This Thing of Ours: Investigating
David Lavery, ed.
London: Wallflower Press, 2002.
£14.99, 285 pages, ISBN 1-903364-44-2.
Université Paris 8-Vincennes Saint Denis
"Out there it's the 1990s; in this house, it's 1954." If
Tony Soprano makes this announcement to his daughter at the breakfast
table one morning, it
is because he feels that the old values of respect and decorum are slipping
away. If so many of the articles in David Lavery's collection of
essays on the American
television series The Sopranos refer to this moment, it is because it
typifies the principal character's main dilemma. Tony Soprano's problem is
how to live in his time when all his values come from another time. He struggles
weekly to deal with his wealthy social-climbing suburban family and his other "family",
the mob, in a rapidly changing world.
In their article on David Chase, the creator of the series, Lavery and Thomson
reveal some of the foundations on which The Sopranos was built. The
fact that Chase had always been "obsessed" with gangster films was
a starting point. Using this genre and adding some personal experiences (his
therapy for example) and his criticism of American society, Chase, helped by
some lucky decisions taken with his production team, ended up with a television
phenomenon. Indeed, the streets of major American cities have been known to
empty on the evenings that the series is broadcast.
Tony Soprano's ideals are based on memories of his own father, a former figure
of mob authority, and on the gangster films, which are constant references
for him and his "business family". As these ideals have become challenged,
he fears that the old values of loyalty, honesty and manliness are not as they
were in the days of his father or in those films. Tony's realization of this
time lag as well as his more ordinary difficulties in dealing with an aging mother,
a strong-minded wife and two adolescent children cause him to have panic attacks.
This leads him regularly to the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a "paysan",
although female, psychiatrist.
Willis' article on the identity crisis of the American family man pinpoints
precisely one of the important themes of the series. Tony's whole life seems
to be out
of step with the Mafia myth and with that of the head of the family (Willis,
Santo, for example). He is at a loss over what he deems to be the questionable
values of current American society. However, it is often suggested in the other
articles of Lavery's collection, as it is in the program itself, that this
identity crisis is not only Tony's. In this modern world where the Mafia is
not what it
used to be (Walker), one can no longer count on the traditional "morality," and
power has declined. Nor does being the man of the family guarantee power or
respect any longer (Akass and McCabe). The women in Tony's life challenge his
or his illusion of, that power. Tony, in this position, may be read to symbolize
the current lives of many men.
Tony Soprano is likeable as a father. However, he is a not-so-likeable husband
whose wife comes to terms with his "business" and cheating. She knows
what she wants and what she has, and what she wants to hold on to, which is not
necessarily Tony, but what his life or livelihood can offer her (Akass and McCabe).
Tony's mother, a veritable shrew who is so far from the usual image of the gray-haired
Italian mama, despises Tony for putting her in a nursing home to the point of
setting up a hit against him. Thus, not only the gangster myths, but also those
carried in traditional television "family series", are decidedly
turned upside down.
The article by Akass and McCabe on the strong women in the program or the one
by Donatelli and Alward on the evolution of Mafia wives from The Godfather to The
Sopranos, via Goodfellas, give more evidence of the identity crisis
central to the show. These women offer an alternative microscope through which
to observe the crisis of the American male (Willis).Tony's relations with most
of the women in the series indicate the confusion in his life. His relation with
his analyst for example, goes through several stages, from skepticism to love
to anger. Dr. Melfi's professionalism suffers confusion as well when she becomes
increasingly infatuated with Tony and his reproachable dealings. It is suggested
that the television audiences experience the same infatuation, since Tony can
be likable and pitiable as well as ruthless and fearsome, often in the same episode.
Tony's panic attacks indicate on a first level his anxiety over the conflicts
in his life, but they also accentuate this identity crisis. What has become of
manhood? What are the important values today? Why is there no respect? (Pattie)
What is responsibility? (Willis). Tony fears he can no longer count on anyone
anymore. What ever happened to solidarity and loyalty among men? (Auster). Santo's
article on the body image intelligently studies the crisis by examining the changing
concerns of American males as revealed in the series. The body is an important
theme in The Sopranos, despite (or because of) the presence and number
of anti-playboy types. Discussions about the body, as well as the male characters'
concern with their appearance, point at both the self-consciousness and self-satisfaction
of consumer society today. Men are now aware of being looked at; they are no
longer only frontier builders, men of action. The disappearance of the frontier
could be both the cause and the effect of this new concern. The challenges are
not the same, perhaps there are none left. Therefore, values have changed. Tony
has disturbing nightmares and bouts of anxiety as the Mafioso of New Jersey hang
around the Bada Bing club, counting money and getting fat. Pattie's article reminds
readers of Tony's nostalgia for the lost American heroes like Cary Cooper, or
Vito Corleone, who never had doubts. Everything always comes back to the idea
of crisis, decline, confusion, and breakdown. Setting this challenge to the myth
of the gangster or the action hero in New Jersey, a typical location of uneventful
suburban middle class American life, suggests a parallel to the state of American
society. This might also explain viewers' fascination with the show, aside from
its inventive and innovative writing and good acting.
Space is too limited here for a discussion of all of the intelligent articles
of this collection. The authors have gone past the usual temptations to dwell
on the scenarios of the series and have produced an important contribution
to research on television series. The majority of the articles give readers
texts serious tools by which to analyze this, as well as other, series of the "new
generation". The book succeeds in enabling readers, loyal fans or occasional
visitors of The Sopranos to reflect upon the show, thus gleaning insights
as to what, from the outside, is, perhaps, being mirrored in it, which would
explain the fascination and fidelity of such a wide audience.