Sunday marked the final episode of the Sopranos, and really, what could I possibly say about this show that hasn’t already been said by people who are paid more money to weigh in on the cultural zeitgeist? The acting, the writing, the character development, the literary references, the music, and the violence: All are exquisite.
It’s the kind of show that makes you realize just how crumby almost everything else is on TV.
But when people discover and re-discover the Sopranos on DVDs for the next 25 years, and its episodes are dissected by literary theorists, and terrible Broadway musicals are made from the show, its most unique strength will rise to the surface like a bloated corpse in New Jersey’s Meadowlands. Unlike anything else on television, the Sopranos is authentic.
I’m only one-eighth Sicilian (do not confuse Sicilians with Italians – neither will be pleased), and I grew up in New York, about 90 minutes northwest of the city. In Montana, that makes me slightly exotic, at least that’s what I tell myself.
An early episode from this season, where Tony fights his brother-in-law Bobby, was filmed in Greenwood Lake, part of my hometown. The epic “Pine Barrens” episode was filmed in Harriman State Park, 25 minutes south.
Talking about the Sopranos, a friend recently asked me, “Are there really people like that?”
Yes and no. Like every character on television, the Sopranos are in many ways exaggerations of Italian-Americans, but the show gets so many of the little things right – like the food obsession and the cars and the mannerisms – that you suspend your disbelief for the big stuff, like murders and strippers and other mafia trappings.
My dad’s family is from the Bronx neighborhood surrounding Arthur Avenue, the last Italian enclave remaining in the borough. Around the holidays we drive down to look at the old family house, to eat and stock up on cheese, homemade pasta and meat.
The last time we were there, my father and I stood outside Egidio’s pastry shop on East 187th Street, where my grandfather and great-grandfather used to have their morning coffee. We were waiting for my mother, on line to buy manicotti.
We watched the young men, in nylon track suits and immaculate white sneakers, or leather jackets, walk up to the shop, and gently place their thin cigars – called “guinea stinkers” my father informed me – on the rim of a flower pot before heading in for an espresso. When they emerged, they’d relight the cigar and take a puff, before enjoying a sip from their tiny paper cup.
The Sopranos succeeded in using that kind of person and that kind of place as a setting, without turning it into a cliché. If it could be measured, I bet you’d find the Sopranos cast more unattractive, overweight people than any other show in television’s history.
When it’s gone, we’ll be forced once again to try to care about all these fake-looking, beautiful people on the other shows. Have you ever seen a police officer with cleavage like the women on “CSI?” Or a beautiful woman married to a schlub like “King of Queens?” Or anyone who makes jokes as bad as the morning news show anchors when they have 20 seconds to ad lib some banter? Me neither.
But the balding, overweight, deeply-flawed patriarch of an ethnic family in a dumpy town? Yeah, I think most of us know a few people like that.
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