Movies look real. This is the source of their power: they seem to show us life as it is and people as they are. Yet I can’t think of the last time I saw a hit movie, or a popular network TV series, in which anyone went to church. We see ordinary people at work, play, and school but never at worship, despite the well-known fact that most Americans go to church more or less routinely and take what they hear there more or less seriously. Why, then, is so normal a practice treated as though it never happened? Is Hollywood hostile to religion, or merely indifferent? Though the answer undoubtedly varies from filmmaker to filmmaker, I suspect that many, perhaps most of them, believe Christianity to be evil but are afraid to portray it as such. Instead, they pretend it doesn’t exist— that life is complete without it.
To see a fictional American family that takes religion seriously, you have to subscribe to HBO, a premium cable channel whose most successful series tells the story of a close-knit Catholic family. Carmela, the mother, is a devout, prayerful churchgoer, and her two teenage children attend Verbum Dei, a church school located in an upper-middle-class New Jersey suburb; Tony, Carmela’s husband, goes to Mass less often, but he still believes in God, as do his friends and colleagues. Indeed, Tony and his friends spent the better part of a recent episode speculating on whether there is a hell—a question of immediate personal relevance, since they are all multiple murderers.
The program in question is, of course, The Sopranos, David Chase’s critically acclaimed series about Tony Soprano, a likable but violent New Jersey mob boss, and his now-comic, now-horrific attempts to grapple with post-modernity and its discontents. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden, a shrewd critic who is disinclined to overstatement, says The Sopranos “just might be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is certainly the first hour-long TV drama since Hill Street Blues that I have gone out of my way to watch regularly, week after week.
Most critics interpret The Sopranos less as a satire of Mafia life than a portrayal of the increasingly desperate plight of the American family under late capitalism. “Emphatically middle class, [Tony] is like one of your neighbors, but with a more dangerous job,” writes another Times commentator. So what if Daddy talks like a stevedore with Tourette’s syndrome and disposes of problem clients with gun and garrote? You’d do the same, if you only had the nerve. But The Sopranos is a good deal more complicated than that, and no small amount of its power arises from the way in which it uses satire as a way of detoxifying what turns out to be an unexpectedly traditional view of American culture.
In the first episode, we learn that Tony is suffering from panic attacks severe enough that he is forced to see a psychiatrist. At first glance, this resembles the same jokey premise used in the movie Analyze This, in which Billy Crystal turns Robert DeNiro into a gentle father figure who renounces violence. But though Tony (James Gandolfini) goes through the motions of introspection with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), he remains deeply skeptical of the relativistic values she represents. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type?” he asks. “That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, they couldn’t get him to shut up. It’s dysfunction this, dysfunction that.” The real joke is that we are meant to identify not with Dr. Melfi, who proves to be a spectacularly poor representative of the therapeutic society (working with Tony turns her into an alcoholic), but with Tony Soprano, the old-fashioned American who does what he has to do.
Tony’s testy use of the word “dysfunction” is worthy of closer attention. When describing The Sopranos, few journalists fail to couple the noun “family” with the adjective “dysfunctional,” and like most clichés, this one has some truth to it. How many American men, after all, can claim that their uncle and their mother teamed up to have them killed? No wonder HBO advertises the show with the slogan “Family. Redefined.” On the other hand, Tony’s nuclear family—his wife and two children—is anything but dysfunctional. He is a genuinely good father to young Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler) and Anthony, Jr. (Robert Iler), stern and moralistic yet unquestionably loving, and though his relationship with Carmela (Edie Falco) is gravely flawed by his compulsive adultery, it is perfectly clear that he loves her and would not know what to do without her.
For all our sympathetic identification with Tony, we are rarely allowed to go for long without being forcibly reminded of who he is and what he does. He kills people, usually with a gun but occasionally with his bare hands; we see him doing it and are forced to try to reconcile his savagery with his likability. Once again, this double-edged characterization is familiar—it is the driving force behind the Godfather movies—but in The Sopranos it is used to a different end. If we wish, we can discount Tony’s moralism as purest hypocrisy: what kind of “good father” collects bad debts with a baseball bat and keeps a Russian prostitute as his mistress? Nevertheless, his values are presented without any of the sniggering irony to which contemporary artists have accustomed us. He really is trying to do the right thing, according to his lights, and the postmodern viewer, shriven of any taint of political incorrectness by Tony’s criminality, can sigh guiltlessly, even nostalgically, for the lost world of moral certitude that he paradoxically represents.
Small wonder, then, that critics who revel in interpreting The Sopranos as a parable of capitalist America run amok have been so reluctant to discuss the show’s religious aspect. For Carmela Soprano, unlikely as it may seem, is a wholehearted believer, and the Catholic Church to which she cleaves is portrayed with perfect seriousness, as well as flashes of knowing wit (Fr. Phil, the chummily earnest parish priest, is a hail-fellow-well-met mooch who could easily have stepped out of the pages of J.F. Powers or Edwin O’Connor). Of course Carmela is a hypocrite, too—she is all too aware of what her husband does for a living—but she knows she is a hypocrite and prays for forgiveness anyway. Her piety is fully as genuine as Tony’s moralism: we are not meant to feel superior to her but to envy her.
After such knowledge, what alternatives? The Sopranos makes most “serious” Hollywood movies look thin and tepid; as usual in American popular culture, one must look to light comedy to find aesthetic seriousness, and it so happens that the movie I liked best in recent weeks was an elegantly crafted mob comedy. To be sure, Jonathan Lynn’s The Whole Nine Yards is nothing like The Sopranos: it is a gloriously artificial farce in which Bruce Willis, Hollywood’s most underrated big-money star, revels in the juicy role of a hit man turned witness who is relocated by the feds to Montreal, where he finds himself living next door to Matthew Perry and Rosanna Arquette, a really dysfunctional couple (he wants her gone, she wants him dead). Things get out of hand with properly dizzying rapidity, and Mitchell Kapner’s script quickly attains a level of complication that makes intelligible synopsis impossible, so take my word for it that you will laugh and laugh and laugh, and then some.