BY    Sy Schechtman


        Almost everyepisode of the eight year televisionepic,The Sopranos, shows the boss of the north Jersey Mafioso, Tony Soprano, in peacefulcontemplation 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 Turnpikeand exiting in the Newark area in a lower middle class neighborhood,withbrief but graphicclose upimages of somewhat sordid reality;old buildings,soot and smoke from factory chimneys,andmundane struggling humanityon the streets.   Tonyisdriving his fairlyelaborate pickup truck and is puffingon a big cigar.A sort of serene scowl seems to hover on his face.   Next tothe night club and headquarters of his business enterprises, the BadaBing Club,he parks and still puffing on his large cigar, steps down from the cab of the truck.   Just before going inside he surveysthis aspect of his turf, far from the McMansion of his suburbanenclave,and his features seem to relax and the cigar seems to becomemore enjoyable.     

       Tony is apparently much more comfortable in the dim, smoke filled inside of the club than the bright daylightoutside.   To the viewerthis 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, whodiscuss current business events that theyare involved in.  While the viewers’ interestrather reluctantly is forced from the mostly bare female fleshnow in the background,interestpicks up as the various criminal and extra legal business activitiesare discussed.   Envelopes with weekly protectionpayoffsare passed to boss Tony, sometimes with apologiesfor less of a take then usual.Strategies fordecreasing   this delinquencyare discussed with his chief associateswho are usually present,all with suitable Italianate names,Christopher Moltisanti,Bobby“Baccalla” Baccalieri,and Paulie Walnuts,whosename does not, in this case, do his pure Italian personna justice.   Sometimes the scene shifts rapidly from the theoreticalto the cruel presentreality as Paulie, or Christopher,is shown confrontingthe intransigent clientwith a physical memento of this delinquent behavior.Like a sore or aching cracked rib froma parting, gratuitous, reminder kick when the tardy dues client is already down on the floor.

       But then we cut to Tony in his domestic dilemmasat his blissful suburban idyll.  Here no one is beaten up;Tony Soprano is mostly on the defensive.Because as abeleaguered 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 attitudetoward sex, bedding down several convenient and willing females when his faithful wife was secure in the household palace.  Carmela’s estrangementis only temporary as Tony promises to reform,andshe goes back to herhousehold as before,realizingthat 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 stillTony Soprano, and the rest of the series, while still very compelling television, still deals with the uneasy compromise between the decency and the depravity ofof 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, funeralsand 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 ofnunhood had to be avoided at all costs.   Secular college at all costswas the goal!  

       The rather sad realization on the part of the almost spellbound Schechtmans that Tony was essentially unredeemable came about midwayin 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, approvedcitizen 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 wasa 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,andhad connections, we thought, withMurder Inc., a small time Jewish shadow answer to the larger organized Mafioso crime doings of our Italian neighbors.   And my Aunt Edna reputedly lived witha small time Jewish mobster, and had to go into hiding for a while on his deathto 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’ illegalaspects 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 IIa 20% excise tax on luxury iems, such as furs, was added, and onlylong after the war’s end was it repealed.   This was indeed a large additional charge in additionto the considerable initialcost of most fur garments, compelling several ingenious and perhapsdesperate ways to sell“off the books” ---for cash—so thatthere 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 necessarysalaries and legitimateespenses.   One loopholewasthatno excise tax waschargedon 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.  Generallya cash  Christmasgift of a few thousand dollarsmade everyonehappy.  Actually all this done was done sotto voce with our accountant,who was a first cousin, as thego between.(We trusted him implicitlynot 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” whenillegal 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 mootpoint.  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 Schechtmanside,became increasingly uneasy about perhaps another murderor two being committed by the Soprano’s Inc.although, refreshingly some episodes were almost tranquil though still vital,even in their non homicidalstory line!   Andso we found ourselves opting out some nights when the new episoderan,as we wereanxious to be tension free of any upsetting, though compelling violence.

       Tony Soprano, we realized, though stillunredeemable was still compellinglyintriguing.What would this beastly man do next?And at times he was indeed compassionate!!Deep within the bosomof his familywe hadhis 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 palatialhousebecause 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 complexesin.     Also,Tony has an uncle,Junior,who now hates him,becauseTonyhas usurped his leadershipin 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 placein the hospital in Newarkhere Tony is seen battling for his life.Not a word of reprisal against Junior,who is shown again incidentallyin his retirement abode, not recalling how Tony became incapacitated.Meanwhile the necessary killing to retain Mafioso power with Tony’s loyalcapos goes on unabated.

    Thequintessential, meaningfulactionsof the courageousDr. 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 hisreputation for cold calculating physical retribution.  Melfi is in almost every episodeof theseries, except the last, enigmatic finale.   There is a distinct sexual tinge to their encountersas Melfi has to unveil as much as possible of Tony’s nefarious life.   One psychicbreakthrough occurs with Tony’s revelation of a recurring dream of ducks returningto hislargepool 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 disappearingand may not return.He also has dreams of losing his penis and searching for a good car mechanicto weld it on again.Some of their sessions leave Tony exasperated,even furious as he stalks outof a visit prematurely.   But graduallyhe finds the visits an island of peace in his complicated life,and he has   feelingsof sexualattraction.   Melfi understands this and explains the normaltransference phase of attachmentfrom patient to therapist.  But soon after this we  do not see the shapely legsof the therapist so attractively displayed because of the mini skirt shealways seems to have casually put on.  Nowshe wears slacks as the sessions continue.And we viewers can perhaps thankfully take our minds off any impending sexual encounters.    

       Melfi suffers the very seriousindignity of rapein the parking garage near her office; and event not related to Tony’s therapy.As she recoversshe has to resistthe desire to have Tony revenge her on the rapist, who is out on bail, to “squishhim like a bug”.   Melfi, too, has to go into hiding for awhile as a resultof 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 fromTony.  They read her a reportabout a recent study showing that talk therapy may only reinforcea sociopath’s   pathologic behaviour.   

       After reading the report herself Melfi finally terminatesher relationshipwith Tony Sopranoat their next session. And we are set up for the grand finale episode in an very superior Italianrestaurant with all the remaining survivingcastpresent 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 darkas 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 producerof one of the most absorbing television entertainments ever.

        Follow up movie, anyone?    Gandolfini in the guise of a slightlyreformed 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!