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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, November 27

Gapers Block

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No doubt, Leo Tolstoy was a smart cat. No doubt. That doesn't mean he didn't occasionally miss. When he wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," he was totally off. Although unhappy families usually have their own reasons for being unhappy — parents hate each other, maladjusted child torturing siblings, you know, whatever — there is something common and nasty to that unhappiness that bothers us to our core. (It doesn't help that there is no such thing as a "happy family." The closest approximation is the "only fights around the holidays/when somebody turns out to be gay" family.) So much so that watching families fight bothers us more than almost anything else to watch or read about. All of the great dramas are about families infighting, because it affects us so deeply.

David Chase, the creator of HBO's number one hit mob drama, clearly hated his mom (before she died). And he hated his mom because she was evil. She had her good points I'm sure, and he undoubtedly "loves" her in a greater, she's-the-first-person-I-ever-met-in-my-life sense. Chase has an amazing ability to recreate family dynamics down to the minutest detail. When it came to making his own TV show for HBO, though, he realized, subconsciously or not, that the only way people could stomach week after week of an unhappy family getting more and more unhappy in an unceasing, Chinese-water-torture kinda way would be if he paired it to the modern Western, Italian-American organized crime, La Cosa Nostra.

La Cosa Nostra captures Americans' fascination for many reasons — the lifestyle, the machismo, the supposed "freedom," its tribal nature, whatever — but the biggest lure, just like with women, is the mystery — its secrecy. The founders of that criminal enterprise never called it "the Mafia" — that was a law enforcement appellation based on the actual Sicilian mafia it was modeled after. La Cosa Nostra means "the thing of ours," which is as close to not naming something at all as you can get. It's barely more descriptive than nodding in something's general direction. It's so secret, they never even named it!

Pairing the torturous familiarity of unhappiness in the home with something so secret it doesn't really have a name might be the single smartest thing in the history of television, other than when Vladimir Zworykin invented it.

I know what you're thinking — didn't The Godfather trilogy do that? Um, no. Did Momma Corleone have even one line of dialogue in One? Just how much did we see parents interact with children in Two? And didn't the third one have an insane plot about the Vatican, plus Andy Garcia?

The show he created, the series finale of which aired this past Sunday, captivated us with real, crisp, smart and very funny dialogue accenting very visual storytelling — especially considering that the vast majority of television we were used to up to that point could have been directed by Rhesus monkeys, moving only to shift the character from character to blabbing character. What's more, that storytelling revealed in painstaking and fascinating detail a world that is completely hidden from us, but which exists under our noses.

That was about 60 percent of the time.

For the remaining 40 percent of the time, with the same dead-on dialogue and unspoken visual dialogue, he annoyed the shit out of us by focusing on an unhappy family.

Ask a fan of the show what the most grating plotline in the history of the series is, and I'd bet my most expensive, softest track suit that they would say, "A.J.'s depression." People hated this kid. The son of a mob boss and a repressed, utterly in-denial mother who suffered from inherited panic attacks and clinical depression was called every possible derogatory nickname for a (white) male across the country, on message boards and in break rooms from Lodi, New Jersey to Lodi, New York. To Lodi, Wisconsin. To Lodi, Minnesota. And then to Lodi, California. People hated him. His sin? Being a brat to his parents.

Meanwhile, they wailed and gnashed their teeth when Silvio Dante, Tony's second-in-command, a gangster who prostitutes young girls, not to mention smacks them around on camera and even kills one, was shot — by other gangsters.

Why? I'm going to go ahead and guess this has something to do with it: "If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us." I don't remember who wrote that, but I know they were European.

Anyway. Chase expertly weaved an infuriating family tapestry from the four threads — Anthony Jr., (youngest and only son), Meadow (oldest, only daughter), Carmella (mother, "homemaker," aspiring divorcee/real estate mogul) and Tony (anti-social personality disorder, criminal personality, reverse Oedipus complex times a billion, director of the tenth or eleventh largest criminal operation in the nation) — that underwent severe changes — only to end up right where they started. We watch the intergenerational determinism in behaviors — Tony and Janice both snatch food and drink away from misbehaving children and dump it in the sink; Tony and AJ both respond to others' difficulties with a sarcastic "Poor you!;" Meadow and mom both shut down and go into dogmatic denial when it's time to make real moral choices — Meadow denying her father's basic criminality by invoking civil rights mantras, Carmella mindlessly invoking the patently false platitudes that Tony is a "good father" and "basically a good man." Tony may love his kids — but he's not a good father.

