TV UK, 29 June

'The Sopranos is a cult show not only with mobsters, but also with psychotherapists.'

Dolan Cummings

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Everybody knows how much mobsters love Mafia movies. I mean, forget about it, right? The Sopranos has always been hip to this: Tony and the crew spend hours watching gangster films, and quote regularly from The Godfather.

The Sopranos itself is a cult show not only with mobsters, but also with psychotherapists. In fact last year the US Western Regional Psychoanalytic Association gave an award to two of the show’s writers, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess (1). Hey boys, if you ever have a problem, you know where to come. Capisce?

Alora, for those in serious need of professional help: The Sopranos is a drama about a New Jersey mobster called Tony Soprano, who suffers panic attacks and visits a therapist called Dr Melfi. The show brings together family drama, crime and psychotherapy and is brilliantly contemporary. It is su-poib.

When the third series ended in the USA a couple of months ago, a million shrinks went into therapy to get over the sense of loss. That series has just started on this side of the pond, on Sundays at 10pm on the digital-only E4. Evidently Channel 4 is hoping that a million UK therapists will make the leap to keep up. Is this an offer they can’t refuse? (Sorry.)

The Sopranos blows away the traditional crime-tragedy that has shaped a million westerns and gangster films. There is no struggle to go straight, no one-more-one-last-job, just day after mundane day of scheming and knuckle-crunching. This neverending quality chimes brilliantly with the theme of therapy. Sometimes Dr Melfi isn’t seen for episodes at a time. Then something happens and… Just when I thought I was out, they dragged me back in!

It isn’t just the intellectual theme that makes The Sopranos great. The opening episode of the new series featured an FBI surveillance operation, with the soundtrack blending Duane Eddy and The Police to brilliant effect. There hasn’t been a TV show that used music so well since Homicide: life on the street.

A conversation about the dangers of tying your shoelaces after dragging them around in public urinals was reminiscent of Tarantino, except that in The Sopranos the effect is bathetic rather than simply banal. The theme is continued later when the twin brother of one of Tony’s victims, unable to bring himself to whack his beloved Don, takes out his frustration on the family swimming pool. Poifect.

In many respects the closest thing to The Sopranos is The Simpsons. Both are well observed family dramas; both have stupid fat men as protagonists. The difference is that Tony Soprano’s stupidity doesn’t get him into trouble. This is partly because the people around him are even stupider (as evidenced by a conversation about Survivor), and partly because intelligence is less important to the business of waste disposal in the grey economy than idiot savvy.

This week’s episode (1 July) involves a profound family occasion, which sends Tony back to Dr Melfi. (What do psychotherapists think of Dr Melfi? What do you think?) His moment of insight comes back at the house though, watching his daughter Meadow with their guests. ‘Look at her: she’s turning into a robot, just like us. All her innocence is gone.’ This is not what I wanted!

Just as mobsters are encouraged when they see themselves on film and TV though, psychotherapists too have claimed The Sopranos as an endorsement of their profession. Is this something the programme’s makers can live with? Ah, what are ya gonna do?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Therapists Reveal Their New Obsession: ‘The Sopranos’, New York Times, 29 May 2001

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