Hitting the high note

A middle-aged white Italian American is looking out of his windows,at his pool...

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: September 11, 2010 11:47:50 pm

A middle-aged white Italian American is looking out of his windows,at his pool. A flock of ducks comes waddling across the lawn,and slides into the water. Anthony Soprano takes it as a sign from on high,a sign that everything will come out right. He could do with a sign like that,because he is smack in the middle of a mid-life crisis. He has a wife who spends a lot of time at the gym. A daughter who goes to high school. And a son who is a little pudgy around the middle,with all the fast food he consumes. Everything appears to be hunky-dory,but Tony is depressed. Tony is down at the mouth. Tony is also a mob boss,with a mother from hell. He fetches up in a fetching shrink’s office,trying to make sense of his life.

This was the pilot episode of The Sopranos which introduced us to Tony Soprano and his family,friends,associates. The HBO series which began in 1999 (it ended in 2007) became such a smash hit right from this first instalment that it began being mentioned in the same breath as the all-time great mafia movies. References to The Godfather are rife,from the appearance of Martin Scorsese in one scene,to a conversation about how Part 3 was just ‘misunderstood’,to a neighbour asking Tony whether the stuff that happened in The Godfather,was,like,real. Just for the record,Tony smiles mysteriously,waggles his hand,and drops a wink,leaving the neighbour and his snobby golfing cronies deeply impressed.

Tony’s conflicts come from being who he is: there’s the regular Joe aspect,trying to keep his wife happy,his kids well fed,and pay the bills; there’s also the part which has him supervise a business which leads to robbery,theft,chicanery and,yes,violent death. We were only having coffee,he says to his therapist. What he means is that he was busy dropping a coffee tray on a hapless fellow’s feet,then knocking him over with a car,and then kicking the stuffing out of him.

The killings,and the other illegal,terrible things that its characters do in The Sopranos are not jokey,but you can end up laughing,because of what comes before and after: squabbling between spouses and siblings,hitmen trying to imitate Hollywood actors who play famous hitmen,chit-chat between federal agents and mobsters about baseball games and who is likely to win. A marshal named McLuhan shows up when a mobster is shot up and lands in hospital,and the injured party can’t understand why the name has any meaning: the nurse smiles,and so do we; the joke is on the fellow who continues to look baffled.

The constant tussle between Tony and his mom,a tough old bird who is forcibly led into a retirement home,and who continues to plague him from there,is a thread that runs right through,as does the love-hate-love relationship between Tony,who is by now on Lithium and Prozac,and his good-looking therapist,who develops feelings for him. A lot of it is sent up—the well-known love Italians have for their mothers and Madonna-like women,for well-made pasta sauce,as well as shrinks who have to go to shrinks because they have issues with closure,but it’s all so skillfully,so sympathetically done that you start reaching out to its characters like old friends.

Nothing about The Sopranos spells tacky TV,because it was conceived of,and shot as a film: its production values are excellent,and you can see that serious money has been spent on it. It’s been hailed as ‘seminal’ TV fiction,and has spawned reams of print on its impact on American pop culture. People in the know claimed that someone on the team must have had deep connections with the mob: that’s never revealed,but what we get,is deeply engrossing gangsta rap.

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