedious, so inexpressive, so lumbering, so creatively inert; the nicest thing you could say of him was that he was talent-challenged. Since he was in the vast majority of scenes, I tended to give up till the next season.

Perhaps it was that I was expecting him to be funny. According to NY television writer scuttlebutt, David Chase had originally sold HBO a comedy series about a capo who had a shrink. (All us aspiring TV writers had a mob-comedy treatment back in the late 90s: after the lame Casino (1995) and plodding Donnie Brasco (1997) the mob genre had been squeezed bone-dry. Plus in the real world the massive busts and betrayals of the 90s, left the actual Mafia totally on the skids. Ergo: time to tap the rich vein of Mob-on-the-skids comedies.

Unfortunately for us all, especially David Chase, Harold Ramis got there first with his hilarious mobster hit Analyze This, which centered around a mob capo - and his shrink. Chase supposedly had to do some very fast-footed rewriting. What he chose to do was cool the comedy and play the shrink situation straight, along with most everything else. (I stress this is all writers' hearsay but it's a good story).

The trouble with that choice was that it led right back into a squeezed-bone-dry genre. And other than the sweaty hirsute Gando, that's what I always had against the Sopranos. Yes it ripped off Scorsese-style graphic brutality and various species of quasi-rape ('sex and violence' is too dignified a term) and brought them to TV. But original? Ground-breaking? Epochal? Daring? The finest television ever made? Why?

Every plot set-up, every twist, whether to do with The Families or the families; their countless schemes and scams and quarrels and plots against each other; the double agents or undercover cops or made men being turned or sit-downs or hits in restaurants or hits-to-be banging from inside the car-trunk -- it had all been done dozens of times before and far better in the Godfather or Goodfellas or in other mob and mob-related films from the 70s to the 90s.

If there was a Sopranos formula it seemed to be: let's put Tony and his tedious dysfunctional brood in some banal and unexceptional soap-opera wringer, grind them through the predictable conflicts and then liven things up by cutting to someone getting whacked in the most gruesome and graphic way possible. And because everyone on screen always had to conform to the morose, monotonic rhythms of its star even the soap-ish aspects of the series never came close to the zing of previous super-soaps, (which were also built around larger-than-life villains), like Dallas, Dynasty and Falconcrest.

Gandolfini was never larger-than-life. He was just large.

As for the running characters, despite Chase's claims about the richness of his Italian heritage, they always felt derivative. (Which is not to say the cast was of the same mean caliber as their capo. In fact The Sopranos displayed what might be called the Seinfeld Syndrome: a talent-challenged eponymous star surrounded and sustained by an exceptional cast). Still there wasn't a character in the series, however picturesque, who wasn't a distant reflection of some character you'd encountered in the work of Coppola or Scorcese or Sergio Leone or even further back (eg Billy Wilder, whose Some Like it Hot is the best mob comedy of all time) or even the hardcore gangster films of the 30s and 40s like the Roaring 20s, Little Caesar, the original Scarface.

In this respect -- and because it didn't reflect reality (the utter disarray of the actual mob in the tri-state area) but rather drew on the themes and material of prior movies, The Sopranos far from being ground-breaking was in fact backward-looking. It was more like a Broadway revival than a new gritty quasi-documentary on the rawness of life in the 21st century Garden State. The Sopranos was at best a long tribute to its superior and more authentic forebears.

Disclosure: it's not prejudice that made me dislike the Sopranos. I'm married to an Italian-American (whose vast extended family I adore), I've lived in New Jersey for 40 years and I've encountered actual Mafiosi, in Calabria, Sicily, New Jersey, Little Italy, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and as Editor of Spy back in the mid 90s where I was lucky enough to work with a superb reporter named John Connolly, an ex-NYPD detective who knew the NY-area mob inside out.

And here's a little secret: no-one is more rightwing than your made man. Back in the 60s in Southern Italy I never met a Mafioso who didn't have a poster of Il Duce somewhere in the back of the cafe, right next to the holy picture of Santa Rosalia or San Gennaro. Mafiosi are fascists to the core. Lethal force at the drop of hat, blind loyalty to the 'family', total obedience to the capo -- or death. They subscribe to Nietzsche's axiom (purloined by the Nazis) that 'evil is whatever springs from weakness'. This unpleasant little tendency on the part of the Cosa Nostra was somewhat, let's say, fudged over in The Sopranos.

But that brings me to my real beef. The Sopranos could only have come to media prominence at a time when a brutish and criminal and above all unaccountable administration was in the White House. The Sopranos was supremely a Bush-era phenom and I mean that in the worst way.

People have been talking about the cultural effect of popular television since its birth and The Sopranos always got it in spades. But actual cultural effect never makes much sense. Did Will and Grace really lose the 2004 elections for the Dems? Nah. If SNL was so revolutionary why did its first five golden years culminate in the election of Reagan? Do popular series ever express the 'decline of the nation' as the Sopranos (along with All in the Family and SNL and Will and Grace) was supposed to have done? Forgeddaboutit.

Rather, popular TV series succeed by exploiting widespread fears or trends -- often but not always negative ones -- thus ratifying and amplifying them. 24 Hours panders to the public's terror of terrorists and in dramatizing 'extra-legal' methods for dealing with them both amplifies public terror and legitimizes torture. Law and Order works on a similar if less reprehensible model.

The Sopranos succeeded in catching the brutal retributive mood of the nation in the first years of the century, a mood fanned and pandered to by the mobsters in the White House and their made men in an all-Republican Congress. DC in those days was a one Family town. I doubt The Sopranos would have gone anywhere much if it hadn't been for 9/11. Gandolfini had to do very little acting to convey the unapologetic thuggishness that was in the air and people of all political stripes responded. The left had to find some intellectual ointment to ease their vestigial non-violent organs, but it wasn't too hard. Everybody wanted to whack somebody. And the reason they loved Tony so much, wooden and grim and inexpressive as he was, was that he -- no less than those infatuated by his unreflective brutishness - was NOT TO BLAME. Not in these very special times.

So one of the most loathsome characters in the history of American television played by one of the least appetizing actors ever to occupy the screen was the beneficiary of all kinds of grateful hot air about his conflicted-ness and his deep-seated needs and rotten childhood and his 'essential sweetness' That way when he went out to do bestial things to his enemies, just as they longed to, they needed to feel no guilt.

And that's why Tony never paid the price. Not even in the final episode. He was unaccountable. Just like the gang in the White House.


Per favore: legge il mio libro nuovo: The Messiah of Morris Avenue. Si, la, a destra!