and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
June #1

So long to the mobster with a conscience - Tony Soprano
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

My first TV love was Flint McCullough, the scout on "Wagon Train."

He was played by the actor Robert Horton, but that was irrelevant. I wouldn't have been interested in him unless he was wearing buckskins and riding a horse.

Not that I was completely faithful even to that western character. I also had a crush on Adam Troy of "Adventures in Paradise." Again, I was interested in the guy at the helm of the schooner, not the actor, Gardner McKay.

The stars of weekly television shows become familiar as the heroes they play, not as who they are in real life. I resented it when Fox, for instance, during many of the commercials for their weekly shows, had their characters appear in little promos. I didn't want to see Kiefer Sutherland out of his Jack Bauer character in the middle of the 24 hours.

Movie actors are different, since we know them in various roles. I had magazine pictures of Rock Hudson on my bedroom wall.

When I was 18, I visited my cousin in New York. She confided that her two best friends there, a gay couple, took her to a party at which Rock wasn't pretending to be in love with Doris Day or any other woman. I envied her for meeting him and liked knowing an inside story, though I had no idea what it meant. The nuns didn't teach us about being "gay."

I stopped having crushes on actors and TV characters when I got involved with actual men. But I do watch certain television shows because I care about the characters. "House," for instance. And of course, along with much of America, Tony Soprano.

This has been a haunting mystery. How can we care so much about a cold-blooded Mafia murderer?

Sure, we cared about Michael Corleone, who was more like a TV character because we got to know him over three "Godfather" films. But we met him when he was a nice young man, resisting the culture of his father. When we met Tony, he was already killing people -- but, of course, loving his little family of ducks.

Was that what did it, at least for us animal lovers - the ducks? Or, later, the horse? Heaven help us if he had a dog, and rescued a litter of kittens; we'd probably have a total meltdown this Sunday. Some of us may anyhow.

It isn't just the sweet smile that melts a woman's heart; men like Tony Soprano too. They may be more into the Mafia thing and the power, the action; I won't pretend to understand that. I just want, very much, to understand Tony. And that has been the point all along, hasn't it; as we sit through his therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi?

She was a big disappointment last week, listening to her shallow social peers, who are much less likeable than Tony's murderous pals. (Oh no, is Sil dead? But that's upsetting only because that character never really stopped being Steven Van Zandt.)

Of course, it is easier for us than for Melfi to see Tony whole against the horizon. She decided that he is a sociopath, practicing his con on her by using the ducks, the kids, and other manipulations. But we know what he is like when no one (but us) is looking and listening. And somehow, we identify.

The latest clue to his conscience is his sad hope that by telling the FBI about the possible terrorists he identified at the Bada Bing, he is doing something good for his country, something worthwhile.

The fascinating ploy in the other great HBO series, "Deadwood," was having the roughest western characters speaking in Shakespearean cadence; and yes, we cared about Sweringen -- another killer -- too. But mostly we were on the side of the sheriff, his assistant, and the doctor -- all genuinely good men. That series was easy. There are no genuinely good men in "The Sopranos."

At best, Tony Soprano is a potentially good man with a tragic flaw, like many a Shakespearean character. Unlike a sociopath, or just ordinary bad guys, he has a conscience that struggles to survive. This, I think, is what I love: that conscience, the humanity that doesn't give up even though it isn't winning. One cheers for it, cringes on its behalf; and in the end, will cry for it -- because I assume that justice will demand the deeply flawed man it inhabits be punished.

Certain liberals -- if they were watching a show so filled with violence -- might see Tony Soprano as a victim: of his father, his uncle Junior, and most of all, his mother. But his conscience deserves better. It was stronger than it would have been in a less thoughtful and intelligent person, and Tony had to keep pushing it to the back of his consciousness.

Tony had a choice long ago -- to leave the culture he was raised in, to choose a different path. This is what makes the show a morality play. If Tony were truly a sociopath, there'd be no value in the drama at all.

The series ends on Sunday, but it will haunt us for a very long time.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.