THE SCHECHTMANS AND THE SOPRANOS

                                      BY     Sy Schechtman

 

         Almost every  episode of the eight year television  epic,  The Sopranos, shows the boss of the north Jersey Mafioso, Tony Soprano, in peaceful  contemplation of his large mansion and large pool,  in a quiet stroll along his beautifully manicured vast lawn and shrubbery to pick  up his morning newspaper.   Every episode opens with Tony driving west, away from New York City,  thru the Lincoln Tunnel and onto the Turnpike  and exiting in the Newark area in a lower middle class neighborhood,  with  brief but graphic  close up  images of somewhat sordid reality;  old buildings,  soot and smoke from factory chimneys,  and  mundane struggling humanity  on the streets.    Tony  is  driving his fairly  elaborate pickup truck and is puffing  on a big cigar.  A sort of serene scowl seems to hover on his face.    Next to  the night club and headquarters of his business enterprises, the Bada  Bing Club,  he parks and still puffing on his large cigar,  steps down from the cab of the truck.    Just before going  inside he surveys  this aspect of his turf, far from the McMansion of his suburban  enclave,  and his features seem to relax and the cigar seems to become  more enjoyable.     

        Tony is apparently much more comfortable in the dim, smoke filled inside of the club than the bright daylight  outside.    To the viewer  this is an immediate shock,   viewing the mostly naked strippers undulating slowly on an isolated dance floor which is a fringe part of the large room, while Tony meets with his henchman,  his capos, who  discuss current business events that they  are involved in.   While the viewers’ interest  rather reluctantly is forced from the mostly bare female  flesh  now in the background,  interest  picks up as the various criminal and extra legal business activities  are discussed.    Envelopes with weekly protection  payoffs  are passed to boss Tony, sometimes with apologies  for less of a take then usual.  Strategies for  decreasing   this delinquency  are discussed with his chief associates  who are usually present,  all with suitable Italianate names,  Christopher Moltisanti,  Bobby  “Baccalla” Baccalieri,  and Paulie Walnuts,  whose  name does not, in this case, do his pure Italian personna  justice.    Sometimes the scene shifts rapidly from the theoretical  to the cruel present  reality as Paulie, or Christopher,  is shown confronting  the intransigent client  with a physical memento of this delinquent behavior.  Like a sore or aching cracked rib  from  a parting, gratuitous, reminder kick when the tardy dues client is already down on the floor.

        But then we cut to Tony in his domestic dilemmas  at his blissful suburban idyll.   Here no one is beaten up;  Tony Soprano is mostly on the defensive.  Because as a  beleaguered  but loving father , whose family knows that he won’t kill them,  parental exasperation is his most common emotion,  not an unusual feeling in most middle class families.   Carmela, his enduring wife, does go a significant step further, and they do have a   trial

 separation,  not because of Tony’s business  “ethics” but because of his casual animal attitude   toward sex, bedding down several convenient and willing females when his faithful wife was secure in the household palace.   Carmela’s estrangement  is only temporary as Tony promises to reform,  and  she goes back to her  household as before,  realizing  that the opulent life  style was too good to ignore, even though her personal psychiatrist emphatically warned her that that the ill gotten gains of her husband were too unstable a foundation for a happy marriage.   But most of us are still hooked on the brilliant, conniving sociopath that is still  Tony Soprano,  and the rest of the series, while still very compelling television, still deals with the uneasy compromise between the decency and the depravity of  of the human being// animal.   While Soprano and his gang of thugs still  have conventional   middle class strivings for the respectability of their progeny ---weddings, graduations, births, great festive eating celebrations, funerals  and certain required church appearances – they have little compunction about casually distorting legality to enable them to still swim with this mainstream respectable tide.   In many early episodes a young parish priest is seen in the household, enjoying with some of the household, (but not necessarily Tony)  many of Carmela’s favorite Italian delicacies.   Soon he falls out of the mix, however,  as both parents realize that the possible involvement for their daughter, Meadow, in too much religion and the possibility of  nunhood had to be avoided at all costs.   Secular college at all costs  was the goal!  

