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James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano: "Imagine Kelvin MacKenzie but with saving graces"

A review of <em>The Sopranos</em> from the <em>NS</em> in 1999.


"Ever heard of the Massada?" asked the Hasidic Jew whom Tony Soprano was putting the frighteners on. "For two years, 900 Jews held their own against 15,000 Roman soldiers. They chose death before slavery. The Romans: where are they now?"

"You're looking at them, asshole," Tony replied - although the effect was not what it might have been, since Tony, called out unexpectedly from mistress duty, was dressed in a vest and flapping dressing gown.

Sopranos (Thursdays, Channel 4) is about the decline and fall of the New Jersey mob. You are free to extrapolate and make it about the decline and fall of the family and/or America if you wish. The only deterioration it cannot record is that of American television, which attains its full maturity with this made-for-cable series (you can tell it's an HBO production by the upper-torso nudity and the f-word). This sinuous, wonderfully acted, character-built drama whacks anything currently being produced by American cinema or British TV.

This week's blackly funny third episode had Tony (James Gandolfini - imagine Kelvin MacKenzie but with saving graces) besieged on all sides. In hospital his boss Jackie lay fretting at his cancer - "Jackie's so fucking mean, he'll scare that cancer away," Tony tells himself, but we know he is on Prozac. In a nursing home, his mother is declining into senility. The younger family members are out of control, hijacking lorries whose owners have paid out perfectly good protection money and killing a driver in "friendly fire". At home Tony's academic daughter has solicited crank (speed) from a mobster cousin. The "waste management business", as Tony calls organised crime, is not what it was. The consensus is that the Mafia should never have got into drugs. The legal penalties are so high that anyone will grass to escape a sentence. The FBI, having got its act together, has photographed every Soprano at a birthday dinner. Which of them wants to be a millionaire? They all do, but no one wants to be a Godfather any more. When Tony sees a painting of a tree, he sees it rotting away.

Sopranos doesn't know it's a television programme in any dull, postmodern sort of way, but its characters have nevertheless imbibed too many Scorsese and Coppola movies ("Kundun. I loved it!" one loyally cried out to Scorsese last week as he entered a nightclub). The younger hoods, each a word-perfect Al Pacino impressionist, talk the talk better than they walk the walk. In fact, the whole culture of omerta is being poisoned by America's verbal diarrhoea. Tony's punishment for anxiety attacks is to be sent to a shrink for therapy, a process that breaches not only the Mafia's code of silence, but manhood itself. As Tony puts it: "What they didn't know was that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings they wouldn't be able to shut him up."

The other threat - subtly alluded to by the distaff title - is the women, who this week fired all the most lethal shots, from Tony's attractive shrink, Dr Melif, who explained to him that Jackie was dying, to his wife's best friend, who pointed out that she could have married Tony but "it" (ie, waste management) wasn't for her. Even Tony's lippy Polish mistress humiliated him by knowing more about art than he did. What Tony doesn't yet know is that his increasingly gaga mum is also on his case and has persuaded sinister Uncle Junior to execute a tyro mobster pour encourager les autres. A Mafia family tree rots from the matriarch down.

The first episode of Generations (BBC2, Thursdays) also charted the decline of the family, specifically the Mileses from Somerset. Susanna White's series, in which three generations of women talk through their family's history, aims to demonstrate that letting people tell their own stories is as valuable as fly-on-the-wall (interviews are the new docu-soap: discuss). The 87-year-old Eleanor Miles stayed with her husband for 37 years after she discovered he was an adulterer - out of duty, not love. Her daughter, Pat, married, had affairs, divorced and remarried. Pat's daughter, Alison, has rejected marriage (and possibly men) altogether and is bringing up her son on her own.

The fascination was in hearing the rustle of secrets being uncovered - not only hidden facts but secreted feelings - and the interviews were cleverly interwoven with a discussion between the three, during which cameras were trained simultaneously on each woman's fast-reacting face. The genteel camerawork and new age music (a bit too soppy for my taste) could not disguise the pain of these revelations. White, however, suspends judgement, leaving us to play the generation game of deciding which woman got things more right. Polly Toynbee, in the Radio Times, has already announced that she sees Eleanor as the tragic victim and celebrates the Mileses progression as proof of the triumph of that "great liberator", divorce. To me, though, the single-parent Alison is the victim of the selfishness of her mother's generation. Like Tony Soprano, I see something rotted out.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet