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.
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 postmodernity 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. 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.
Small wonder, then, that critics who revel in interpreting "The Sopranos" as a parable of capitalist America 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 (Father 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.