Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix A Very Good Year

"The Sopranos" and "Touching Evil"

By Robert David Sullivan

JANUARY 17, 2000:  It's only a matter of time before Tony Soprano finds a way to make money off the space shuttle. In the season premiere of HBO's breathtakingly flawless The Sopranos (January 16), the king of organized crime in northern New Jersey gets into the Wall Street racket, taking advantage of on-line trading and a hot little company called Webistics. Just as Tony constantly surprises his lieutenants by finding new ways to bring the mob into the 21st century, Sopranos producer David Chase keeps amazing us by introducing fresh themes to a genre that many of us thought Martin Scorsese exhausted years ago.

From the beginning, the chief irony in The Sopranos is that Tony (James Gandolfini) uses modern psychiatric methods -- and pharmaceuticals -- not only to alleviate his depression and anxiety attacks but ultimately to make himself into a smarter, more self-aware mobster. His coolly efficient therapist, Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco, tells Tony to give his guilt-inducing mother the illusion of control; instead, Tony neutralizes troublesome Uncle Jr. by letting him think he's the new boss of that other family in Tony's life. We can monkey around with Prozac and dream therapy all we want, The Sopranos tells us, but we'll have the same basic instincts, many of them ideally suited for criminal activities (or at least for looking the other way when it's in our best interest). Next week's episode has a sly reference to this theme: Anthony Jr. (a now deep-voiced Robert Iler), who seems destined to lumber in his father's footsteps, announces that he's learning about DNA in school, but he's confused when people start referring to something called DNR ("Do not resuscitate") in connection with a not-so-loved relative.

Maybe it's because we're facing a new millennium, but there's something oddly reassuring about the notion that it takes more than a few pills to instill someone with a sense of conventional morality. On a smaller scale, it's also a relief that The Sopranos is gliding into a second season with a trio of episodes that justify all the hype surrounding the series. I highly recommend videotaping the season premiere even if you're home to watch it, for it's worth going over a second time. Pay attention, for example, to the body language of the two guys taking the stockbroker's exam in the opening shot, for it says volumes about the different worlds ("legitimate" and otherwise) that intersect in The Sopranos. Then enjoy the dazzling five-minute sequence, set to Frank Sinatra singing "It Was a Very Good Year," that brings us up to date on all the major characters. (We see Tony teaching daughter Meadow how to handle an SUV on the lyric "We'd ride in limousines," while wife Carmela marks time by baking pasta.) I feel it unwise to reveal any of the plot twists of the episode, even the one that occurs as soon as Sinatra's voice fades from the soundtrack. After all, as Tony reminds nephew Christopher with a bone-chilling smile, "You gotta exercise impulse control." Suffice to say that all of last season's regulars are back (you can tell that from the opening credits), including Nancy Marchand as Tony's monstrous mother, Livia, who's now recovering from her stroke. Marchand manages to top last season's incredible performance, savoring such lines as "Open the window [barely perceptible pause] and just push me out." Livia also provides the basis for a hilarious sight gag (involving a safety sign in her hospital) in the second episode.

There are two new regulars on The Sopranos this year. Aïda Turturro, cousin of John and Nicholas (NYPD Blue), plays Tony's high-decibel sister (who's changed her name from Janice to Pavarti, much to the annoyance of their mother). Janice's return to New Jersey helps to keep Livia in the mix of storylines, since Tony won't have anything to do with his mother -- which is understandable given her role in last season's attempt on his life. The sibling rivalry between Tony and Janice also provides a fresh take on another running theme on the series, Tony's inability to exert discipline over his own flesh and blood. The second newcomer is David Proval as ex-con Richie Aprile (brother of deceased mob boss Jackie), a humorless thug who wants to cut himself in on Tony's business. Richie's brutality helps to keep The Sopranos from lapsing into gangster cuddliness along the lines of Married to the Mob or Analyze This (which Tony scorns as "a comedy" in one of the show's graceful in-jokes).

The Sopranos is as violent as ever this season, which raises the question of whether the show is merely appealing to the viewer's basest instincts. I think not -- for every scene that shows us how primitive urges can thrive in modern times, there's a moment of kindness and faith that keeps us connected to the characters. There's the patience and empathy of Carmela (Edie Falco), who may be optimistic but is never naive; there are also unexpected gestures, like Artie Bucco's keeping his restaurant open late for Tony and his family. In fact, we see Artie as a bad guy when he momentarily tries to push the mob boss back out in the rain! It's as if Tony Soprano were a walking litmus test for followers of the Golden Rule.

That brings us to Jennifer Melfi, the therapist who loses her cool long enough to snap at Tony, "How many more people have to die for your personal growth?" Dr. Melfi doesn't have much screen time in the first few episodes of the new year; the Sopranos writers are concerned enough with plausibility not to put her right back into a session with Tony after he lunged at her for suggesting that Livia is the devil incarnate. But her few scenes are key to the series. We first glimpse her "on the lam" and conducting sessions in a tacky motel -- which demonstrates her commitment to her patients and also underscores how Tony has pulled her from a modern, sterile office into his own down-and-dirty environment. As she explains to a fellow psychiatrist (Peter Bogdanovich), her decision to stop treating Tony has made her feel as if she were trying to return to a responsibility-free childhood. That explains her uncharacteristic use of the word "toodle-loo" and a reference to The Wizard of Oz. It also fits her oddly Dr. Seuss-like cadence in telling Tony that a patient committed suicide while she was unreachable: "She can't call in sick because she's feeling blue/She's in the ground because of you!" It's a measure of how surefooted The Sopranos has become that this moment does not feel like a joke.

The sophomore year of The Sopranos is starting with such promise that I'm issuing a plea to David Chase, James Gandolfini, and the top brass at HBO: decide now on an ending date for the series so that we can savor a finale as good as this weekend's episode. As long as you're reinventing the television series, you might as well eliminate the idea that a show has to last until all its fans talk about how good it used to be.

Right after Sunday's episode of The Sopranos, you can turn to a somewhat less complicated examination of murderous impulses on Touching Evil, a new batch of serial-killer thrillers on PBS's Mystery! (Three new two-partners air through February 20.) Robson Green (Reckless) returns as Detective Inspector Dave Creegan, the intense, brooding hero with a scar beneath his hairline that makes it seem as if his head were about to explode. Touching Evil has a formula similar to that of Homicide: Life on the Street -- the separate cases in the series are strung together by the detectives' continuing personal angst -- but instead of shaky cameras and sudden zooms we get grainy footage that recalls a snuff film and lots of tight close-ups that cut off the tops of people's heads. The serial killers are not the cold-blooded geniuses we're used to on this side of the Atlantic -- they seem to be good people overtaken by almost-supernatural forces (think Killer Bob on Twin Peaks). I can't even describe the killer in the first story without giving away the plot, but the second case involves a former relief worker in Bosnia, now back in London, who goes around offing his fellow volunteers: he neatly punches a hole in each head in a primitive approximation of a lobotomy (or is that redundant?).

All of this is good trashy fun in a very British way. The serial killers get a lot of leeway from the police, who are surprisingly reluctant to trample defendants' rights or use their firearms. (As a younger detective moans in a bar after a less-than-successful pursuit, "You heard the expression 'trigger-happy'? What's the opposite of that?") Touching Evil isn't as classy as Helen Mirren's Prime Suspect series -- which could use the sexual-discrimination angle to seem a bit more relevant than a typical slice-and-dicer -- but it's as literate as the best American cop dramas. Just don't expect to retire for the night with good thoughts about the human spirit. For that, maybe you'd better get some help from whatever you can find in your medicine cabinet.

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