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If television programming is normally considered a wasteland, then "The Sopranos" may be thought of as a jungle: richly colored, teeming with life, dark with mystery. The Sopranos on the Couch is a must for all who are already caught up in the excitement, as well as for viewers who are coming to the show for the first time. Yacowar helps us understand exactly why we can't get enough of Tony Soprano and that colorful mafia family that we hate to love and often love to hate! This pop-culture sensation is not only the most controversial series on television, but also the most provocative, thoughtful, and complex. Its language and themes have stretched the norms of commercial television, many characters and phrases having entered our everyday life.The Sopranos on the Couch is the first book to provide a compact, lively, and authoritative examination of each episode and season - the themes, inside jokes, and allusions - thereby putting the series into a broader cultural context.
I, 1: The Pilot
Written and directed by David Chase.
Gangster Tony Soprano consults psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi about his anxiety attacks and blackouts but is skeptical about the therapeutic. process. He misses the duck family that settled in, then vacated, his swimming pool. He and his protege Christopher assault Mahaffy, a medical administrator, over a gambling debt. Tony fails to dissuade his Uncle Junior from using popular restaurant of friend Art Bucco to kill an errant hoodlum. Tony has the restaurant burned down to save Art's reputation. Christopher kills a rival's nephew, Emil Kolar, to discourage competition for a big garbage contract. In his personal life, Tony's bitter mother, Livia, rejects any seniors residence, his daughter Meadow flirts with delinquency, his son Anthony Jr. is an underachiever, and his wife Carmela (correctly) suspects Tony of having a mistress.
As we have noted, the first episode begins with Tony nervous about opening up to a woman. Our first surprise is that Tony is consulting a woman psychiatrist. Tony's unease continues in Dr. Melfi's office, as he explains his panic attack, blackouts, and depression. Out of his element, Tony's black shirtobtrudes against the harmonized browns of Melfi's suit and her office.
As he will throughout the series, Tony fights the therapy: "It's impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist." Of the four appointments in the first episode, one Tony skips and from one he stomps out angry (when Melfi asks him to discuss his feelings about the ducks). At the last he asserts that the Prozac has helped him so much he does not have to come any more. Tony's suspicion of therapy includes how his salutary talking reflects on his manliness. He cries when he realizes that he fears losing his family as he lost his ducks.
The flashback structure demonstrates the effectiveness of exposing buried memories. The past materializes for us. Tony's weeping shows how far his therapy has already taken him. Self-consciously he anticipates his tears. Of course, he feels this treatment has brought him down rather than up, made him weaker not healthier. Is he no stronger than simple Artie, who weeps at the loss of his restaurant? Tony consoles him with what he learned from Melfi: "Hope takes many forms." Not to duck the metaphor, behind that counsel lurks poet Emily Dickenson's line, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
Though Tony resists the treatment, there are early signs he will be erotically drawn toward Melfi. After asking her about her family's roots, he concludes "My mother would have loved it if you and I got together." But she corrects his casual "Hon" to "Dr. Melfi." When they happen to meet at the restaurant, Melfi seems nervous, but her unclinical language suggests some kinship: "Shut the fuck up," she tells her surprised date, Nils.
The first episode establishes the male fear of talking-especially if he's a gangster. Melfi scrupulously defines the line between doctor-patient confidentiality and her responsibility to warn the police if she learns of anyone's imminent danger. But Tony sneers at psychoanalysis: "I had a semester and a half at college so I understand Freud. I understand therapy as a concept." He prefers the Gary Cooper model, "the strong, silent type. There was an American." As "Guys today have no room for the penal experience," they join the Witness Protection Program instead of manfully taking the rap. Tony knows that if his cronies knew of his therapy he could be killed. Hence his nervous "confession" to Carmela who, of course, is overjoyed that he is seeing a therapist.
Already nervous about the RICO law's admission of government wiretapping and surveillance, Tony fears himself-or Melfi-being considered a squealer. When Tony first mentions RICO Melfi asks, "Is he your brother?" No, but it is heavy: RICO is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act passed in 1970 to help the government investigate and prosecute organized crime. From the Sopranos' perspective make that "persecute."
The opening episode also establishes the spectrum of parent-child tensions. Tony's son, AJ, has his thirteenth-birthday party postponed when Tony collapses at the barbecue. He collapses again while showing his mother the seniors residence. When Dr. Melfi encourages Tony to "Stay on your mother," what she means is "Pull back for some perspective on her." Carmela agrees that Tony's mother is his major problem. His avoidance of Melfi's question about his father suggests another major memory is buried there (which is revealed in I, 7 and III, 3).
