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James Gandolfini and the Sopranos

The Sopranos, Tony, and James Gandolfini. For me, a huge pile of contradictions. I loved the show: exemplary writing, compelling characters, and Gandolfini was beyond superb. I’ve seen every episode. But as one who grew up literally surrounded by real life mobsters, I saw Episode 1 when it debuted and couldn’t even watch the show again at all until Season 3, two years later. We knew real mafiosos, and the real ones were not at all funny. More crude and despicable than menacing.

As a child I absolutely hated seeing the most successful of these guys living openly, new El Dorado or Rolls every year, while everyone knew they were criminals. Ever watch the vacant house across the street from you go up in flames just certain that your neighbor, a reputed professional arsonist, torched the place? I have (I called the FD, and they saved the house). Watching people hand over softball-sized wads of cash to the boss (“light envelope?” I never saw any envelopes!). Some of my peers were fascinated by them in a semi or fully admiring way, but not me. No doubt interesting, like watching an ant farm, but nothing admirable about it.

Arguably no one character on television or film has every had the impact that Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano did. He outstrips JR, Vito Corleone, Archie Bunker and even James Bond. But it always seemed to me that having such a likable Tony Soprano was an invitation to the audience for a kind of complicity, a theme other observers have contemplated. This is a guy who makes a deal to distribute expired, falsely-labeled medicines to thousands of people, and then agrees to kill a small child’s father because the mobster who is selling Tony the medicine is angry that the father was awarded custody of that child over the mobster’s sister — all so Tony can get a better price on the same expired medicines. How many people, old people, anyone, died as a result of that? But we admire this guy anyway.

Repeatedly, the Soprano characters get away with spectacular, brazen crimes as if it were no problem, which is completely unrealistic. It is in fact a common and very cheap plot device, and I don’t know why the show was not called out for it more often. Tony drives Furio to terrorize a bordello, in Tony’s personal family car, where Furio sends more than a dozen screaming people scattering, and discharges a firearm, all while Tony waits casually outside. A mob boss — really? Ridiculous nonsense. But people ate it up.

And then there was frequent, gratuitous racism (much like Scorcese, whom I despise for that). While the Italian mafia characters are often depicted as bumbling, Black criminals are depicted as consistently even more stupid and craven, and always easily outwitted. Again, having grown up where I did, it was crystal clear to me exactly what Chase (and Scorcese) were doing to pander to a certain kind of person and attitude. On top of that, both Gandolfini and Little Steven Van Zandt are known as decent, even progressive fellows (Van Zandt, of Springsteen fame, even organized the S. Africa Sun City boycott album), and Gandolfini certainly had the clout to quash the show’s racist pandering. Much like DeNiro (long married to Black women) could have done with Scorcese, but apparently did not (I’d love to hear DeNiro’s perspective on this issue). Why did Gandolfini go along with it? I’m just sayin’…

By contrast, in THE WIRE, the Black criminals are so careful, deliberate, and elaborate in their operations that McNulty speculates that Stringer and Avon “probably haven’t even touched a gun in years.” The two are never even seen in public together, and all operatives strictly avoid telephone communications. And in that show, for some reason, the low level white criminals are depicted as inept and desperate, as others have noted.

And while this may be too obvious to even discuss, there is the ever-present beatdown in THE SOPRANOS, where one or more individuals, usually in an explosion of anger, beat and stomp another person to a bloody and unconscious pulp. How many real, impulsive acts of violence has this inspired? And of course, the perps on the show never suffer legal consequences, and the victims never seem permanently injured or even scarred. Try that in real life and brain damage and felony assault charges await, assisted by ever-present security cameras. Call it aspirational violence — the kind of violent venting that many wish they could do and get away with the way Tony does, at least once in awhile. Especially frustrated middle aged regular fellows.

ALL IN THE FAMILY certainly had a positive impact on the culture in so many ways. And like AITF, THE SOPRANOS ushered in a new era of superbly written and acted television. But what is THE SOPRANOS’ impact on the culture? How will this impact continue to unfold with reruns and new generations of viewers getting drawn in?

None of this is to take away from James Gandolfini’s monumental accomplishment, reaching the absolute top of the culture and public imagination, and redefining television itself. And by all accounts, a genuinely good man. But it’s important to discuss these issues right now, as interpretations get cemented into the history books. When we hold back these questions and observations out of “respect for the recently departed,” it allows distorted interpretations to take permanent root.

Gregory A. Thomson is a lawyer and thinker living in New York City.

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