On Watching “The Sopranos”

 

Well, I finally watched The Sopranos; all seven seasons beginning to end.

Those who know me know I never watched the show.  Not once.  I had the gut feeling that it was stereotypical of the television and Hollywood treatment of Italian-Americans.  Demeaning, but we were all supposed to laugh.  I was not disappointed.

Imagine, if you will, an updated television version of the old radio show “The Goldbergs,” in which the normal, middle-class Jewish patriarch pulls off some financial scams on the sly. How about a show called “The Tongs,” where the normal, middle-class Asian American dad operates a heroin ring out of the back of his popular Chinese restaurant?  Or a show about Mexican drug gangs or black on black violence between east coast – west coast rappers?

Would such shows be considered preposterous and racist? Absolutely, and with good reason: They promote gross, one-dimensional stereotypes of individual American groups.

“The Sopranos,” not only reveled in negative, cartoonish images of a specific community–Italian Americans–but was congratulated for doing so.  Even many Italian-Americans thought the show was the best thing since sliced bread.  Being of Italian descent I personally don’t care much for sliced bread.

“In the end, “The Sopranos” turned out to be just another gangster show, a seven-year, blood-and-guts “Goodfellas” soap opera.

Psychologically dark and complex, yes, but nothing we didn’t see in “One, or Two,” (which is how Tony’s crew labeled, with reverence, “The Godfather.”)

Funny, too, in a Joe Pesci kind of way.

But also predictable.

Because it constantly fell back on, rather than challenged, stereotypes, as TV almost always does. Let us count the ways: Italian men mostly as angry, semi-educated, gabagool-shoveling slobs. New Jersey mostly as an ugly, industrial, tree-barren urban wasteland populated by angry, semi-educated gabagool-shoveling slobs. Italian wives as either fat or slender naggers, or beaten-down abuse victims, all happy to be bought off by cars, jewelry or Italianate living room sets. Italian Rutgers students as bullies and drunken frat boys.  And of course every Italian husband has a “goomah” whom he keeps and showers with gifts while his accepting wife suffers in silence; after all boys will be boys.  Yeah, right.

In “The Sopranos,” the Scorsese-variety lowbrow mobsters like Paulie Walnuts were not much more than cartoon characters, unless they were the old-school Coppola-brand stand-up guys like Phil Leotardo, another stereotype.

Vito was gay, so he had to be shown dancing in Brando-biker leathers, like one of the Village People.

This passed for groundbreaking genius.”

The early promise of the show was that it would be a metaphor for third- and fourth-generation assimilation into modern suburban life. The Great Wave Immigrants at 100.

The kids, once the silent junior partners in a family, are now overindulged and the center of all family life. The father, once unquestioned, no longer gets respect for free, if at all. The mother, once a head-down homemaker, wants more, but of what? American consumerism and pop culture have crushed traditional values. The old ways are a wistful memory, replaced by a mishmashed family structure and the disappointment of failing to achieve a Hallmark-card home life.

Life in America was supposed to be easier. Instead, this lifestyle has somehow led to incredibly corrosive stress.

“The Sopranos” seemed poised to tackle the themes of our Prozac nation.

That David Chase, the writer who grew up DeCesare, chose a gangster and his family as the vehicle was unfortunate, but predictable. Stereotypes always are more palatable to entertainment executives  than complex characters. From Amos ‘n’ Andy to Archie Bunker to Tony Soprano, stereotyping remains the staple of our pop culture, especially television.

The ambitious assimilation themes all but dissipated by mid-run. The scenes of Tony S. squirming as he tried to schmooze with neighbor-golfers at a backyard barbecue or rushing into his daughter’s choral recital still sweating from “work” were gone, replaced by more conventional mob stuff.

“The Sopranos” sold out.

This is not written lightly. This is written with some degree of pain. Because unlike the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy and early ethnic and racial stereotypes, the chief purveyors of these negative and in some cases destructive images come from within. In Italian-American circles, it has been done by the most talented directors, writers and actors. Coppola, Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino. Pesci.  Now DeCesare and Gandolfini.

Sacrilege? No, truth.

They have solidified the image of Italian-Americans as goons. Over-emotional, anti-intellectual, hot-headed, stupid goons.  Worse, it gives some impressionable Italian-American young men  a role model for acting like wannabe goons. Don’t believe it? Cruise the bars at the Jersey shore this summer and watch the “guidos” from Staten Island, North Jersey and South Philly act it out, especially near closing time.

The real story of American immigrant assimilation — Jewish, Italian, Hungarian, Indian, Mexican — is much more interesting and nuanced and complicated and deserves better than being illuminated in gangster shows.

