The Corner

The Mob & America

Here’s a column I wrote about the Sopranos and the Godfather way back in 2001. Not sure I would have written it the same way today, but I think it holds up okay. And, heck, it’s certainly spoiler-free. An excerpt:

“Could it be,” asked Will, “that part of the appeal of this show is that Tony Soprano, terrible husband, loutish father, bad citizen…in some sense insists on the distinction between right and wrong?”

Of course, the distinction of “right and wrong” adhered to in The Sopranos is not our distinction, but at least it’s a distinction, something sorely missing almost everywhere else in elite culture. Rats and snitches get theirs. In the world of The Sopranos there’s a difference between having a reason and having an excuse. Tony always says “there have to be consequences” when people deviate from the code. In the relativistic swamp of American life, that distinction is at best mightily blurred.

This surely explains part of The Sopranos popularity. Americans have always liked movies and books about men who play by their own rules. Westerns, cop movies, and virtually every mob movie can trace much of their appeal to our fascination with the inflexibility of codes of honor, even when we disagree with the first principles of that code. Sure, there’s something a bit disturbing about the fact that Americans — particularly chattering-class liberals who live by the New York Times’s “Arts and Leisure” section — need to satisfy their craving for moral discipline by watching a television series about murderers.

But whadya gonna do? It’s damn good TV.