        The  rather sad realization on the part of the almost spellbound Schechtmans that Tony was essentially unredeemable came about midway  in the eight year intermittent series.  We had hoped somehow that the sporadic killing would fade away and the criminal path would start to disappear and spiritually nourishing good deeds would begin just as we in our own lives had experienced.   Indeed, most of us had in our background, immigrants all,  some connection with rather devious routes to acceptable, approved  citizen behavior.   My aunt Fannie rented rooms in her two story house in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn to some shady ladies who used their bodies for commercial gain—kurvahs in Yiddish--- and one of her children was  a runner for a bookie,  then an illegal profession.   My Uncle Moe was in the trucking business, drank a bit too much, a schikker   in Yiddish,  and  had connections, we thought, with  Murder Inc.,  a small time Jewish shadow answer to the larger  organized  Mafioso crime doings of our Italian  neighbors.    And my Aunt Edna reputedly lived with  a small time Jewish mobster, and had to go into hiding for a while on his death  to secrete considerable financial gains his former compatriots thought rightfully they should have shared.  And when she surfaced a few years later she was able to help her sister Becky’s husband, my Uncle Izzy,  get started in his printing business,  which ended up employing quite a few dozen people gainfully and honorably.    My father, for his part, managed to steer clear of the laws’ illegal  aspects except in the iniquitous matter of excise taxes on furs, our family business.  which he, and I, for a short while, had to endure. 

        During World War II  a 20% excise tax on luxury iems, such as furs, was added, and only  long  after the war’s end was it repealed.    This was indeed a large additional charge in addition  to the considerable initial  cost of most fur garments, compelling several ingenious and perhaps  desperate ways to sell  “off the books” ---for cash—so that  there was no actual record of the sale, and hence no 20% tax was applicable.   But also, this money had to be returned to the business off the record, too, to pay necessary  salaries and legitimate  espenses.   One loophole  was  that  no excise tax was  charged  on remodeling fur garments,  and it was amazing how many remodels went through our factory in that dismal era!!.  

And every now and then an IRS man would show up to check our “books”  and  assess how balanced they seemed.   Generally  a cash   Christmas  gift of a few thousand dollars  made everyone  happy.   Actually all this done was done sotto voce with our accountant,  who was a first cousin, as the  go between.  (We trusted him implicitly  not to add or subtract any part of that money into his own pocket!)

         The point is that most of us had many small or medium type legal “embarrassments”with  conventional officialdom that made us receptive to the not so squeaky clean record of more serious malefactors,; especially  after all the blurring between good and evil in the prohibition era,  when  we mostly “looked the other way” when  illegal selling of most alcoholic beverages  and the attendant serious crime that resulted was far from uncommon.  And gun ownership, and use, then and now, is still a hotly debated and perhaps moot  point.   In effect, most of us were conditioned to be fascinated voyeurs as we watched these sometimes very normal people do startlingly malevolent deeds.   We, on the Schechtman  side,  became increasingly uneasy about perhaps another murder  or two being committed by the Soprano’s Inc.   although, refreshingly some episodes were almost tranquil though still vital,  even  in their non homicidal  story line!   And  so we found ourselves opting out some nights when the new episode  ran,  as we were  anxious to be tension free of any upsetting, though compelling violence.

