04/06/2007 12:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

American Dream

Who epitomizes the American dream better than The Sopranos?

When what is arguably the most complex and fascinating series in TV history returns for its farewell run on HBO Sunday, you get blasted right in the face with that pursuit of happiness thing: Tony and Carmela spending Tony's birthday at the upstate New York lake house belonging to Tony's brother-in-law, the lumbering Bobby Bacala, who is married to Tony's entertainingly narcissistic sister, Janice. Never mind that, before the episode is over, it's all taken a dark, ugly and violent turn. It's still an American Dream moment.

Tony has been in "stop and smell the roses" mode ever since last season (remember way back then?), when he was shot by his dementia-ridden Uncle Junior and had a near-death experience in the form of a long coma/dream sequence. While in limbo, he lived an alternate life, one in which he was just a salesman on the road - rather than the anxiety-prone don of a New Jersey crime family. And, though he was upset about not being able to find his way home, he was lots calmer about the way he made a living.

But the real American dream is the one that Tony and his family pursue in their everyday reality, one that involves - what else? - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And what does that mean in contemporary America?

Something that is increasingly elusive: a place to live without fear (either of terrorists or subprime lenders); a chance to be healthy (when such a huge percentage of the American public lacks health insurance); access to a good education (as public schools struggle against government-inflicted No Child Left Behind regulations, the cost of a college education skyrockets and the government shrinks the student loan pool); and the possibility of a good career (when companies continue to downsize their workforce and ship their jobs overseas).

Much of this applies to Tony Soprano, his family and minions. Just last season, the sale of a trash-carting business hinged on keeping Tony on as a payroll phantom - so he could continue to receive health insurance. While daughter Meadow is deciding between law and medical school, son Anthony Jr. is struggling to find his place without a college education (though he luckily has parental support and connections).

Still, there's a deliciously subversive element to shows like The Sopranos and their depiction of the American dream. The Sopranos and a new series, The Riches, deal with Americans living outside the law, while trying to masquerade as normal solid citizens in a suburban landscape.

In The Sopranos, that's the principal moral struggle, particularly for Carmela: She has created her version of the American dream for herself and her children - but only by ignoring the reality of what Tony does for a living. She knows and she doesn't know; she doesn't want to know. Tony, meanwhile, wants a better life for his children than the one he had - though he lives like a suburban king. But he doesn't want Anthony Jr. exposed to the same dangers - whether of getting whacked or being jailed - that color his life.

Maintaining a disguise as solid citizens is also a facet of FX's The Riches, about a family of "travelers," a Southern subculture of con artists and grifters. In the first episode of this uneven but intriguing new series, Wayne and Dahlia Malloy (Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver) double-cross their traveler clan; to escape from them, they assume the identities of a dead couple, the Riches, and move into their newly constructed McMansion in a suburb of Baton Rouge, La., called, symbolically enough, Edenfalls. Having lived by using their wits to steal from the normal folks they refer to as "buffers," the Malloys - now the Riches - have to take on the buffer mantle as their new lifestyle.

Even as they deride this vanilla existence, it attracts them with a pheromonal pull. It also seduces them into believing they can become the part if they act the part - which is only partially true (particularly when you're pretending to be a lawyer but have only a 7th-grade education). But it also exposes them to the underside of that dream, as exemplified by their neighbors, who are as corrupt behind their fancy facades as the Malloys. Dahlia discovers that her cheery, chubby neighbor gobbles mood-elevators and smokes grass (and happily shares both); husband Wayne, hired as in-house counsel by a rapacious developer, finds that cheating people is a buffer preoccupation, too. Instead of working outside the law, he's learning the tricks of the trade to use the law as his instrument of dishonesty.

There are other shows as well - Weeds, Big Love - that focus on this pursuit of that American ideal by people who don't quite fit the profile, and who find that the dream itself may be tainted by the questionable ethics and character of the people who do. Interesting, isn't it, that these shows are so popular and these messages are so readily accepted in George Bush's America? Of course, that's because they're wrapped in an entertainment coating - so people are free to take them at face value and not even dream of concerning themselves with the subtext that turns the whole thing on its head.