As we're trying to focus on the ongoing criminal enterprise that funds their lives, the petty slights and nascent power struggles, the treachery and exercise of power, and violence and wacky antics, Meadow stomps into the kitchen, pissy because her man gave her the unceremonious boot, opens the refridgerator door, and slams it an instant later, bitching to no one in particular, "God! Is there never anything to eat in this house?" Those of you with sisters: if a scene exactly like this has not happened in your house at least three times — and up to as much as four times a week — I have bad news for you. Your sister is a dude. Because we have all had our sisters do that, and reacted exactly like Tony and Carmella — quiet bewilderment.

Think about this: 13 Sundays a year for seven years, approximately 12 million Americans all shouted, "God! Shut up, Meadow!" more or less simultaneously, probably multiple times.

Meanwhile, they laughed, tut-tutted and occasionally snorted as her cousin Christopher Moltisanti murdered the child of a rival garbage hauler, repeatedly beat his girlfriend, smothered a dog to death, murdered his former AA sponsor, cheated on his girlfriends and wife, oh, and beat his girlfriend some more before he let his boss kill her. Oh, he also punched Lauren Bacall in the face, shot a kid in the foot for making him wait in line, killed a waiter for demanding a tip, gave his 16-year-old cousin speed, and shot a biker from whom he was stealing wine that the biker himself had just stolen.

The constant desire for more violence, more intrigue, more blood, highlighted to what degree storytelling in the West, and American especially, has become about consumption and escapism.

I always had a bit of a problem with Chase for lecturing me about materialism: this from a show that completely abandoned all shame when it came to product placement. Season Four opens with half of the screen taken up with the words New York Times; an FBI agent casually inquires whether his informant needs to replace the battery in his wire: "Let's go into this Office Depot." As Bobby Baccala plays with his model trains, a convenient Nestle car rolls past the screen. And my all time favorite, the time we watch the characters watch a commercial for an investment company.

I remember sitting there watching the people watching a commercial, when it dawned on me that I, too, was watching the commercial. The show figured out how to actually air a commercial on HBO. Isn't that why you pay for HBO? To not have to watch any damn commercials?

But the show was always clever in how it layered itself — and what it illustrated through that layering. In the finale, an FBI agent lets out a cheer when he hears that Tony's side is winning a gangland war, and we laugh at him. Until you realize that it's just as stupid for us, the viewers, to be cheering for one group of murderous, thieving thugs over another.

And we feel sympathy for Carmella when, after AJ is admitted into a facility for trying to kill himself, she wails, "He was always our happy boy!" Until you stop and think about it and realize that never once was he portrayed that way throughout the entire history of the show. He wasn't a happy boy — she just wanted him to be happy so she told himself he was happy, and didn't occupy herself with his actual state of being.

How ignored was the kid? In one episode, in the background of scenes featuring Carmella, Tony, and Meadow, slightly quieter and only in fragments, we hear his phone conversations. We, the viewers, can piece together within a few scenes that AJ is planning a huge party at somebody's house. Yet later, when AJ tells his parents he doesn't care if they withhold his allowance because he's been making money throwing parties, they are shocked. It takes a second, but you realize how hilarious it is that the people supposedly in the same room with the kid had no idea what he was up to but we, watching from home, were completely aware of it.