        Tony Soprano, we realized, though still  unredeemable was still compellingly  intriguing.  What would this beastly man do next?  And at times he was indeed compassionate!!  Deep within the bosom  of his family  we had  his flesh and blood mother, Livia,  somewhat paranoiac and planning to kill him,  a dire fact that Tony is well aware of.   But Tony still takes care of her, but not unfortunately in his palatial  house  because his wife, Carmela,  wisely would not stand for this monster of a mother in law.   A major part of one episode is devoted to very upscale senior retirement homes that Livia might   consent   to happily nurse her persecution complexes  in.     Also,  Tony has an uncle,  Junior,  who now hates him,  because  Tony  has usurped his leadership  in the group.   Junior, as time goes on, develops Alzeheimer’s disease,  and mistakenly shots Tony in the stomach, almost killing him.   A major part of the next few episodes take place  in the hospital in Newark  here Tony is seen battling for his life.  Not a word of reprisal against Junior,  who is shown again incidentally  in his retirement abode, not recalling how Tony became incapacitated.   Meanwhile the necessary killing to retain Mafioso power with Tony’s loyal  capos goes on unabated.

     The  quintessential, meaningful  actions  of the courageous  Dr. Jennifer Melfi, psychiatrist,  are the still hopeful core of the this crime and still very meager punishment saga.    At the very beginning Tony is seen, surreptiously,  in Melfi’s modest office,  consulting her for his occasional panic attacks.   He has picked her out from a list of Italian ancestry  “head shrinks”;  unknown to his hoodlum consorts because it might undermine his  reputation for cold calculating physical retribution.   Melfi is in almost every episode  of the  series, except the last, enigmatic finale.    There is a distinct sexual tinge to their encounters  as Melfi has to unveil as much as possible of Tony’s nefarious life.   One psychic  breakthrough occurs with Tony’s revelation of a recurring dream of ducks returning  to his  large  pool to nest and nurture their young.  Under Melfi’s guidance he realizes that one reason for his attacks is fear of losing his family,  as the ducks keep disappearing  and may not return.  He also has dreams of losing his penis and searching for a good car mechanic  to weld it on again.  Some of their sessions leave Tony exasperated,  even furious as he stalks out  of a visit prematurely.    But gradually  he finds the  visits an island of peace in his complicated life,  and he has   feelings  of sexual  attraction.    Melfi understands this and explains the normal  transference phase of attachment  from patient to therapist.   But soon after this we   do not see the shapely legs  of the therapist so attractively displayed because of the mini skirt she  always seems to have casually put on.   Now  she wears slacks as the sessions continue.  And we viewers can perhaps thankfully take our minds off any impending sexual encounters.    

        Melfi suffers the very serious  indignity of rape  in the parking garage near her office; and event not related to Tony’s therapy.  As she recovers  she has to resist  the desire to have Tony revenge her on the rapist, who is out on bail, to “squish  him like a bug”.    Melfi, too, has to go into hiding for awhile as a result  of her relationship with Tony.   His Uncle Junior,  when he was still a prescient Mafioso boss aiming to depose Tony,  found out that Tony was seeing a “shrink”,  ( and a female one at that!)  who perhaps a was suitable target for  kidnap or blackmail.   Tony provides her secure haven until truce is declared between uncle and nephew. Melfi’s colleagues urge Melfi, who can now come out of hiding, to dissociate herself from  Tony.    They read her a report  about a recent study showing that talk therapy may only reinforce  a sociopath’s    pathologic behaviour.   

        After reading the report herself Melfi finally  terminates  her relationship  with Tony Soprano  at their next session.    And we are set up for the grand finale episode in an very superior Italian  restaurant with all the remaining surviving  cast  present except for Melfi and Christopher (who Tony killed the week before in self defense) all in anticipatory mode, both cast of actors and world wide audience, not knowing whether the end will be bloody, benign, or bewildering.   And it is indeed bewildering.  The screen goes dark  as some latecomers seem to be entering the restaurant,  but the only action forthcoming now is the rolling of the screen credits, of which, of course , the prime credit goes to David Chase, chief director , writer and producer  of one of the most absorbing television entertainments ever.

         Follow up movie, anyone?     Gandolfini in the guise of a slightly  reformed Tony Soprano as the “evil” Robin Hood of the poor.  A marvelous contradiction;  a modified “super”   Tony?    The Schechtman’s will most probably be ready-----God willing!