"I believe in America." Those are the first words of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather"; from there, the director leveraged his story of an immigrant Italian mob family against the American dream, the American way of life and the American way of death. The first scene of David Chase's audacious HBO TV series, "The Sopranos," carried a different message: We saw the virile James Gandolfini, curious and apprehensive, shot from between the thighs of a nude bronze female statue.
Tony Soprano was born from between the legs of his vindictive, joyless mother, Livia; and he was caught, when the series opened, in the vise of several other women as well -- his dissatisfied wife, Carmela; his increasingly disdainful daughter, Meadow; his volatile 24-year-old Russian girlfriend, Irina; and his rather unconventional shrink, Dr. Melfi.
That opening shot summed up the show's mischievous intents and some of its limitations. Coppola saw the Mafia as a metaphor for American society; Chase sees it as a metaphor for the American family, a more insular (and less persuasive) construct.
"The Sopranos," one could argue, is merely the darkest sitcom you can imagine, and Tony is just another henpecked husband, all but mugging for the audience, rolling his eyes in exasperation at the demands of his shrill loved ones. The zany hook is that he gets a demanding female psychiatrist to add to his troubles -- and his wife is jealous of her. One of these days, Carmela ...!
If you haven't seen "The Sopranos," which this Sunday will conclude its third season, you're missing something extraordinary. It's arguably the cleverest and most entertaining extended drama that's ever been on TV. Tony is expertly played with a gruff masculinity by Gandolfini; his emotionally and morally compromised wife, Carmela, is done to a ruined turn by the infinitely expressive Edie Falco; mother Livia, now departed with the death of actress Nancy Marchand, exhibited oceans of pain and scorn in a massive, equine face; proud and bitter Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), forced to cede power to his nephew Tony, is a study in aging gracelessly.
Tony's crew of goodfellas is played to a thuggish T. It includes Tony Sirico as the charming but lethal Paulie Walnuts; Steve Van Zandt, a shade too cartoony as the mugging caricature Silvio Dante; a smoldering Michael Imperioli as Tony's hotheaded, potheaded nephew Christopher; a stylish, ponytailed Italian import, appropriately named Furio, played by Federico Castelluccio; and an older, Morris Levy-style mobster, Hesh, played by Jerry Adler. Tony's kids are the resentful Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and the anomic Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler). There is his chaotic, devilish sister, Janice (Aida Turturro). And finally there is the cultured but buttoned-up Dr. Melfi, all shrouded insecurities and false bravado as played by Lorraine Bracco.
The joy of "The Sopranos" is the furious pace of the storytelling, its shotgun approach to narrative, its carefully doled-out violence. Chase, who rarely writes or directs anymore but who presumably still oversees the show from week to week, is a master of looming problems and red herrings. Characters rise out of the muck and achieve ominous proportions, only to fade away -- that is, when they aren't dispatched in more operatic fashion.
Good guys die and bad guys win in "The Sopranos"; Chase clearly is not about reassuring his audience that they live in a just and moral world. He walks a fine line between keeping his cast compulsively watchable and deeply repellent. He makes this clear early on, when we see Tony run down a former associate with his car and then emerge to give the unfortunate man a thorough and unattractive beating; a few episodes later he garrotes an informer in spectacularly brutal fashion. We see the wire cut into the victim's neck and into Tony's own hand, and -- after our hero finishes the job with a final energetic tug -- we see an arc of spittle come shooting out of Soprano's mouth. "Sopranos" fans learn to identify with Tony at their own risk.
Building a TV series around such an alternately fascinating and loathsome hero was a bold and brilliant stroke. And while each season's dazzling episodes have been followed by less inspired ones, its high production values, droll humor, loopy sense of life's absurdities, knack for vivid characters, gift for dialogue and refusal to romanticize make virtually every episode worth watching.
Chase's attention to artistic detail even extends to his music selection. He and his team emotionally punctuate each episode with the most serious and rigorous use of pop music that's ever been heard on TV and perhaps in any movie. From Johnny Thunders to Nick Lowe, R.L. Burnside to Eurythmics, from gospel and R&B to drum 'n' bass and alt country, Chase and his music advisors find, time and again, unforgettable songs to anchor key scenes, particularly the closing ones. Last season Chase and company dug up an obscure Eurythmics song, the plaintive and powerful "I Saved the World Today," to underlay the queasy engagement party in honor of Tony's sister Janice and the reptilian Richie Aprile. "Everybody's happy now/The bad things gone away," Annie Lennox sang, with an oblivious irony.
The song was reprised at the show's end, carrying a even more poignant message as Tony and Carmela silently confronted each other in an emotional standoff. Sometimes Chase and company do more than scavenge stuff, they concoct their own, as they did with the ferocious "Every Breath You Take"/"Theme From Peter Gunn" mix they used in this season's premiere.
"The Sopranos" is also cleverly self-aware, referencing other Mafia movies and mob history in subtle and comical ways. Perhaps the funniest such moment came in the first season, when Imperioli as Christopher was still new to us; upset about not getting enough respect, he goes off on a kid at a pastry shop, blasting him with his gun. "You shot me in the foot!" the kid screams. "It happens," Christopher replies, walking out the door. Imperioli, we then remember, was the kid in Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" whom the even more temperamental Joe Pesci shot -- in the foot.
