The Godfathers of Premium Cable

In a few weeks, the last few episodes of The Sopranos will air, thus leaving the only program on television to effectively portray an intricate blend of crime, family, drama, and every combination thereof, to be Dateline NBC.

The Sopranos is a highly popular HBO series detailing the lives of a mafia family and the situations they encounter while traveling throughout ancient Rome running a funeral service along with four middle-aged sexually frustrated harlots. Despite the rather violent nature of the scripts, The Sopranos plays out much like a traditional soap opera, only instead of, say, disclosing an intimate affair during a formal dinner party with a well-timed barb over dessert, the protagonists will inject a bullet execution style at a Perth Amboy loading dock. Plus there aren’t nearly as many product placements for Playtex.

The standard mob drama has been strangely absent from television, excepting just about every other episode in the first three seasons of Law & Order. Given its propensity for reasonably exhilarating twists and impressive production values to snatch at least one of those Emmys for costuming they award at like four in the morning the day before the red carpet is rolled out, one would think there would be more attempts than have been made. The rather aggressive nature of the mafia, along with the salty language and their gruesome solutions to immediate personnel problems, have probably contributed to the networks’ aversion to producing such shows, allowing Martin Scorsese to specialize his talents in Hollywood instead. So it’s no surprise that HBO, unrestrained from the fickle wiles of the FCC, picked up on it.

The Sopranos depicts the events surrounding a mob family in (where else?) New Jersey. The family patriarch, Tony Soprano, is encircled by the requisite comically-nicknamed and numerously extended family, including (but, as always, not limited to) the legally obligatory patient wife who doesn’t approve of the life of crime but does like its benefits so is at pains to reconcile her conscience with her lifestyle; the 100% trusted family member everyone grew up with who still somehow surprisingly turns out to be an FBI informant and therefore must be assassinated by a childhood friend; the headstrong daughter who tries to escape the life of the mafia by choosing a profession outside of organized crime but will probably ultimately use that profession to return to help out the family; the elder mother who manipulates everything behind the scenes and is often depicted as the real power within the family; the head of a rival family that they keep good terms with but someday will cause a gang war; and the young upstart who believes he has paid his dues and ultimately dies as a result of his hubris. Chances are I didn’t need to point any of these characters out, since they have been in every depiction of every mafia family in every screen adaptation ever made about the mob, but I figured it’s better to be safe than sorry.

While The Sopranos is busy murdering originality, it at least injects a device never used before in a drama—extensive dream techniques. These dreams, rather that being a cheap, ineffective way to bring about resolutions that scriptwriters can’t seem to create what with their grueling schedule of writing 13 episodes about every three years or so, are more like…well, okay, that’s exactly what they are.

The series’ depiction of Italian-Americans has caused the cast and crew some slight embarrassment. They were denied access to a Columbus Day parade due to objections from an Italian-American advocacy group, a rather ingenious self-reference to a previously aired episode where the Sopranos threatened a Native American group from protesting the parade. And when filming the series’ final episode, set in an ice cream shop, the local council waffled between permitting, then denying, then permitting again their right to film, as the council couldn’t decide whether the series was 1) an insult to the stereotypical depiction of Italian-Americans, or 2) the slow, burning realization that whether you are propagating negative portrayals of Italians, Poles, Native Americans, Chinese, or African-Americans, the banks still clear the checks the same.

The cast of The Sopranos is also playfully self-referential in their run-ins with the law. Of all the cast members combined, they have been either arrested for or convicted of grand larceny, armed robbery, assault, possession of heroin, DWI, forgery, second degree murder, and, rather laughably, “criminal mischief,” the latter charge which seems more akin to TPing the roller rink than smacking your girlfriend’s forehead against the gearshift of your Trailblazer.

Still, there’s plenty to both love and hate about the show. It’s a rather well-written show with plenty of cliffhangers, artificially intriguing plot developments, and likable if flawed characters. Then again, it does a surprisingly effective job at glamorizing a violent lifestyle that doesn’t show the uglier sides of organized crime, which probably includes a lot more jailhouse buggery and visitations to disgusting trailer parks to pick up crates of crystal meth and surplus Oxycontin than media portrayals would like to admit. The biggest crime committed by the Soprano family, however, is stretching a three-hour Goodfellas knockoff into an 86-episode, six-series production.

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