Crime and punishment on the small screen

Posted: Mar 22, 2001 12:00 AM
The psychiatrist leaves her office a little later than usual, but not late enough to call for a guard. She walks down an isolated stairwell, talking into the cell phone glued to her ear. This renders her a little less attentive to her surroundings, but no less natural. Suddenly, a tough young thug leaps from the shadows, throws her down on the stairs, beats her up and rapes her. She goes to a hospital, bruised and hurt, but her spirits lift when she hears that the police have picked up her assailant at a neighborhood convenience store. She knows she can identify him and looks forward to nailing his mug in a lineup. But she's never called. The cops have bungled the arrest, fouled up the correct chain of custody. The rapist is as free as a bird in the sky over a New Jersey suburb. She's enraged. Who wouldn't be? One of her patients is a mafia don and she fantasizes telling him what happened, knowing that he would wreak vengeance and break knees with rough justice. "Do it!" I hear myself yelling at the shrink. "Tell Tony Soprano. Let him beat up the punk till he looks like he's been through a meat grinder. He's guilty, after all. He deserves it." Well, those of you who stay at home on Sunday nights like I do to watch the HBO hit "Sopranos," about a mafia family, will recognize the feeling. We root for the criminals most of the time, even though we've watched them maim, murder and inflict mayhem, spurred only by a narrow ethics of family loyalty that inspires the men who call the shots, literally. So why do so many of us cheer for the mob on Sunday night? Is this cultural corruption disguised as art? Is it moral relativism given moral complexity, or moral manipulation given contemporary justification? Is there a sympathetic defense for my outburst in front of the television screen? You bet. This is good television, because it goes beyond ideology and beyond sensationalism to be entertaining. It's not a message drama and it doesn't titillate. It's on the narrative spectrum drawn by Dickens - the more eccentric the character, the more fascinating to watch. We never quite forget that this is fictional drama not real life. No matter how I yell at the screen with stage directions, I'm not going to affect the life of the characters I'm watching. Not only that, this is a drama that laughs at itself and we laugh at it because it's always on the verge of murderous farce. (A psychoanalyst is the perfectly tuned dramatic instrument to help a mafioso discover in his unconscious that he wants his evil mother dead, and in his conscious life easily order a hit man to kill her.) What's dangerous about repetitive schlock television is that the sensational violence draws us in almost as a participant, surrounded by high-tech tricks and sound tracks, lacking moral reference. The "Sopranos," by contrast, offers both wit and irony in plot and dialogue. Tony's sister, for example, discovers God after having been through Vishnu, Buddha and vegetarianism. This isn't a cheap shot against religious faith, but a funny observation on the New Age quester. A fan doesn't finish an episode of the "Sopranos" with a romanticized view of the mafia. Nor is the show about contemporary decadence. Rather, it forces an audience to reflect on moral issues and to realize how easy it is to blur the boundaries of right and wrong even for a devoted Catholic such as Carmela, Tony Soprano's wife. There's another reason for the show's popularity, a reason outside the screen. Violent crime - including rape, assault and robbery - has significantly declined between 1993 and 1998, according to a new study by the U.S. Justice Department. The statistics show that crimes against whites have decreased by 29 percent; against blacks by 38 percent and against Hispanics by 45 percent. Few of us are any longer obsessed with violent crime. Few candidates in the last election campaigned on promises of more law and order. We've become more relaxed, more distanced from violent crime. That could change. FBI wiretaps have recorded New York gangsters talking about plot lines from the "Sopranos." We might soon have to worry about the impact of the show on these wise guys. When life imitates art, that's not entertainment.