But if "The Sopranos" is a television masterpiece, it falls short of the grandeur of "The Godfather." The domestic drama at the heart of the show -- a strong but neurotic modern man navigating his way through a world of unhappy and complicated women -- seems slight in comparison with the tragic themes of Coppola's classic.
The TV show's greatest strengths and weaknesses are demonstrated in its depiction of women. Chase's female creations are not simplistic or stereotypical: Carmela and Dr. Melfi, in particular, are particularly nuanced, wonderfully drawn blends of strength and pathos. But none of the women have Tony's power or sense of agency.
Melfi is completely unnerved by Tony. Those shapely legs sliding down from those too-short business skirts say yes even when her dour expression is saying no. Her office, with its dark, heavy-curtained recesses, is more like a boudoir -- with reason, since she's never been able to articulate a professional reason she continues to administer to a violent felon. (Melfi certainly doesn't seem to read the local paper, which one would think would carry some sort of notice of the weekly Soprano-associated carnage around town.)
Melfi is clearly drawn to Soprano as a man's man. The other men in her life are all epicene and overly cultured. They rail impotently about this or that, while Tony takes action. Melfi's horrifying rape in a parking-lot stairwell earlier this season could have been a dream, a metaphor for her attraction to the disturbingly violent Tony; but it wasn't. It was, instead, payback from an odd God who gives Tony a pass but has it out for Dr. Melfi and her sex fantasies.
As Chase conceives him, the chesty, scowling Tony Soprano is a babe magnet. No sooner did Soprano start work in a new office last season, in an attempt to lay low and act legit, than he was banging the office secretary -- billed as a born-again Christian no less -- doggy style over his desk. The only woman completely immune to his charms is Charmaine Bucco, wife of the milquetoasty chef Artie. Cassandra-like, she darkly warns her husband of the dangers of associating with the malevolent Soprano and his crew. But she is presented as a one-dimensional harpy and harridan.
We side with Tony instead of the truth-telling Charmaine not only because he's more charming but because Chase has invested him with a code of honor, especially toward women. Tony may be a murderer, a torturer, a thief and an adulterer, but we never see him behave unforgivably toward women. When fellow mobster Ralphie Cifaretto beat his girlfriend to death in a gruesome scene earlier this season, Tony even broke his brotherhood's rules by exploding in fury at Ralphie and punching him in the face -- and Ralphie a made guy! While Tony causes the women around him pain, it's almost never intentional. When he's confronted by the women in his life over his betrayals, he lapses into a little-boy act, one that Carmela -- and Melfi, for that matter -- always falls for.
In last week's episode, the penultimate one of the season, Tony roughs up Gloria, his va-va-vooomy but unstable mistress, almost choking her to death. But she basically asks for it -- first, as Melfi points out primly (and self-righteously), for being attracted to dangerous men, and second by pulling a "Fatal Attraction" move on Tony and threatening the sanctity of his family. (Note to self: Don't pick up women in psychiatrist's waiting room!) In short, the women around Tony catfight over his fleshy physique and increasingly get what's coming to them, while he somehow manages to maintain a veneer of gallantry.
The last two shows of this season have been terrific. "Pine Barrens," directed by Steve Buscemi, slyly paid homage to "Fargo" and Samuel Beckett as Christopher and Paulie get lost in the snow-covered wilds of New Jersey after a hit goes bloodily awry. They were left to freeze nearly to death and given a chance to contemplate overnight their place in a cold and white moral universe. (The strict attention to character detail in "The Sopranos" dictated that the wiry but much older Paulie suffer even more painfully than Christopher, with his trademark slick "wingtip" hair and his sense of self-assurance in frantic disarray by the time they were rescued.) This story line was nicely set off by Tony's activities in his own particular hell, attacked by an unrelenting swarm of various angry women.
In last week's show, "Amour Fou," mistress Gloria goes nuts and Tony demonstrates that therapy has given him some useful insights into dealing with suicidal narcissists. Jackie Jr., the wayward young son of a late mob boss, makes an ill-advised move to get himself a reputation as a tough guy -- was he misled by Ralphie Cifaretto, the sociopath who's now sleeping with his mother? And as for Carmela, she's having another bout of conscience, and finds herself confused by a curious priest who dispenses some good medical recommendations but curiously relativistic moral advice. With its taut pacing, spectacular violence and ethical weirdness, "Amour Fou" ranks with the very best "Sopranos" episodes.
All Chase has to do on this Sunday's show (which is apparently only one hour) is tie up about 15 loose story lines. Will Carmela's crisis reach critical mass? Could she actually leave Tony? And what's wrong with her medically? The doctor told her there's nothing wrong, but she's a little young for menopause.
And by the way -- who slashed Gloria's tires?
What about the case the feds are building against the Sopranos? What of Uncle Junior's cancer and his legal troubles? And how about the waterfront development, complete with Museum of Science and Trucking, and the ominous move to Jersey by New York boss Johnny Sack? An uncertain fate hangs over Jackie Jr. as well as Paulie, after his own big mistake with the angry and dangerous former Russian commando.
And, finally, what will be the requisite sanguinary finale for a very bloody TV show?
What Chase needs to do in Sunday's episode -- and during the next season, which may be the last -- is take "The Sopranos" to a place truly original, one that says something that Americans haven't thought about before, rather than ultimately reinforcing stereotypes we've had drilled into our psyches since Ricky first bawled out Lucy. Then the show will become something more than a sophisticated "Married ... With Corpses" and take its place in a pantheon next to "The Godfather."