How America Came To Identify With A Dysfunctional Gangster Family
By Heather Corcoran
In addition to garnering legions of fans, “The Sopranos” has brought a new, cinematic style to television. But with the final season about to air, will any shows be able to fill Tony Soprano’s big shoes?
“The thing about ‘The Sopranos’ is that you might not have been able to think of The Sopranos when it first aired, because it’s so unique,” said Ron Simon, a curator with the Museum of Television and Radio. “It is so rich in its narrative and characters. It really has suggested to both cable networks and commercial networks the possibilities of serial narrative; that you almost want to unfold a story like a novel.”
Other shows, like HBO’s own “Rome” and “Deadwood” have tried to capture the rich characters, big-budget noir look and complex story lines that develop over multiple episodes, with some success, but have failed to reach the epic levels of fandom achieved by “The Sopranos.”
You could set the story in ancient Rome or the 19th-century West, said Simon, but there’s something very contemporary about “The Sopranos” and the family man mobster on the psychiatrist’s couch. “So many people feel almost like Tony,” said Simon. “You’ve been in your career for so many years – where are you going?”
But of course, a little bit of the dark side attracts viewers as well. “One of the most intriguing factors is the obsession with death – in the beginning Tony experiences a panic attack and there’s intimation of death,” he said. And of course people keep tuning in for the big question: Who is next to be whacked?
While the networks may not be able to replicate the violence and nudity favored by Tony and his crew, they may be tempted to try. Since its February debut, “The Black Donnellys” on NBC has been buzzed-about as the likely candidate to be the next “Sopranos.”
The comparisons are easy to see. The show has its fair share of drugs, sex, violence and plenty of filial loyalty. Like its Italian-American cousin, “The Black Donnellys” follows the story of the Donnelly family, a band of Irish-American petty criminals led by the (relatively) straight-laced brother Tommy. Filmed on location in New York, the brothers fight to keep a hold on their gritty slice of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
Despite a strong start, the show has steadily lost viewers since its first episode – falling from an all-time high of 10 million viewers during the first half of the premiere to 5.7 million for the fifth episode. Some critics attribute the disinterest to the show’s complicated plot, narrated by the over-zealous, unreliable and too-cheesy Joey Ice Cream.
But that is not the show’s only failing. Unlike the Soprano family, loosely based on the crime families who stomp around recognizable New Jersey turf, the Donnelly’s are an amalgam of mob history, with the title referring to a famous Canadian case. Not only that, their New York is a fictional one, one part Hell’s Kitchen and two parts fantasy, shot throughout the boroughs and collaged into a vision of Manhattan that sometimes looks straight out of the 19th century.
For viewers of “The Sopranos,” the show’s realism is a point of local pride, and a key to its success. “It has the feel of a different side of New York life,” said Simon. “It’s not the glitzy glamour of Manhattan. Manhattan’s always in the distance.”
“We can all identify with certain parts of the show,” said “Soprano” fan Sue Sadik, the founder of Soprano Sue’s Sightings (sopranosuessightings.com) a Web site that keeps track of the show’s comings and goings in New Jersey. From the New Jersey-accented “dis and dat” to the shots of her neighborhood, Sadik said local viewers like herself can see themselves on the show. “The Sopranos” not only reflects her home state, it “has made New Jersey a star.”
“We have people come out to take pictures in front of the dumpster,” she said. “How many places can say that?”