Livia rails against Tony's neglect, rejects his gift CD player, and resists his encouragement to move into a well-appointed seniors home (with adjacent nursing quarters). Tony charmingly dances with his mother (to Connie Francis's appropriate "Who's Sorry Now?"). But Livia insists that daughters take better care of their mothers than sons do (an illusion entirely exposed when Tony's sister Janice erupts in II, 1). As Tony tells Melfi, his mother's current adoration of her dead husband jars with her life-long abuse of him, when she wore him "down to a nub." But Tony still envies his father who, although he didn't achieve Tony's rank, lived in an age of honorable gangsters who would never sing to the feds. In Livia's and Uncle Junior's bitterness about the current generation, Livia does not react to Junior's suggestion that something may have to be done to her son. That feeds his later plot to kill him.
Meadow rejects her mother's discipline and pleasure (their annual shopping visit to New York) as she chafes under teenage rules. The set design catches the pivot in Meadow's emotional state. Her bedroom abounds with the toys and dolls of her childhood, but a large butterfly on her wall suggests an imminent emergence. As if to realize Meadow's sense of her mother, Carmela brandishes a major military gun when she catches Meadow trying to sneak back into her bedroom. The militant mother lightly anticipates Livia's plotting against her son's life. "Mothers and daughters," Tony assures Carmela, "she'll come back to you."
Meadow would rather appeal her mother's ban of the Aspen ski holiday than hear Tony's pride in their ancestors who did the masonry and carpentry on the magnificent church. But Meadow grows thoughtfully appreciative in the scene. Here Tony speaks directly for David Chase, who was surprised to learn late in life that his grandfather and his brothers were master craftsmen from Europe who built some classic New Jersey churches.
By trying to save the reputation of friend Artie Bucco's restaurant, Tony irks Uncle Junior, his father's younger brother and himself the victim of a sibling's insecurities. Tony remembers him taking him to Yankees games and Uncle Junior remembers playing catch with him. The macho identify with athletics. Uncle Junior shattered Tony's self-esteem by telling his nieces that Tony would never make the varsity sports teams (hence his brief college tenure). Now Tony exuberantly attends Meadow's volleyball game (and plots business in the stands) and he will later spur AJ into football.
More dramatic is the Sopranos' marital tension. Tony strides into the kitchen bare-chested and slaps his wife's butt in the presence of their children and Meadow's friend, Hunter. Though Carmela devotedly attends his 6:30 A.M. medical examination, when he romanticizes their good times she snaps at him about his goomah (the wiseguy's obligatory mistress) and predicts he will go to Hell. Right after telling Carmela that she's the only person with whom he is "completely honest," Tony confirms her reference to his therapist as a "him." Despite her attack, Carmela gives him a warm, concerned wave as he enters the machine.
But Tony moves in a man's world, which wants to keep betrayal and infidelity in marriage where it belongs. This is demonstrated by the restaurant owner's smoothness in successive scenes. Tony brings Irina, his Russian mistress, one night and Carmela the next. "Mr. Soprano, months we don't see you," the restaurateur exudes for Carmela's benefit, "Where you been? Signora Carmela!" The Godfather theme music in the background confirms this man's world. Understandably, Carmela is surprised-and relieved-when what Tony "confesses" is not adultery but his other therapy.
In this bent world even language can't be straight. Hence, the gangsters' professional euphemism. Tony tells Dr. Melfi he's "a waste management consultant," which is literally and metaphorically, but not exhaustively, true. He manages more kinds of waste-and wasting or whacking-than the term usually covers. At the restaurant, Tony tells Melfi that her "decorating tips" really worked. Insofar as his improvement is still superficial, the Prozac is a kind of decorating tip. When he tells Melfi that he and debtor Mahaffey "had coffee," we watch Tony gleefully run him down with Chris's new car in an office park in Paramus, N.J., then beat him into submission. But as Mahaffey drops his tray of coffees when he sees Tony coming, the euphemism is not untrue.
Situations can be as deceptively innocent as language. Mahaffey is persuaded to take Hesh as a partner, and to tap medical insurance for fictitious operations, when Hesh and Pussy take him to a bridge overlooking a deep chasm and a waterfall. Except for Pussy dropping his ice-cream cone down the deep gorge, the threat is unspoken. Mahaffey feels the most sinister pressure when he hears the ice-cream truck depart, leaving the men alone. The most innocent sound can carry a brutal subtext.
Tony's unsteady "nephew" (son of Carmela's cousin) Christopher is introduced as a weakling, late on his assignments, more concerned about his $60,000 Lexus than in kicking the loan-welcher, Mahaffey, at foot. Later, Chris almost blurts out the reason why Artie's restaurant, aptly named Vesuvio, was blown up. Christopher is of the yappy, indulgent generation that Tony rues. Open with his feelings, Chris objects that Tony did not congratulate him for killing Emil Kolar. When Chris mentions his autobiographical screenplay Tony explodes: "What you gonna do, a Harry Hill on me now?" Hill was the hero who betrayed the mob in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990), the film David Chase calls his Koran (Season One DVD, disc one commentary).
