Sympathy for the (Jersey) devil

James Gandolfini, David Chase and the "Sopranos" crew return for a bold and brilliant third season opener.

Published February 27, 2001 8:47PM (EST)

It has not been a very good year for "The Sopranos." The second season of HBO's dark drama about (fictional) New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano was largely shunned by Emmy and Golden Globe voters, who embraced NBC's White House fantasy "The West Wing" as the show of the moment.

More genuinely saddening was the death in June of veteran actress Nancy Marchand, who played the pivotal role of Tony's joyless mother, Livia. Marchand had suffered from lung cancer for the entire run of the show, and finally succumbed during the show's post-second-season break.

Then just before filming was to begin for the third season, officials in New Jersey's Essex County told HBO that the show was no longer allowed to shoot scenes on county property because of mounting pressure from local Italian-Americans who were offended by the series' so-called negative ethnic stereotypes. (Officials of Union, Middlesex and Passaic counties, however, were quick to point out that "The Sopranos" was welcome on their turf anytime.)

Faced with filling the large plot hole left by Marchand's passing, and perhaps taking to heart criticism that the second season never approached the storytelling majesty of the initial 13 episodes, "Sopranos" creator David Chase asked HBO for additional time to write the third season. He got it -- and now "The Sopranos" has a belated season premiere on Sunday. Is there a lot riding on these new episodes, you ask? Is the Godfather Catholic?

The two-hour premiere is made up of two separate episodes, wildly divergent in tone, both written by Chase. In a bold stroke that (luckily) pays off, Chase eases us back into the action in the aftermath of last season's bloodbath -- you may remember Tony, Silvio and Paulie sending FBI informant Pussy to sleep with the fishes -- until the second hour.

The first hour, "Mr. Ruggerio's Neighborhood," is a framing device to set up the season ahead. The feds are getting closer than ever to Tony (amazing James Gandolfini), and we see the Sopranos through the eyes of the FBI agents who are bugging and tailing them.

The feds have worked up an elaborate plot to get inside the Soprano house and plant a bug in the basement, where Tony goes to hold business conversations. Each member of the household is under surveillance and the family's phones are tapped. Amusingly, though, the agents get little more for their efforts than an up-close look at a suburban family's excruciatingly mundane routine.

In these unguarded moments, the Sopranos seem like the most boring, ordinary people in the world. Tony and his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), make small talk about flossing and the importance of dietary roughage. Daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), now a freshman at Columbia University, is more focused on studying than partying. Typical teenager Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) cuts class with his buddies to smoke cigarettes and bitch about how unfair it is for the principal to ban skateboards at school. The only criminal behavior the agents witness is the Sopranos' maid stealing cutlery and gourmet capers from the pantry. ("They have so much stuff," she tells her husband.)

From the FBI's point of view, nothing much happens in the first episode. But, for viewers, this lively string of vignettes cagily draws us back into the deceptively normal ebb and flow of Tony Soprano's daily life. Remember, when we last saw him, Tony had just killed one of his best friends and was lying to his widow -- not exactly heroic behavior. Chase and director Allan Coulter remind us of Tony's duality, and our ambiguity toward him, by staging the season opener like an overture, with the show's two visions of Tony -- average middle-aged family guy, coldblooded gangster -- represented by two dueling songs on the soundtrack.

The feds' song is the Police's "Every Breath You Take" ("I'll be watching you ..."); the Soprano family's song is the swaggering instrumental "Theme From 'Peter Gunn.'" In a long, riveting surveillance sequence, the two songs alternate, bleed into each other and finally become inseparable.

Who is the victim here, and who is the villain? The feds call the Sopranos' house "the sausage factory" and make rude cracks about Anthony Jr.'s weight. They invade the privacy of anybody who happens to be in the presence of a Soprano, getting an earful of Meadow's depressed roommate and an eyeful of Carmela's tennis partner, Adriana (Drea de Matteo). They decline to warn Tony about a plumbing disaster waiting to happen that they came across while planting the bug. The feds are so unlikable that by the end of the episode, we're ready to believe that eavesdropping is more morally repugnant than murder.

