Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Sopranos Effect

My friend Josh has a theory that the plots of the films Donnie Brasco and Mean Girls are essentially the same. After all, what are mob families but grimmer versions of high school cliques? Many of the themes that run throughout the greatest mob stories can be found in unexpected places.

Love or hate The Sopranos (I'm looking at you, Johnny), there's no denying that it is a series that changed television. It altered the way that we perceive the rules for a TV series, what kind of content and characters we think are allowed to appear on the small screen. I've heard Tony Soprano compared to Archie Bunker, but Archie Bunker never strangled a man to death while visiting colleges with his daughter. Archie never cheated on his wife with a one-legged Russian. Having an antihero as a series' protagonist has been done, but criminals and sociopaths? Not so much. Say thank you, creators of Dexter, Weeds, Deadwood, The Riches, and House.

HBO certainly ran with the complex-baddie-as-main-character format. Deadwood's Al Swearengen and Rome's Lucius Vorenus are basically the Tony Sopranos of their respective historical periods. If you need confirmation, watch the "Gangs and Organized Crime" supplement to Rome on your HBO On Demand. The special outlines how the Mafia was born in ancient Rome's collegia, which were guilds run by powerful gangsters. Because there was no police force then, the collegia controlled the streets. Like the Mafia, collegia members protected local residents and gave charity to the poor, but they also were responsible for the brutal murders of those who resisted them.

And like Tony & Co., we see on Rome that the men of the collegia were deeply religious, though with less Jesus and more Janus. In fact, Vorenus is not taken seriously by rival collegia until he declares himself a "son of Hades." Then it becomes clear that he is not fucking around, because hey, the god of the underworld is the ultimate villain with whom to align yourself. Respect gained, Vorenus then saw visitors who would make requests of him, Don Corleone style.

I'm also convinced that on Lost, The Others are a kind of South Pacific mafia. Their name alone evokes several qualities associated with the mob: exclusivity, mystery, power. They are structured in a manner identical to mob families, that is, like a small dictatorship. Ben Linus (formerly Henry Gale) is the all knowing leader. His underlings secretly infiltrate and subvert the survivors, like in The Departed. They deem particular survivors as among "the good ones," presumably worthy of joining them. Locke is one of the chosen few and, based on the last episode, has come over to their side. Whether he will be made a capo remains to be seen.

Perhaps these shows are simply reflecting society in a funhouse mirror, offering exaggerated interpretations of our own tendencies to form insular posses in order to feel secure. What do you think, readers? What are other shows that are really mob stories?


Edward Copeland said...

I think the only reason Tony is compared to Archie Bunker is that both are landmark television characters that stand miles above most others and represent a perfect bit of casting. Can you imagine anyone other than Gandolfini or Carroll O'Connor playing either part? I don't think anyone intends to imply that Tony and Archie are similar in character terms, just in terms of television impact.

Alanna said...

Mm, perhaps. I never interpreted it that way! There's no doubt that Gandolfini was the perfect choice, and it's remarkable when you look at the terrible, straight-to-video type movies he made before he was Tony.

Anonymous said...

Tony actually wasn't the first choice. Anthony LaPaglia, of Without A Trace (and of course Empire Records), was director David Chase's first choice, and the part was partially written with him in mind.

LaPaglia's brother was actually cast as the mobster boss in "Cleaver" as a tribute to Anthony LaPaglia and Chase's relationship.