The turning point came in 1969 with the phenomenal financial success of the late Mario Puzo’s fictional pulp novel, “The Godfather.” Before that, Italian gangster images, like images of other groups, were considered antiquated and offensive, something you wouldn’t bring up in polite company. Yet Puzo’s book, along with Francis Ford Coppola’s lush, romantic treatment of it three years later, literally enshrined Italian stereotypes and made them respectable. It has been a nonstop orgy oever since; Growing up Gotti; Jersey Shore; Mob Wives. Hey, there’s money to be made!

The real life story of assimilation is not very interesting.  A young boy, growing up with two parents in Brooklyn, though poor, growing up in a safe neighborhood.  A stay at home mom.  Attending good safe schools.  Finding a Summer job each year from age 13 on to high school graduation at 16 skipping the 8th grade entirely.  Graduating on a Thursday and going to a full time job on Monday in the mailroom of a major New York bank.

No money for college so he attended at night after work earning his B.A in economics.  Served in the Army for four years during Vietnam.  Married his high school sweetheart from the same background as he.  Had four children; buried two and raised two fine, successful daughters.  Never once in forty years of marriage were his wife or children ever struck.  His daughters graduated from Rutgers and Monmouth University with no debt to speak of.  No drugs.  No drinking excessively.  No unwanted pregnancies.  No drama.  They both married fine men.

He always owned a home from the time he left the service.  He never got rich but he made a living – honorably.  It’s all he ever wanted.  A decent life, a home and a future for his children.

That is the story in a nut shell of this Italian-American.  Too boring for Hollywood.

“But criminal stereotypes pay in American pop culture.

And there is no shortage of writers and actors who will exploit that no matter how it hurts the overall image of their people or sets them back in the greater public’s mind. Even if it means kids might beat each other or shoot each other in the streets to mimic glorified criminal behavior.

Ralphie from “The Sopranos” had a word for it.

“Whoo-ores”

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About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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6 Responses to On Watching “The Sopranos”

  1. I loved The Sopranos but you have made excellent points. The series should come with an introductory proviso namely your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I must admit, I loved it too but then I’m not an Italian-American. Whenever any of the popular gangster shows have done anything Irish they have failed miserably. Several episodes of Boardwalk Empire were practically unwatchable because of the fake Irishness, so I kind of understand why it would offend your sensibilities. Out of interest, did you ever watch The Wire?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. beetleypete says:

    I am English, but not stupid. So I knew it was a stereotypical view of a certain segment of that community, during a specific period. I also knew about hard-working Italian families who didn’t turn to crime. They worked their jobs, ran their businesses, became pillars of the community, many fighting and dying for their country. It also had something to say about the American love of psychoanalysis, union corruption, political corruption, and downright nasty people who would sooner commit crime than work.
    But at its heart, it was simple entertainment. Was that really at the expense of the reputation of the Italian-American community, or just a soap-opera with gangsters? Only you can answer that, because I am not an Italian-American, but for me it was not. One of the longest-running and most popular TV shows here is called ‘Eastenders’. It features the supposedly everyday lives of working class Londoners, set around a busy street market, and the local bar. (pub)
    The show features rape, murder, criminals, adultery, illegitimate children, race issues, gay and transgender issues, and almost anything other than ‘normal everyday life’ in London. But I don’t get upset by it, despite being a Londoner. Because I know it isn’t real, or serious, just a TV show.
    As you know, I thought that The Sopranos was wonderful TV, one of the best modern dramas I have seen. But never once, not for once second, did I ever think it represented the real lives of Italian-American people.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ms. V says:

    I loved the first few seasons ( binge watched them on DVD–and that’s how long ago I watched them– no Netflix). It seemed as though the character of Tony was being constructed along Shakespearean lines— complex, contradictory, fascinating. I loved the opening sequence and how it showed an idea of progress and assimilation. I’d been part of that. After season 4 however, the violence made me physically ill. I gave the DVDs away. See, I knew some of those people. Called them “Uncle”. Watching “The Sopranos” weird pieces of my childhood fell into place. My parents were not “connected”, but other family members were/are/who knows–I don’t want to . We didn’t talk about this.
    Stereotypes, certainly, but from what I saw, from my personal experience, quite true to life.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. toritto says:

    Hi V. I too enjoyed the first 4 seasons as it explored Tony’s complex personality. Then the show went into violent mob shit and I turned sour on it. But I watched it all beginning to end. I had no passing contact with any of those “uncles” even as an Italian living in Jersey. What bothers me is the non-stop portrayal of Italian Americans as gangsters/thugs/mafia on TV and in the movies from the late seventies to today. And the fact it it was all done by our own writers, directors and actors. Best from Florida.

    P.S. Nobody cares what I think about the Sopranos anyway. I’m just an old crank

    🙂

    Like

  6. jfwknifton says:

    Excellent, well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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