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This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos
David Lavery, ed.
London: Wallflower Press, 2002.
£14.99, 285 pages, ISBN 1-903364-44-2.

Barbara Villez
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 mother, 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 hold on, 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 of television 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.


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