All the while, we are serenaded by the most hilarious Greek Chorus since... well, presumably since any of the really funny Greek Choruses back when they actually had them: Tony and his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, the "Americanized" professional Italian-American woman who is very smart and very stupid at the same time. The therapist's office is the bridge between Tony's genetic family and organized crime Family. But right off the bat, when Dr. Melfi practically asks Tony to tell her all about the nefarious things he does, we know she's in this for the thrill as much as to help Tony. She denies it up until the penultimate episode, when she is finally provided with clinical "proof" that not only is she not helping him, she is in fact aiding him in being a better criminal, and thereby worsening his conditions — anti-social disorder, criminal personality "thinking errors." Then she cannot make any more excuses, and this realization — that's she been so selfish all along — causes her to dismiss Tony rather rudely.

The thing is, Melfi is doing the right thing. She knows she can't help this man, and in fact would likely only make him worse by continuing their therapy.

But many critics and fans criticized her for booting her patient, especially affronted at her rudeness — her rudeness to a man who once pummeled his bartender for buying a plastic singing fish (this before he blinded him for more-or-less agreeing with him).

The writers' ability to force us to perform such acrobatic feats of moral judgment could become exhausting.

The only thing formulaic about this show, which is the greatest feat of visual storytelling since the development of television, is that you will end up liking the person you "should" hate and hating the person you "should" love.

Also, it contained this dialogue:

Anthony Infante: Listen, as far as that thing goes...the coffee with the chicory...

Johnny Sack: The fuck is that?

Anthony Infante: Oh shit. I suck at talkin' like this John, I'm sorry. Our friend with the stomach.

Johnny Sack: In town or near home?

Anthony Infante: Your neighbor. A.S.

Johnny Sack: Yeah, all right. Just say the thing I asked you to do. The coffee with the fuckin' chicory. Is he gonna get it for me?

Anthony Infante: Yes. Bad news is that he wants ten cups for himself. Not seven.

Johnny Sack: Alright. Done. Did you pick up the birthday cake for Gin with the marzipan flowers?

Anthony Infante: The stuff behind the pool?

Johnny Sack: No, an actual fuckin' cake. It's her birthday.

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time4change / June 13, 2007 5:44 PM

Wow, great article, even better show.

couldn't help but notice, you didn't talk about the finale.

JP Paulus / June 13, 2007 9:22 PM

i miss reading about Chicago's been how many weeks without a relevent article?

i hope at some point you could review the aftermath of the aldermanic elections -- i.e. what's NOW happening in the the 46th ward -- was that election the same as usual, or seriously different, as many claimed on the internet before the election...

leet / June 14, 2007 12:12 PM

What's that about sisters? Maybe she was just hungry. Excuse her for being hungry.

kara / June 17, 2007 4:11 PM

About the sisters. Not everyone who reads your column is a dude. So you can't really ask everyone to relate to the "annoying sister" phenomenon. Which is the annoying thing about that show... the women are all totally unsympathetic. Mostly kind of stupid or materialistic. And I know this is sort of your point. Only you have a positive spin on it... but I think it's awful. The men are these "lovable" wife beaters and cheaters and the viewer is forced to watch the world through their eyes. Stare at boobs all day long. Go to prostitutes. Scream at their wives. Smack people around.
I hate that show.

Erm / June 18, 2007 1:04 AM

Last time I checked, having an annoying sister didn't require being a "dude."

Then again, neither are the actions attributed to annoying sisters gender-exclusive.

Ramsin / June 18, 2007 12:18 PM

Kara, "lovable" wife beaters? You have clearly never watched the show without going into it expecting to see some misogyny. Nowhere is domestic abuse excused or downplayed.

I think you need to pause your ideology for a second and actually watch the show. The men with the swearing and cheating and abusing are never idealized and the consequences of their immorality are pretty explicitly shown to the audience.

We are never asked to sympathize with anybody; in fact, the show challenges our instinct to sympathize with the "hero".

But I'm glad a show chose to portray these guys and the women in their lives, because they exist. And like all people, they ocasionally do things that are likable, and often do things that are abhorrent; likewise, the women on the show are sometimes sympathetic and sometimes awful.

As for the women on the show, they are portrayed as human beings with flaws, good points and bad. In other words, they aren't either Madonnas or Whores, which I imagine is a nice break from, you know, every other fictional female character.

I'm sure many women out there had annoying older or younger sisters, too.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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