In fact, Chase cites this scene as the precise point "we left network television behind." On the first day's shooting, this scene was the first shot. The script called for Tony to slap Chris, as if waking him out of his fantasy. But Gandolfini suggested his character would be much angrier at the danger of exposure. With his on-a-dime turns from concern about Chris, to rage at his threat, to warmth again, as he straightens Chris's clothing, Gandolfini made Tony both violent and cuddly. With that touch the show abandoned the usual sentimentalizing and excusing of the gangster hero.
Confirming his influence by films, Christopher kills Emil Kolar amid full-screen black and white stills-close-ups from the poster in the background-of Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin, and Edward G. Robinson. To prepare for Emil's arrival Chris strikes Kung Fu movie poses. He sees himself as acting in those stars' gangster tradition. The song over the murder is Bob Diddley's swaggering, "I'm a Man." But Chris's heroic self-conception is undercut by the pig heads piled behind his left shoulder-not a flattering audience.
With the cocky insensitivity of the young and the shallow, Chris calls Emil E-mail. The image of Chris and Pussy swinging Emil's corpse at the dumpster wall instead of up into it is an emblem of Chris's frustrated aspiration. He will always want to swing higher than he can. The gangsters may model themselves after their film heroes, but Chris wants to enter that fantasy world.
Against all that artifice stands Tony's fascination with the wild ducks. They are a miraculous eruption of nature in his denatured life: "It was such a trip to have those wild creatures come into my pool and have their little babies." Mystifying his family, Tony wades into the pool to feed them. He offers to build them a better ramp. Tony's depression begins when the ducks leave. In his dream, his penis falls off. When he runs to get his Lincoln mechanic to restore it, a bird swoops it away. When Tony realizes "I'm afraid I'm gonna lose my family like I lost the ducks," his mood is caught by Sting's "I'm so Happy I Can't Stop Crying."
Perhaps the pastoral wistfulness of the duck family also lay behind his naming his daughter "Meadow." The name recalls an ideal lost and forgotten in the seamy New Jersey setting-especially the landscape surveyed in the show's title sequence (see our Conclusion) and especially distinguished from the "Meadowlands" where the gang beat and bury their enemies. Like the ducks, Meadow's name suggests a natural refuge from Tony's bleak world. But even nature can be deceptive and dangerous-as Mahaffey senses high above the waterfall.
In her first appearance, Artie's wife, Charmaine, resents the gangsters' patronage of the Vesuvio. Throughout the series she remains the one character of uncompromised conscience and values. Standing against a mountain of garbage, Artie has to give Tony back the "free" cruise tickets by which Tony hoped to get Artie to close his restaurant so Junior couldn't kill his gunsel there. Typical of Tony's poisoned life, he destroys his friend's prized restaurant to protect him. In this twisted ethos, Charmaine's ethics and Uncle Junior's stubbornness push Tony to arson. However irregular, it is generous.
Some witty editing enforces the sympathetic ambivalence. Right after Charmaine insists "someone donated his kneecaps for those tickets," Mahaffey hobbles into view in a knee-high cast and on crutches. After Mahaffy admits taking the tranquilizer Zolof, his tormentor Tony gulps Prozac as he practices his golf swing. The predator is as nervous as his prey. Just as Tony assures Chris, "Beautiful day-what could be bad?" we see the bitter Livia, being driven to AJ's party by Uncle Junior.
The episode closes on Tony's pool. Carmela pragmatically greets Livia and Uncle Junior: "OK, everyone, let's eat." As everyone heads off to dinner, Meadow's friend Hunter announces she won't eat. (Typical of the show's gathering ironies and coherence, in II, 2 Hunter is in the Eating Disorders ward at the hospital and in II, 3 she tells Meadow she uses bulimia as a strategic threat to control her parents.) Then three little boys run past laughing-and aiming a toy gun, like the men they may join their dads' business to become. The camera holds on the vacated pool, a benign shimmering blue, vacant of the partygoers, the divided families united within The Family, but vacant too of the glimpse of more natural family life that Tony found in his ducks. As the closing Nick Lowe song concludes, "God help the beast in me."
* * *
* A poll on the HBO website-HBO.com/Sopranos-on the favorite line of dialogue in Season One chose AJ's response to Livia's refusal to come to his birthday party: "So what? No fuckin' ziti now?" In its unsentimental concern for the appetite the line may be an homage to Clemenza's classic line from The Godfather: "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."
* Because this pilot was filmed two years before airing, some of the characters look much younger than in episode two. The actors playing Irina and Father Phil were replaced. Carmela's priest enthuses over laser discs here, DVDs later. Drea de Matteo, who plays the restaurant hostess who couldn't seat Melfi and Nils, was so impressive that the role of Christopher's girlfriend, Adriana, was developed for her. And Satriale's Pork Store was built to replace the original Centanni's Meat Market. (In The Godfather Part II, we learn cent' anni is a toast: "We should all live happily for a hundred years.")
Excerpted from the Sopranos ON THE COUCH by Maurice Yacowar Copyright © 2002 by Maurice Yacowar
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.