The second episode, "Proshai, Livushka," breaks that spell, though, with a torrent of reminders that Tony is no Mr. Nice Guy. If the opener was about "nothing" (to borrow a page from the "Seinfeld" playbook), this episode is about everything. Chase ties up loose ends; springs a couple of surprises (one of which involves Marchand); introduces a potential new adversary for Tony (Ralph Cifaretto, played by that baby-faced sly fox Joe Pantoliano); and brings back Tony's shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and his overdramatic con artist sister Janice (Aida Turturro) for their first appearances of the season.

The episode builds to a harrowing emotional climax at a memorial service for Livia (I don't think I'm giving anything away here, folks) in which Carmela, unable to hold her tongue any longer, dares to speak the truth. Falco delivers a glorious aria of pent-up frustration and anger as Carmela says everything one isn't supposed to say about departed "loved" ones. The scene rivals anything from the first season in the way it absolutely nails the depth and complexity of dysfunctional family ties.

To understand where "The Sopranos" went wrong last season, you need to go back to its debut season and remember where it went right. That much-lauded first batch of episodes introduced one of the most richly imagined adult dramas American viewers had ever seen. Shot through with black humor and often unsettling parallels between family and la famiglia, "The Sopranos" was a superb work of pulp fiction that carried the emotional heft of classic American myth. It was "The Godfather" of the small screen.

Indeed, Tony Soprano descends from a long line of charismatic outlaws -- from James Cagney in "Public Enemy" to the Corleones in "The Godfather" saga. (He has a little bit in common with Eminem and Allen Iverson, too.) With "The Godfather," director Francis Ford Coppola showed us why the allure of gangsters is so strong; those guys had a code, a loyalty, a bond, that so many of us have lost in our own families and our own lives. "The Godfather" also romanticized and universalized the mob experience by equating the old-school Corleone mischief with immigrant ambition and the pursuit of the American dream. You didn't have to be a made man to identify with this desire for a place at the table, a piece of the pie.

"The Godfather" put us inside the mob. "The Sopranos" took that intimacy even further, putting us inside Tony Soprano's head, making us privy to the anxious mobster's sessions with his shrink. Thanks to psychoanalysis, that great equalizer, Tony's worries were hardly distinguishable from the worries of any American family man and middle manager at middle age. Chase's Freudian approach gave Tony an excuse to avoid blame for his crimes, and gave us an excuse to forgive him: He was the victim of bad parenting.

OK, maybe Chase did let Tony off too easy. But at the same time, Tony's all-too-familiar psychological baggage made him a more fascinating character, and a more human one. "The Sopranos" doesn't have a traditional good guy/bad guy dynamic. Tony is both the good guy and the bad guy. He's riddled with guilt over losing patience with his demanding, manipulative mother. He's able to shoot an enemy in cold blood. He's emotionally ragged from compartmentalizing his two lives. And the first season got its exhilarating momentum from the tug of war between those two lives; we rooted for the depressed Tony to confront his Livia problem and be whole again -- even if being whole meant being a better, more heartless mobster.

With Dr. Melfi's prodding, Tony began to realize that his panic attacks were rooted in his unstable childhood -- Livia had been an unhappy mother incapable of providing love or security. For her part, the now aged, but still bitter, Livia couldn't understand why her son was "abandoning" her to a nursing home. Longtime viewers will remember how the term "family business" took on ironic meaning when Livia goaded her brother-in-law Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), nominally the head of the Soprano family, into putting out a hit on Tony. In the first season's finale, Tony discovered his mother's duplicity and went rushing off, enraged, intending to kill her. He arrived too late -- she had suffered a stroke and was being taken away in an ambulance.

From a storytelling perspective, it would have made more sense for Chase to kill off Livia right there, but the character had become so popular, and the chemistry between Marchand and Gandolfini was so explosive, that she stayed on for the second season.

