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
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
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!