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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers a television first.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: From the moment the title of the TV series appeared, one knew that something very different was at the door. On the surface, here was another piece about the Mafia, the mob – give us a break.
But then there was that name – “The Sopranos” — a deliberate concoction of singers and killers, a different tune, an opera, maybe Italian of course – but at any rate a complicated work of parts – part fun – part deadly – part lyrical – and, as it turned out, all tragedy… television’s first situation tragedy.
This is what David Chase wrote, directed, and produced last year, probably the best-written, best-acted television series ever. It had 16 Emmy nominations. And the fact that it did not win Best Dramatic Series surprised even the winners.
EMMY WINNER: They said backstage you got to go back out, you got to go back out, and I thought there had been a mistake; “The Sopranos” had won drama.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Week after week, “The Sopranos” built a genuine work of art by giving us a full-size tragic hero. Tony Soprano is canny, clever, expert at his trade, physically fearless, emotionally shaky, haunted, sentimental, ruthless, and desperate to know what’s bothering him. His tragic flaw is that he believes in civilization:
TONY SOPRANO: Good morning everybody.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Love your mother – care for your family – be loyal to your friends – and keep order at the expense of ego. Unfortunately, order refuses to be kept.
ACTOR: As we both know, there’s been an attempt on your life.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Friends become untrusting. His wife turns for platonic affection to a priest. And his mother wants him dead.
PSYCHIATRIST: It’s been a long odyssey with your mother, hasn’t it?
TONY SOPRANO: Oh, these last 500 years just seemed to race by.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: So, without really knowing why, Tony, played perfectly by James Gandolfini, turns to a psychiatrist, played perfectly by Lorraine Braccho. As long as one is handing out perfections, let us add Edie Falco, Tony’s wife…
MRS. SOPRANO: You got to admit it, Ma. It’s a nice nursing unit, where they let you be signed out for family occasions.
TONY’S MOTHER: I don’t have to admit anything.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Nancy Marchand, Tony’s mother, and pretty much the entire cast.
TONY SOPRANO: I need to tell you something. And I want you should hear it from me -
ROGER ROSENBLATT: When Tony turns to a psychiatrist in order to save himself, his world collapses on its head. His subordinates begin to doubt his stability and his discretion.
SUBORDINATE: What is it – like marriage counseling?
TONY SOPRANO: Ma, how you doing?
TONY’S MOTHER: What brings you here?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: His mother, in revenge for his putting her in a nursing home, sets him up for murder. Yet, Tony seeks help because he’s impelled to understand why he is gravely unhappy. This is no easy joke, like the one Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal made in “Analyze This.” Tony has grown to power and manhood without exercising introspection, much like “MacBeth,” and now the introspection that might save him may also make him dead.
TONY SOPRANO: Ma. I know what you did – your only son.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Episode upon episode one watches him heave like an earthquake; seethe; plot; threat; confess; and tear up in a helpless stupor. A mother who wants to kill you can get you down, but there is more to Tony’s unhappiness. The question occurs: Does he want? Out for Tony would be wife and kids but no more mob.
CHILD: Junior got busted.
(Tony slapping child)
ROGER ROSENBLATT: And that’s impossible; that’s the situation as well as the tragedy. There is no Witness Protection Program for MacBeth; he wouldn’t take it. And Lady MacBeth is not his wife, but his mother … for whom, by the way, Nancy Marchand creates ingeniously the voice of Edith Bunker without a soul.
TONY’S MOTHER: I don’t like the people here.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Tony’s wife we love; Tony we love…. even though he can draw a gun from a fish’s mouth and shoot holes in an enemy without hesitating. David Chase puts us on the side of Tony by only showing us the murders of bad guys. But the main reason we are for Tony is he is a great, good, and smart man caught in the trap of his own manufacture.
TONY SOPRANO: You took their money?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Here then, is what makes the situation tragedy: the hero wishes to hold onto a civilization, the mob, the only one he knows, that spells his doom. If he succeeds, he drives himself to despair. If he fails, he’s a goner. And, in any case, there is no other civilization available to him. The last episode of the show’s first year has Tony and his wife and kids sitting in a restaurant in the midst of a thunder and lightning storm as loud and menacing as a war.
TONY SOPRANO: I’d like to propose a toast — to my family.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Where has one seen that before? Tony Soprano attempts to sing in the storm. But one knows that whenever this series ends, he has to die, has to be killed. There is no other way out. One only asks David Chase to hold off the inevitable as long as possible; they play is too good.
TONY SOPRANO: (toasting family) Cheers.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I’m Roger Rosenblatt.