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Photograph by Abbot Genser/HBO

Family Values: Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) must keep an eye on a long-lost cousin (Steve Buscemi) during the fifth season of 'The Sopranos.'

The Mr. T. Experience

'The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season': don't fuggetaboutit

By Richard von Busack

INSTEAD OF A FOURTH PART of the Godfather saga, a Godfather video game debuts this fall, including dialogue recorded by Marlon Brando just before his recent death. Meanwhile, the latest chapter of the only serious exploration of The Godfather's themes is out on DVD. The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season (HBO Video) endures because of James Gandolfini's superlatively watchful performance as New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano, with his sloping squint, his corrugated forehead and the glottalest, nasalest New Jersey accent on record. The boss is kept busy from spring until winter fighting off a divorce action from his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), and keeping an eye on a long-lost cousin (Steve Buscemi), just out of jail. At the same time, Tony smoothes the hurt feelings of his successor, the drug-prone Christopher (Michael Imperioli). Christopher's fiancee, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), who is being secretly run by the FBI, has developed ulcerative colitis; the strain of a stool-pigeon's life is rotting her from the inside out. Tony's crew is griping, especially the wizened horror-clown Paulie (Tony Sirico) and his primping, vinyl-haired consiglieri Silvio (Steve Van Zandt). The one Tony can rely on—though he often refuses to—is his maddeningly desirable psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco, who was never this alluring when she was half this age).

The Sopranos spins off from a longing buried in The Godfather trilogy: "Oh, to be part of a family that's so close that it kills when it is threatened by outsiders." But The Sopranos' creator, David Chase, makes a strong point that is somewhat lost in the movies because of Francis Coppola's romanticizing of the Mafia life.

Gandolfini is fascinating, even when his Tony is doing nothing but waddling around the house in his boxer shorts. And Tony's unexpected cuddliness is a tricky defensive strategy; it disarms the viewer, just as it surprises his enemies. But unlike the history of the Corleones, you're always aware Tony and his boys are parasites. Nothing distracts you from that knowledge: not vicarious enjoyment of Tony's indulgences in expensive suits, lavish Italian meals and costly mistresses. There's one sure-fire way of bonding an audience with an antihero: make him a dedicated watcher of movies. Tony is a huge fan, but even that doesn't rehabilitate him completely. The show keeps your emotions mixed.

From Robert Warshow 1948 essay, The Gangster as Tragic Hero. "At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of the idiot." Warshow argued that the gangster story, with its ending of isolation and failure, was the one place where tragedy could survive in the movies. Warshow was thinking like a man—what about soap operas? The family stresses of the Sopranos have plenty of soap opera appeal. But as in classic gangster movies, doom hangs over Tony. His bloody actions just keep the balance in a leaking boat; he has said that the only way out of his racket is either death or prison. For the time being, he's spared. The fifth, penultimate season begins with a wild bear stalking the backyard of Tony's home; it ends with Tony (a tamed bear) trudging home in the snow.

The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season, HBO Home Video, $99.98.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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