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All In The Family

Madonn! Bada Bing. Stugotz. Goomah. Agita. Va Fungule!

Have you heard friends or colleagues uttering these words? Have you walked past a conversation on a Monday morning and heard names like Tony, Carmella, Silvio and Uncle Junior? When you overhear those conversations, do you consider calling the authorities because your friends are discussing having someone whacked? Have you noticed more and more people are speaking in a New Jersey accent?

Your friends have been watching HBO's The Sopranos, and you should be watching too.

In just three seasons, The Sopranos has become larger than life. Not only has the show reinvented the mob drama in an episodic medium, but it has single-handedly saved American dramatic television from the doldrums of comfort food (The West Wing) and garbage grub (Providence).

What makes The Sopranos so good? Let's start with the premise: New Jersey don Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) suffers a panic attack after some ducks that had nested in his backyard swimming pool reach adulthood and fly the coop. Soprano reluctantly, and privately, begins seeing Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), a psychiatrist. She prescribes Prozac and further therapy to explore the feelings of abandonment and depression that dominate the don's life. And from there the adventure begins.

Why does Tony have these deep-rooted psychological problems? Meet his family. There is Carmella, Tony's troubled wife; Meadow, his Columbia-undergraduate daughter; and Anthony, Jr., his existentialist, troublemaking son. Livia, Tony's narcissistic, villainous mother, tried to have him killed after he put her in a nursing home. And Tony's insanely jealous uncle, Corrado, conspired against Tony too. Don't forget Tony's money-grubbing older sister, Janice, who rubbed out her own fianceé.

And then there is the other family. You know, the "family." And the FBI, which always shows up when things couldn't possibly get worse.

OK, so the premise is entertaining and the characters are well defined and portrayed by some very skilled actors and actresses-how does that make The Sopranos so captivating? The answers are genuiness and audacity. Creator David Chase has given us a mob drama that looks and feels real: The dialogue is colloquial and conversational, not contrived (sorry, Quentin Tarantino). The actors and actresses are not glamorous celebrities, but mostly small-time thesps who are finally making it big. And the show is shot in suburban Newark, not in New York City-a tired, overly galmorous location for mob drama.

As for audacity, try this antipasto: At the end of the first season, Tony's mother attempted to have him killed. At the end of the second season, Tony had to whack his best friend, who was an audience favorite. Recently, a main character was raped during an episode. The Sopranos realistically and graphically depicted the assault not in a way that glorified the heinous act, but in a fashion that horrified and frightened viewers.

Part of the credit for this audacity belongs to HBO-which has been at the forefront of reinventing quality television with shows like Oz and Sex and the City-but most of it belongs to Chase and the rest of The Sopranos' writing staff. They know how to move from punch to punchline. And unlike NYPD Blue or The X-Files, the show's episodic nature does not feel like every week is akin to reading chapters of different books.

The Sopranos is like a book-one great big novel. It has overarching themes, symbolism and deep characters. Lowlife mobster personas have traits that we can either happily or ashamedly identify with.

Some critics have chastised The Sopranos for romancing violence and mob culture. Those critics should try watching a couple episodes and examining the personal and emotional consequences for Tony and the other wiseguys. They should see his guilt for lying to his wife and daughter. The Sopranos doesn't glorify mob life, it dissects it, with the same modern scalpel we use in our ordinary lives.

So sit back on a Sunday night at 9pm, and watch your own life through a different lens. Get hooked, and soon you too can stand around the water cooler or Great Hall and debate whether Tony should have whacked Ralphie last week. After all, even if you don't want to admit it, the Soprano family is your family, too.


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