Unfortunately, Marchand's health declined, and her participation was limited. Livia and Tony barely had any scenes together; Tony pretended she was dead, and the show's energy deflated without the mother-son tension and without Livia's operatic melancholy. Since Tony was determined not to confront his mother issues, he stayed away from Dr. Melfi for several episodes, and she became more and more superfluous as the season went on. At the same time, Tony and Carmela were emotionally cut off from each other; he continued to see his mistress, and she was almost drawn into an affair of her own.

All of this meant that Chase was keeping Tony apart from the most important, and the strongest, women in his life. And that was a mistake, because the first season's cunning plot architecture rested on the clash between Tony's patriarchal mob world and his matriarchal family world. At work, Tony was a virile thug; with women, he was soft. His mother pushed his buttons, Carmela nagged him to be a modern, sensitive father and Melfi forced him to get in touch with his freakin' feelings.

In one of the more promising developments of the new season, Carmela -- the relative moral compass of the show -- is supposed to accompany Tony to his sessions with Melfi. If they end up undergoing marital therapy, we might finally be able to gauge the depth of Carmela's unhappiness.

We might also see what sort of lies she tells herself to reconcile her self-image as a good mother and good Catholic with the reality of being a mob wife. (Melfi will probably call her an enabler.) At the very least, the show might benefit from the dramatic jolt of locking Tony in a room with two women who simultaneously are attracted to him and want to kick him in the teeth.

Our own love/hate feelings were tested last season when Tony became truly blackhearted, murdering both Pussy and a scared kid who bungled his way into trouble with the Soprano crew. In the season finale, Chase had Tony stricken with a severe case of food poisoning as a metaphor for his internal rot. And maybe these disturbing glimpses of bad Tony are what sent Emmy and Golden Globe voters scampering to the more traditional "West Wing," with its unambiguous heroes.

In the second hour of the premiere on Sunday, Chase wisely brings back bad Tony, forcing us to confront our ability to keep rooting for the guy. The episode is laced with scenes of Tony watching the classic gangster movie "The Public Enemy." He gives deep chuckles of approval when James Cagney's vicious Tommy Powers smashes half a grapefruit in his girlfriend's face, slaps around his upstanding brother and sneers the immortal insight, "I ain't so tough!" before collapsing in a gutter from gunshot wounds. Just like us, Tony identifies with the bad guy.

But at the same time, Chase surrounds Tony with ghosts of the past and reminders of the consequences of his actions. There's a growing list of characters who harbor smoldering resentments against Tony: family members like Uncle Junior and Janice; Ralph Cifaretto (Tony brings him in to run the late Richie Aprile's garbage business, but he refuses to make him a captain); Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia), who is still stewing over Tony's torching of his restaurant; and new crew member Patsy Parisi (Dan Grimaldi), who correctly suspects that Tony had his twin brother whacked. Any one of these characters might snap and threaten Tony's little kingdom.

Near the end of the second episode, after Livia's funeral and the emotional blowout sparked by Carmela's outburst, Tony returns to his "Public Enemy" video. But all of a sudden, he doesn't seem to think that Tommy Powers is so cool anymore. Tony's eyes well up with tears while watching the scene in which Powers' childlike mother puffs up with joy at the news that her "baby," the wounded gangster, is coming home from the hospital. She doesn't know that Tommy's enemies are about to deliver him to her doorstep, dead.

Earlier, we saw Tony telling Dr. Melfi about his guilt over feeling relief at Livia's death, calling himself a "bad son." Is that why he's crying now, at the end of "The Public Enemy" -- because he has been a bad son? Is he crying because he realizes that Livia must have loved him once as much as Tommy's mother loved him? Or is he crying because he fears that she never did?

Or, maybe, Tony's only crying for himself, because he knows he's going to get the ignominious, meaningless death he deserves -- just like Tommy. Whatever the reason, these tears suggest a new, self-aware Tony Soprano. And he ain't so tough.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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