Practically every week, another Italian-American organization seems to protest The Sopranos, charging that the show defames the cultural character of Italian-Americans everywhere. An alliance of seven such organizations sent a scathing letter to HBO, whining about the ubiquitous achievements of a few good wops; we built famous statues, established large corporations, achieved medical breakthroughs and, I’d argue, made the world’s greatest television show.
The creator of The Sopranos, David Chase (né DeCaesare), should get a big award, or at least have a banquet held in his honor. Instead he gets statistics like this thrown at his face: “Three out of four Americans believe that Italian-Americans are associated with organized crime.” This is not a travesty of television and all its horrific power. This is a travesty of the American educational system that would graduate the morons who believe this kind of crap. The Italian critics, however, the knuckle-headed goombahs who take these statistics far too seriously, should be grateful The Sopranos exists. This show’s done something that me and my Gina girlfriends once thought impossible. It has made us want to fuck Italians again, thereby allowing us to go forth and fruitfully multiply.
Normally, I’m not attracted to Italian men. Not because I am a bigot, but because the Italian guys I grew up with were gentle and whiny, poncey and overly mothered. They were not mysterious to me. Hence, I’m into venal WASPs. Then along comes Tony Soprano, and I have to rethink this stupid-assed, totally bigoted policy of mine.
God, James Gandolfini. I’d watch him host a cooking show. Tony is the kind of Italian man I forgot existed. He’s conflicted and deep, sullen and insane. He has that measure of self-awareness once only relegated to Woody Allen’s tortured protagonists. And okay, so he kills people, but it is his job, for crying out loud, and frankly, he’s not so happy about it either! This is what renders criticism of his character moot. And hilarious. Yes, Everybody Loves Raymond, but Nobody’s Supposed to Love Tony. He is a mob boss, not a barber.
But unlike the comic mob stereotype in so many movies, Tony Soprano is infinitely interesting. Gandolfini plays him like a heavy-set James Dean, and I haven’t seen this kind of Protestant work ethic in Italians since the heyday of The Godfather. Like Michael Corleone before him, Tony Soprano is a WASP in wop’s clothing. That is why he’s been thoroughly embraced by the mainstream, Anglo culture. They’re eating him up; washing him down with cheap Chianti. He’s nothing like the vain, Italian fops I grew up with guys more like Jackie, Jr., Tony’s daughter’s worthless boyfriend, who was whacked in last night’s season finale. My own dad was just this nice guy who grew great beans and wore black socks with sandals. He was kind and religious. Now I believe that if he had given my mother’s ass an affectionate smack now and then they’d still be together. And my brothers, though wonderful fathers and hard-working men, both agree, with a sigh, that their wives call the shots at home. Not so in the Soprano household.
Carmela is a strong, intelligent woman, but she gives in to Tony’s rage as often as he gives in to hers, because they understand where this stuff comes from. Their marriage is a meeting of two people who know their anger is as intractable as blood. Your basic assimilated ethnic Italian would like to pretend they’ve released all that messy, unbridled hate. They’ve learned to “communicate effectively.” They know how to “actively listen.” Snore. Wake me when the papers are served.
In fact, I’ll admit that I get shivers when Tony’s angry with a lady friend. When he tells Gloria, this season’s mistress, played by Annabella Sciorra, “I didn’t just meet you, I’ve known you my whole life” in other words, she’s his mom, all over again, deceptively packaged in sexy lingerie I nearly fainted with agita. This sentence is key to what makes Tony different from the Italian men I knew growing up. Tony’s mother hated him. It’s a rare familial tic, as far as Italian mothers go. No wonder Tony doesn’t eat much pussy. I’m going by an early episode here, when he tormented his Uncle Junior for going down on a girl. That ribbing gave me the impression that the last time Tony’s face was that close to a pussy, he was being woefully spat out of it. And in no hurry to revisit the scene of the crime.
I know what all this sounds like; I’m saying that it’s great to see an Italian guy who is an amoral bully, a damaged pig, because his momma didn’t worship his every bowel moment. I’m not saying it’s great, I’m just saying that it’s new. Tony Soprano was badly mothered, and this is why women like me want to mother him more.
Dr. Melfi would know precisely what I’m talking about. It’s the thing that makes her cross and uncross her legs during their psychiatric sessions. She should be the positive role model the critics crave: a first-generation, educated, professional Italian woman, with an ex-husband who is a respectable intellectual dullard. But man, can you ever tell the doctor wants Tony to give it to her from behind, him holding a fistful of her hair, because she ain’t getting it like that at home. Which is why it was so devastating to see her get raped by a stranger in the parking garage of her office building: her fantasy of having Tony “take” her was played out in reality, only hurting and humiliating her for real. The result was a genuine moral dilemma. Tony, the bully, not only makes her hot, he can protect and avenge her. But if she did that ask Tony to step in and squash her rapist “like a bug” she’d be no better than he is, and the people around Tony have a lot invested in always being better people than Tony.
Including the show’s critics, it would seem.
In their knee-jerk defensiveness, the critics seem not to recognize that the beauty of The Sopranos is that it doesn’t assume there is a clear line between “good” and “bad” Italians, passion and fury, sex and violence. Those gray areas aren’t the problem with the show, they’re what the show is about. In any non-mob-based TV show, Italian-Americans are the “good ones.” They’re wacky, kind and warm. The aforementioned Ray Romano comes to mind, as does the King of Queens living on the other side of the East River. (Even Baretta was a good guy, though on screen only, it would currently appear.) But in many ways TV Italians are sanitized and bleached into boring ethnics.
On The Sopranos, everything’s messier and darker and tastier. Jennifer Melfi’s passionate Italian woman (her “Inner Gina”) struggles under that moral yuppie guise. She passes for a WASP. She did good.
Tony, well, he didn’t do so good. He’s an overweight, murderous adulterer. But it’s this voracious appetite for food, blood and sex that makes women like me wet for him. Ours is a culture that places a premium on skinny stoics, the redeemed, the psychoanalyzed, the Anglicized, the recovered. Your moral purity is measured by your lack of vices and addictions. The juxtaposition of Tony and Jennifer compels the hell out of me because they are polar opposites of the same culture. Jennifer denies herself everything. Tony, nothing.
Italian-American critics don’t want to see this side of their culture, to admit that guys like Tony Soprano exist. And I think that WASPs love to hate him, not because he’s a filthy ethnic, but because he combines decadent Mediterranean laze with the fervency of a Wall Street viper. A white guy. Tony Soprano carries himself the way Anglo-Saxon men do, walking the earth like they built it with their own hands, instead of having hired guys like my brothers to do all the dirty work.
WASPs have no shame, so I’m saying, why should us Italians? Why are we all the time coming down on our paisans? Without Christopher Columbus, there’d be no David Chase. Without David Chase, there’d be no Tony Soprano. Without Tony Soprano, there’d be no Italian guy allowed within ten feet of my pussy. Now, fact is, I’m looking for my own Tony, to make little Tonys with. But he’s gotta do like Uncle Junior, or, I swear, there’s gonna be a war.