I once met Johnny Dio, a famous gangster for Murder, Inc. I was having dinner with my family at Frankie and Johnny's, a popular steak restaurant in midtown Manhattan, and he spotted my father the bookie, whom he knew casually.
He came over to our table and Daddy introduced us. He was charming to a teenage girl, extending his hand to shake mine. He wore gray suede gloves (which he did not remove) that suggested a luxurious life and, as I deliciously imagined, left no fingerprints on a gun. I was glad our hands didn't actually touch, but I was fascinated to meet him and I had a story to tell my friends. Johnny Dio's photograph was familiar to newspaper readers, a man famous for being bad.
My father was also friendly with a celebrated big-time lawyer for the Mob. He was disarming, too, with a beautiful wife who looked like Audrey Hepburn. They came to my wedding, sending two settings of sterling silver flatware.
My parents remained their friends until my brother ran for district attorney in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va. Daddy knew any hint of association with the Mob, however insignificant, would be a shadow over my brother's political aspirations. (My brother lost anyway.) Nevertheless, I remained perversely pleased that Daddy knew a Mafia man and I read everything I could about Johnny Dio in the newspapers.
These memories came back the other night for the first time in decades, when I watched the first episode of the fourth season of "The Sopranos," and I wondered why the HBO show is so popular. Its characters are terrific, the writing is sharp and the acting is superb. But there's more.
Evil is imbedded in the ordinary and the commonplace, and that's always fun to watch. Wickedness wears a human face without corrupting us. Tony Soprano is cunning and charming, ruthless and vulnerable. He deals with the deck of cards fortune handed to him and makes no apology to the world, but he makes lots of little apologies to his family.
It has been widely remarked that the Sopranos are a 1950s family with a '50s family sensibilities, reflecting a traditional reference point for right and wrong. But if the microcosm resides in hearth and home, the macrocosm is hell on earth. The Mob follows a vicious immoral code and the lead characters resemble Satan, Moloch and Belial, the fallen angels in Milton's "Paradise Lost," who seek ways to attempt to wreak vengeance against God.
William F. Buckley argues that the popularity of "The Sopranos" depends on the degeneration of its audience, but this, I think, ignores the way the series raises legitimate questions about the nature of evil and its seductive qualities. If we sometimes find ourselves in sympathy with vile criminals, we're confronted with our own gullibility and susceptibility to behavior we know is wrong. These gangsters aren't "role models." Nobody in his right mind would want to be in Tony Soprano's shoes.
When I wrote about "The Sopranos" in another season, several readers wrote to scold me for going soft on gratuitous sex and violence on television. But the sex and violence, alas, isn't gratuitous. The moral point of view is rendered through character and action and the obscene language dramatizes the inhuman nature of the wise guys, the verbal equivalent of their brutish lives. Moral judgment emerges implicitly in the familiar and the commonplace.
In one scene, for example, a wise guy kills a corrupt cop in cold blood, takes a $20 bill from his wallet and puts it on the refrigerator door with messages and sentimental mementos of family life. When Tony Soprano complains to his wife that his job is "extremely stressful," he sounds like the typical breadwinner father. When he suffers financial losses and his wife urges him to think about "estate planning," he groans: "We don't have those Enron-type connections."
"The Sopranos" makes us think about cultural attitudes toward psychotherapy and "healing." Pivotal scenes between Tony Soprano and his lady "shrink" are ripe with moral ambiguities. She prescribes Prozac and dutifully listens to his psychological conflicts, but do the rest of us really want a mobster feel better about himself? Another psychiatrist refuses to accept Tony Soprano's wife as a patient because he won't be paid in "blood money." If psychological illness arises from a bad conscience, how should it be treated?
Johnny Dio was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison, not for his crimes as a button man for the Mob, but for "securities fraud." When I read his obituary in 1979, I thought of the ugly details of the life of the man in the gray suede gloves. I was still fascinated by his evil, but his charm had never deceived me. That's how most of us feel about "The Sopranos."