Born Under a Bad Sign

Review of Franco Ricci, The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign

Australian Book Review, January-February 2015

When we look back at the major cultural achievements of the early twenty-first century, The Sopranos (1999–2004) will surely prowl, thuggish, at the top of the list. Created by David Chase, the HBO drama tells the story of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob boss who tries to balance the violent demands of his professional life with a more quotidian existence as a father and husband in the suburbs. Tony’s treatment for panic attacks by the psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi is central to the six seasons. Self-described as a ‘fat fuckin crook from New Jersey’, Tony Soprano is more than that: a multi-layered, deeply flawed, always fascinating creature of millennial capitalist America.

It is widely acknowledged now that Chase did something very different with The Sopranos, bringing a level of moral ambiguity, narrative complexity, and dramatic quality unseen by large television audiences, and prompting the recent trend of the villain-as-protagonist in network and cable television. But The Sopranos did more than succeed as a show; it reconfigured the cultural standing of television itself. As critic Alan Sepinwall has said, ‘Other shows had made the revolution possible, but The Sopranos is the one that made the world realize something special was happening on television.’ It was, Franco Ricci writes in his new study, The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign, ‘the requisite spark that jump-started the televised revolution’.

Late twentieth-century television was a maligned medium, the poor cousin of feature film and literary fiction. The Sopranos and the high-quality dramas that followed it (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, among others) changed this, drawing comparisons to ‘the nineteenth-century serialized novel’. That comparison has been widely made by critics. Born Under a Bad Sign is significant because Ricci takes the claim and extends it, studying The Sopranos as a ‘modern classic’. Ricci, a professor of Italian Studies at the University of Ottawa, places The Sopranos within the heritages of ‘the serial novels of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot’ and the great ‘European art-house modernist and postmodern cinematic traditions’ of ‘Frank Capra, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski’. Chase, Ricci writes, is ‘no different from the canonical authors revered in literature’, and the medium of television itself is treated as ‘a dominant cultural institution of modern society’.

‘What makes the series so compelling,’ Ricci argues, ‘is the pristine dialogue, the novel story complications, the superb characterization, the meticulous attention to cinematic production values.’ The Sopranos ‘wilfully challenged its audience. It never catered to low-brow conjecture and was unapologetic for its edgy portrayal of life.’ More than this, ‘[l]ike the most sublime of art, The Sopranos makes us care because every moment reflects upon a piece of our collective soul … it is an exceptional product of its particular cultural moment.’ These ideas are pursued through four chapters and a developed appendix that examine, in immense detail, the issues that ‘drive the storylines and produce the action’: iconography, ethnicity, gender, and Tony himself.

Ricci’s study of The Sopranos’ iconography is painstaking and intriguing. He argues that Chase’s visual storytelling – the ‘peppering of the sets with pop posters, commercial reproductions of art, kitsch murals, best-selling book covers, and modern statuary’, all encoded with possible meaning – provides another layer of narrative. At times, Ricci’s stridence in making this claim risks over-reading, and implies that no other television maker had ever used visual storytelling, when surely the point is that Chase used it with remarkable sophistication. Ricci’s argument is also entangled with unnecessary jargon: ‘The resulting metatextual grid,’ he writes, ‘is not a homogenous television realm but a potential, multidimensional, and heterogenous narrative terrain.’ Simple sentences are overwritten: Tony ‘is overwhelmed by a pertinaciously distressing sense of mounting ineptitude’ (he’s feeling inept); ‘Dr. Melfi will help him disambiguate the mitigating factors that led to his current pathology’ (Dr Melfi will help him understand his psychology).

The arguments are stronger when Ricci avoids obscure language, such as in his study of ‘the problematic issue of ethnicity’. There, he argues (controversially) that the series is more significantly about ‘materialist values’ and ‘the economic distress of millennium America’ than about ‘the historical struggle of hyphenated individuals’. Similarly, Ricci’s discussions of masculinity – in which the ‘gangster figure offers a viable site for investigating the changing social and sexual role of the contemporary American male’ – and of Tony’s fragmented personality are more clearly stated. But they are not completely free of distracting phrases: ‘This hegemonic strategy has neat aetiological chains grounded in reality and edited by Tony into a suitable language for everyday mise-en-scène legitimizing.’

I prefer Ricci when he speaks plainly: ‘The Sopranos,’ he writes, ‘was popular because it was a damn good story; it was profitable because it was finely wrought storytelling.’ Indeed. Notwithstanding the prose that sometimes clogs it, Ricci’s book is a carefully considered and detailed study with an exhaustive and nuanced understanding of the show. Most importantly, his treatment of The Sopranos as high art and its creator, Chase, as akin to the great novelists and film-makers of the past centres the academic discussion within a critical context that increasingly recognises television as the dominant medium of our age. In 2000, screenwriter Marc Norman said: ‘If Shakespeare was alive today, he’d have a three-picture deal with Warner Brothers.’ Now he’d have a holding deal with HBO.

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