Sing the praises of HBO's `Sopranos'

Preview: The groundbreaking HBO drama only gets better in its second season. `Sopranos' premiere a sweet start to 2nd season

January 15, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

He's got a mother who wanted to have him killed, an uncle who tried make it happen, a self-absorbed daughter, an unfulfilled wife, an overweight son and a crew of underlings that may include an informer.

Is it any wonder that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), middle-aged suburban crime boss, has a serious anxiety disorder? And now his therapist (Lorraine Bracco) wants nothing to do with him.

"How many more people have to die for your personal growth?" she demands as she orders him out of her life forever in the premiere of "The Sopranos" second season on HBO tomorrow night.

"The Sopranos" was already the best cop drama on American television when its first season ended after 13 Sundays last spring. Now that I've seen the first three hours of season two, I can say without hesitation it is the best drama on television -- period. Creator David Chase has managed to take a masterpiece and make it better.

What a gifted and easygoing storyteller Chase has become. The camera moves from the ugly, industrial, rust-belt images of Tony's New Jersey territory into a quick and funny scene showing mobsters infiltrating the online buying and selling of stock.

And then -- as Frank Sinatra sings "It Was a Very Good Year" -- we are treated to a montage that brings us not only back into the belly of the beast that is Tony's life, but makes us remember what it felt like to live inside his skin. And hardly a word of dialogue is spoken through these first few fabulous minutes.

There's a shot of Tony's evil mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), in her hospital bed. Yes, she survived Tony's attempt to suffocate her. Then we see Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) walking in lockstep formation in prison -- not for trying to have Tony whacked, but on 18 counts of racketeering.

And there's Dr. Melfi (Bracco), seeing patients in a motel room, having fled home and office because of the danger of being Tony's therapist.

And here's Tony, who's survived the attempt on his life and taken over all that was his uncle's. An underling brings him a grocery bag full of money in one shot. In another, he's on his back with a naked woman on top of him.

Finally, there's Tony sneaking into his plush suburban home after a night of sex, trying not to wake Carmela (Emmy-Award-winning Edie Falco) as he slithers into bed.

All the while, Sinatra's singing. And the pictures and music create a rush of pure television pleasure.

"The Sopranos" works on so many levels. The blood struggle among Livia, Tony and Junior with all its sick, dark, Freudian undercurrents is the stuff of Greek tragedy. The series' satiric postmodern commentary on media depictions of criminals, while far lighter, is just as profound.

Tomorrow night features such a moment when mobster Silvio Dante (Stevie Van Zandt), delights Tony and the gang with an impersonation of Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" movies. "Just when I was about to get out, they suck me back in," Dante says. Tony and his guys laugh at the parody, and we smile at them mocking the film. But both they and we know that it's true -- they really can't get out.

That ironic knowledge helped cause the chest tightness and stress-induced blackouts that Tony started suffering in last year's shows before Dr. Melfi put him on Prozac.

What so attracts me to the series, though, is its take on the middle-aged American male. It speaks like no other television series to the contradictions, hypocrisy, anxiety, hopes, fears and rage of life today for many baby boomer men. Chase and his "Sopranos" explore the relationship between masculinity and American capitalism like no work of popular culture since Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

Yes, in Tony's business they literally kill you when you start to lose a step. But anyone who has been downsized, forced into an early retirement or run off a job by someone with more power knows corporate America can kill your spirit or your soul as it crushes your career.

I love this series. I love how, this week, just when you think Tony's home life can't possibly get any more irritating or complicated, his hippie sister Janice (Aida Turturro) arrives and moves in. She's an older sister, and, as Tony puts it, "She still thinks I'm a fat little kid."

And, next week, just when you think Tony's achieved some calm in his professional life, in walks Richie Aprile (David Proval), fresh out of jail after serving 10 years, pledging his allegiance to Uncle Junior and making all sorts of trouble for Tony, the mob boss.

Let's be honest. "The Sopranos" is incredibly crude and violent. The "f" word is used in ways you'd never imagine, and you'll see brains blown out of a man's head onto a car window tomorrow night.

And, yes, I even love that.

Call it a guilty pleasure. The only defense I can offer on this count is that the series is on premium cable, which you have to make an effort and pay extra money to see.

Make the effort. And, if you can afford the money, pay it. "The Sopranos" is the richest exploration of middle-aged masculinity anywhere in our popular culture. It is one of the few voices in these stock-market-mad times that talks honestly about the underbelly of capitalism and warns of what it can do to a man's soul.

Weekend TV

What: Second season premiere of "The Sopranos"

When: Sunday night, 9 to 10

Where: HBO

In brief: The best drama on American television.

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