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Mob Hit: The Boss of Comedy?

By Robert J. Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 12, 2006

It's hard to find anyone who will make a serious argument that "The Sopranos" is not great television. Sure, some squirm at the language and violence, but critics have plumbed the depths of their vocabularies for superlatives to describe the show since it debuted on HBO in 1999.

After a hiatus of almost two years, a new season begins Sunday; then, in 20 episodes, it will be over. What is it about this show that caused so many to call it a work of genius?

Most important is its choice of subject matter. The mob story, it might be argued, replaced the Western as the great American epic in the last third of the 20th century. As the counterculture was shredding the myth of the West into a million little pieces with movies such as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Wild Bunch" and even "Midnight Cowboy," the first two "Godfather" movies were winning Best Picture Oscars. Those films retold the American epic on the urban frontier. "Goodfellas" solidified the idea that "Mafia + Movie = Art."

The opening credits of "The Sopranos" seem ever so conscious of this fact. In 90 seconds, the story of the American dream is retold in a way that would warm the heart of any American studies professor.

It's a simple tale, really -- Tony Soprano driving from Manhattan to his home in suburban New Jersey -- but it's humming with symbols of the great immigration stories of upward mobility. The Statue of Liberty can be seen out the window of Tony's car as he moves down the turnpike through the toxic wastelands of urban industrialism to the old neighborhood, its streets lined with restaurants and small businesses.

As the trip continues, the houses get bigger, as do the spaces between each one, until he reaches his destination: a little estate with a swimming pool in a quiet wooded enclave. It's a trip many Americans have made, although it may have taken them a generation or two to do so, and one that many more Americans dream of making. Pretty deep for TV credits, don't you think?

The real stroke of genius in "The Sopranos," however, was that it took the idea of the artsy mob epic and turned it into farce. "The Sopranos" is a sitcom trapped in the body of a dramatic masterpiece. Many scenes in the show could work just fine with a laugh track.

"Family" is a major theme in most mob stories. Usually, as in "The Godfather" movies, family is presented with great gravitas and high tragedy, in the Shakespearean tradition. This is not the case in "The Sopranos." If the family in "The Godfather" resembles the feuding Plantagenets in Shakespeare's "Henry VI" plays, the family in "The Sopranos" resembles the Bundys in "Married . . . With Children."

In a clever sleight of hand, "The Sopranos" merged the epic mob story with the dysfunctional family sitcom. The clash of these two genres has provided some of the most irresistible moments in the show. While Tony is fretting over the imminent collapse of his criminal empire, for example, his wife is stressing over her need to get to the Sports Authority before it closes to buy gym socks. On another occasion, Tony whacks somebody while taking his daughter on a tour of college campuses.

As bizarre as the combination of sitcom and Mafia may seem on paper, it works -- brilliantly. Hiding in the Trojan horse of adrenaline-laced scenes of extreme violence and graphic sexuality, "The Sopranos" is one of the most insightful TV shows ever made about a multi-generational American family.

Tony's problem, however, is that he doesn't want to be in a comedy; he wants to be in "The Godfather." Tony is a mobster in a world where mobster movies win Academy Awards, but he believes that somehow he has missed the golden age described in those movies.

The nervous breakdown that sends Tony to the psychiatrist in the series's first episode was caused by just this anxiety. In his first confession to Dr. Melfi, he reports: "It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over."

Poor Tony has self-esteem issues.

"You tell people I'm nothin' compared to the people that used to run things," Tony shouts as he viciously beats a victim in one of many violent acts we've seen him perform over the years.

Tony's problem is simple. He wants people to think he's the Godfather, but deep down he's afraid they see him as Homer Simpson. In overcompensating for these feelings of inferiority, Tony has done many very bad things in the past five seasons -- and if he's not careful, it's going to get him killed in the sixth.

Robert J. Thompson is a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. He wrote the introduction to the 2002 edition of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."

THE SOPRANOS

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9 p.m.

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