Appeal of 'Sopranos' lies in strict code of honor

Posted: Mar 14, 2001 12:00 AM
While I'm usually permitted the illusion of authority when it comes to the remote control, this false consciousness is often shattered whenever my insatiable desire for certain TV fare meets the immovable will of my fiancee. So, I haven't been able to watch as much "Baywatch," "Xena," "Sheena," "G-String Divas," women's-prison movies, kung fu flicks, or CNBC (Oh, Maria Bartiromo ...) as I might if I were still living a real-life buddy picture with my couch, walking around the apartment with a spaghetti strainer as a cod piece and reenacting my favorite scenes from gladiator movies. These are sacrifices I am more than willing to make for true love. But one show I wish I didn't have to sneak around to watch is "The Sopranos." Some television critics have gone overboard, saying the HBO series is the greatest product of American popular culture in the last quarter century. I think that's overstating things a bit (it's not so easy for me to discount that episode of "What's Happening" when Rerun and Dwayne are caught bootlegging a Doobie Brothers concert). And any show vying for No. 1 would have to face the challenge of "The Simpsons." Still, "The Sopranos" is a great show, with superb dialogue, wonderful acting and admirable nudity. But none of that has anything to do with the Fair Jessica's objections. Nor, does the idea that "The Sopranos" defames Italian-Americans, although that is the complaint coming from numerous Italian-American groups, like the Sons of Italy and the National Italian American Foundation. No, she complains that the glorification of the mob is one of the least attractive trends in American popular culture. From time to time, she even says bad things about "The Godfather," which from a lesser woman might be a deal breaker. Anyway, she argues that criminality is criminality and that there's nothing glamorous about a bunch of murderers and thieves. Period. In one sense she's right - and not merely in a "Yes, dear" way. For example, isn't there something a little racist about white folks deploring black gangster culture but oohing and ahhing over Italian mobsters? When an "urban contemporary" rap artist says he's going to "bust a cap in your a-" we wring our hands about the coarsening of the culture. But in "The Godfather" when, Abe Vigoda says, "He sleeps with the fishes," we marvel at the brilliance of the writing. In this sense, criticism of black gangsters is actually a matter of style not substance. Even George Will loves "The Sopranos," but I sincerely doubt he had much if anything nice to say about "New Jack City." But there is a counterargument. We find something in mob movies that is sorely lacking in the rest of the culture: a strict moral code. Or in Tony Soprano's case, a strict (ital) immoral (end ital) code, but a code nonetheless. George Will, in defending his fondness for the show, asked the show's executive producer, David Chase, "Could it be that part of the appeal of this show is that Tony Soprano, terrible husband, loutish father, bad citizen some sense insists on the distinction between right and wrong?" Chase agreed, and so do I. But let's be clear: The distinction of "right and wrong" adhered to in "The Sopranos" is not our distinction. In the show, it's right to murder and steal and it's wrong to help the police. But the point is that at least it's a distinction, something sorely missing almost everywhere else in elite culture. There's something profoundly appealing about a worldview that says there's a difference between having a reason and having an excuse. According to Tony Soprano's code of conduct, it doesn't matter why you failed, all that matters is that you did. That's why he always says "there have to be consequences" when people let him down. In Hollywood's Mafia we have a fantasy world where justice is rough and swift and where notions of right and wrong - however defined - are fiercely enforced. In the relativistic swamp of American life, this is escapism. Indeed, we have always liked movies and books about men who play by their own rules. Westerns, cop movies and virtually every mob movie can trace much of their appeal to our fascination with the inflexibility of codes of honor, even when we disagree with the first principles of that code. Sure, there's something a bit disturbing about the fact that Americans - particularly chattering-class liberals who live by The New York Times' "Arts and Leisure" section - need to satisfy their craving for moral discipline by watching a television series about murderers and blackmailers. But whadya gonna do? It's darn good TV.