Jewish World Review March 27, 2001/ 3 Nissan, 5761
Crime and punishment on the small screen
THE psychiatrist leaves her office a little later than usual, but not late enough to call for a guard. She
walks down an isolated stairwell, talking into the cell phone glued to her ear. This renders her a little
less attentive to her surroundings, but no less natural.
Suddenly, a tough young thug leaps from the shadows, throws her down on the stairs, beats her up
and rapes her. She goes to a hospital, bruised and hurt, but her spirits lift when she hears that the
police have picked up her assailant at a neighborhood convenience store. She knows she can
identify him and looks forward to nailing his mug in a lineup.
But she's never called. The cops have bungled the arrest, fouled up the correct chain of custody.
The rapist is as free as a bird in the sky over a New Jersey suburb.
She's enraged. Who wouldn't be? One of her patients is a mafia don and she fantasizes telling him
what happened, knowing that he would wreak vengeance and break knees with rough justice.
"Do it!'' I hear myself yelling at the shrink. "Tell Tony Soprano. Let him beat up the punk till he
looks like he's been through a meat grinder. He's guilty, after all. He deserves it.''
Well, those of you who stay at home on Sunday nights like I do to watch the HBO hit "Sopranos,''
about a mafia family, will recognize the feeling. We root for the criminals most of the time, even
though we've watched them maim, murder and inflict mayhem, spurred only by a narrow ethics of
family loyalty that inspires the men who call the shots, literally.
So why do so many of us cheer for the mob on Sunday night? Is this cultural corruption disguised as
art? Is it moral relativism given moral complexity, or moral manipulation given contemporary
Is there a sympathetic defense for my outburst in front of the television screen? You bet. This is
good television, because it goes beyond ideology and beyond sensationalism to be entertaining. It's
not a message drama and it doesn't titillate. It's on the narrative spectrum drawn by Dickens -- the
more eccentric the character, the more fascinating to watch.
We never quite forget that this is fictional drama not real life. No matter how I yell at the screen with
stage directions, I'm not going to affect the life of the characters I'm watching. Not only that, this is a
drama that laughs at itself and we laugh at it because it's always on the verge of murderous farce.
(A psychoanalyst is the perfectly tuned dramatic instrument to help a mafioso discover in his
unconscious that he wants his evil mother dead, and in his conscious life easily order a hit man to kill
What's dangerous about repetitive schlock television is that the sensational violence draws us in
almost as a participant, surrounded by high-tech tricks and sound tracks, lacking moral reference.
The "Sopranos,'' by contrast, offers both wit and irony in plot and dialogue. Tony's sister, for
example, discovers G-d after having been through Vishnu, Buddha and vegetarianism. This isn't a
cheap shot against religious faith, but a funny observation on the New Age quester.
A fan doesn't finish an episode of the "Sopranos'' with a romanticized view of the mafia. Nor is the
show about contemporary decadence. Rather, it forces an audience to reflect on moral issues and
to realize how easy it is to blur the boundaries of right and wrong even for a devoted Catholic such
as Carmela, Tony Soprano's wife.
There's another reason for the show's popularity, a reason outside the screen. Violent crime --
including rape, assault and robbery -- has significantly declined between 1993 and 1998, according
to a new study by the U.S. Justice Department. The statistics show that crimes against whites have
decreased by 29 percent; against blacks by 38 percent and against Hispanics by 45 percent. Few
of us are any longer obsessed with violent crime. Few candidates in the last election campaigned on
promises of more law and order. We've become more relaxed, more distanced from violent crime.
That could change. FBI wiretaps have recorded New York gangsters talking about plot lines from
the "Sopranos.'' We might soon have to worry about the impact of the show on these wise guys.
When life imitates art, that's not
03/23/01: When speech isn't free
03/19/01: Russell Crowe doesn't wear a Black Beret
03/15/01: 'The little intimidator' of the breakfast table
03/13/01: "We are asking the Creator for clemency"
03/08/01: Saving El Salvador with dollars and sense
02/27/01: The last cowboys of their craft
02/23/01: When Bubba graduates to Bobo
02/16/01: Clarence Thomas addresses an imperfect world
02/12/01: Ariel Sharon, not by Steven Spielberg
02/07/01: Profaning the sacred with the political
02/05/01: What's the Creator got to do with it?
02/01/01: Live like the snopses, leave like the snopses
01/29/01: It's education, stupid
01/25/01: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"
01/22/01: Poetry and religion in the Bush administration
01/18/01: Ashcroft can't dance (don't ask him)
01/15/01: Clothes make the First Lady
01/11/01: Pity Jerusalem in the 'peace' process
01/08/01: Laying the political race card
01/04/01: 'What women want' in the new millennium
01/02/01: This year, looking ahead is sure sweeter than looking back
12/21/00: Black power with a Republican face
12/21/00: First impressions of two First Ladies
12/18/00: Challenge for the 'better angels of our nature'
12/14/00: What we've lost sight of
12/13/00: Hillary in the lion's den
12/08/00: Return of the 'second sex' on campus
12/04/00: Politics as entertainment today
11/30/00: Winner vs. whiner
11/27/00: Measuring against history
11/23/00: Memories of Thanksgiving past
11/17/00: In defense of the Electoral College
11/16/00: More than one way to win an election
11/13/00: Sexual politics squared
11/09/00: A Middle East legacy
11/06/00: Filling in the dots at campaign's end
11/02/00: His own man in full
10/30/00: The Oval Office, through a glass brightly
10/23/00: There'll always be an England. Maybe.
10/19/00: The celebrity candidate
10/16/00: 'Ladies night' at the second debate
10/12/00: Gore vs. Bush: Volvo vs. Maserati
10/10/00: We weep for Rami for he is dead
10/05/00: Looking at Lieberman from inside the 'ghetto'
10/02/00: Campaigns, candidates, and kissy-face
09/28/00: Laughing and crying over Joe Lieberman
09/21/00: Targeting teenagers for money
09/21/00: Sexual politics in New York
09/18/00: Surviving the stereotypes and debates
09/14/00: Gloria Steinem runs cheerfully into captivity
09/12/00: Sex in the eye of the partisan
09/07/00: 'Sex and death' on the college campus
09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink
©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate