Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review March 15, 2001 / 20 Adar, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Appeal of 'Sopranos' lies in strict code of honor -- WHILE I'm usually permitted the illusion of authority when it comes to the remote control, this false consciousness is often shattered whenever my insatiable desire for certain TV fare meets the immovable will of my fiancee.

So, I haven't been able to watch as much "Baywatch," "Xena," "Sheena," "G-String Divas," women's-prison movies, kung fu flicks, or CNBC (Oh, Maria Bartiromo …) as I might if I were still living a real-life buddy picture with my couch, walking around the apartment with a spaghetti strainer as a cod piece and reenacting my favorite scenes from gladiator movies.

These are sacrifices I am more than willing to make for true love. But one show I wish I didn't have to sneak around to watch is "The Sopranos."

Some television critics have gone overboard, saying the HBO series is the greatest product of American popular culture in the last quarter century. I think that's overstating things a bit (it's not so easy for me to discount that episode of "What's Happening" when Rerun and Dwayne are caught bootlegging a Doobie Brothers concert). And any show vying for No. 1 would have to face the challenge of "The Simpsons."

Still, "The Sopranos" is a great show, with superb dialogue, wonderful acting and admirable nudity. But none of that has anything to do with the Fair Jessica's objections. Nor, does the idea that "The Sopranos" defames Italian-Americans, although that is the complaint coming from numerous Italian-American groups, like the Sons of Italy and the National Italian American Foundation.

No, she complains that the glorification of the mob is one of the least attractive trends in American popular culture. From time to time, she even says bad things about "The Godfather," which from a lesser woman might be a deal breaker. Anyway, she argues that criminality is criminality and that there's nothing glamorous about a bunch of murderers and thieves. Period.

James Gandolfini as
Tony Soprano

In one sense she's right - and not merely in a "Yes, dear" way. For example, isn't there something a little racist about white folks deploring black gangster culture but oohing and ahhing over Italian mobsters?

When an "urban contemporary" rap artist says he's going to "bust a cap in your a-" we wring our hands about the coarsening of the culture. But in "The Godfather" when, Abe Vigoda says, "He sleeps with the fishes," we marvel at the brilliance of the writing. In this sense, criticism of black gangsters is actually a matter of style not substance. Even George Will loves "The Sopranos," but I sincerely doubt he had much if anything nice to say about "New Jack City."

But there is a counterargument. We find something in mob movies that is sorely lacking in the rest of the culture: a strict moral code. Or in Tony Soprano's case, a strict immora code, but a code nonetheless.

George Will, in defending his fondness for the show, asked the show's executive producer, David Chase, "Could it be 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?"

Chase agreed, and so do I. But let's be clear: The distinction of "right and wrong" adhered to in "The Sopranos" is not our distinction. In the show, it's right to murder and steal and it's wrong to help the police. But the point is that at least it's a distinction, something sorely missing almost everywhere else in elite culture.

There's something profoundly appealing about a worldview that says there's a difference between having a reason and having an excuse. According to Tony Soprano's code of conduct, it doesn't matter why you failed, all that matters is that you did. That's why he always says "there have to be consequences" when people let him down. In Hollywood's Mafia we have a fantasy world where justice is rough and swift and where notions of right and wrong - however defined - are fiercely enforced.

In the relativistic swamp of American life, this is escapism. Indeed, we 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' "Arts and Leisure" section - need to satisfy their craving for moral discipline by watching a television series about murderers and blackmailers.

But whadya gonna do? It's darn good TV.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


03/09/01: Organic claims are cleverly written fiction
03/07/01: Snow job: There the media go again
03/02/01: It's a vision thing
02/28/01: SAT is best measure of general aptitude
02/26/01: Easing the estate tax
02/23/01: Clinton defenders finally admit to his power abuses
02/21/01: Failed dot-coms missed rules of the marketplace
02/15/01: Clinton heeds my Harlem advice
02/12/01: Harlem could be Bill's best move yet
02/06/01: Lying, betrayal essential parts of journalism
01/18/01: How to polarize candidates
01/15/01: Dems never tire of using 'race card'
01/11/01: Taking the celebrity out of politics
01/08/01: Unfairly 'borking' Ashcroft
01/04/01: Want to be more efficient? Increase number of politicians
01/02/01: Whole lotta exploitin' goin' on
12/28/00: Hypocrisy police pounce on Clinton book deal
12/26/00: Sometimes, it's good to be a Grinch
12/21/00: Though symbolic, Bush's diversity sends a message
12/19/00: Gore concedes --- but why did it take so long?
12/14/00: Is 'Queer as Folk' what we asked for?
12/11/00: Election mess hardly a 'civics lesson'
12/07/00: Clinton's tacky legacy
12/05/00: Marriage civilizes the manly beast
11/30/00: Gore's speech more pompous posturing
11/28/00: Rabble-rousing Dems act irresponsibly
11/27/00: Duking it out with democracy
11/16/00: Issues irrelevant to most voters
11/14/00: Gore's us-vs.-them campaign
11/10/00: Dot-com disasters missing brand-name success
11/06/00: Conventional wisdom turns with the polls
11/03/00: Clinton photo, appropriately, hits below the belt
11/01/00: Electoral college ensures democracy
10/30/00: New Yorkers, media letting Hillary off the hook
10/23/00: Gore needs to put first things first
10/20/00: Treatment of Farrakhan glosses over odd issues
10/16/00: Secrets of election can be found in 'Star Trek'
10/12/00: Arafat hardly 'provoked' into violence
10/10/00: Undecided voters may be ignorant, not discriminating
10/06/00: The importance of character isn't debatable
10/03/00: Conservatives are the true friends of science You know why?
09/29/00: Symbolic 'born alive' vote makes sense
09/25/00: Conservatives adopt abandoned liberalism
09/21/00: Ventura's media backpedaling makes fiction of his new book
09/18/00: Tough questions target Hillary Clinton's elitism
09/14/00: Hollywood morality to blame
09/11/00: Specifically, AlGore's detailed plan is meaningless
09/07/00: Time-honored tradition: Insult the press
09/05/00: Scouting out justice
08/30/00: The ADL's historical revisionism
08/28/00: Sitcoms will survive, post-"Survivor"
08/24/00: Candidates' choice of movies shows refreshing honesty
08/21/00: An AlGore victory? Only if dead birds fly
08/17/00: AlGore is doomed, but Dems ignore warning signs
08/15/00: Proud and true: He's a Jew
08/10/00: Exploiting religion would be tragic mistake
08/08/00: Cheney serves up tempting appetizer
08/03/00: Republicans now 'nice,' media still nasty
08/01/00: Presidential campaign could use some anti-metric mania
07/27/00: Government shouldn't subsidize Reform Party
07/25/00: Campaign finance 'reform' gives too much power to liberal media
07/20/00: Hillary slur speaks volumes
07/18/00: AlGore's McCarthyism
07/11/00: 'Survivor' shows hypocrisy of animal rights groups
07/05/00: McDonald's deserves a break today
07/03/00: On July Fourth, time to reflect on America's founding
06/28/00: America bashing becomes international pastime
06/23/00: If Fonda is sorry, let her say so
06/06/00: NAPSTER exposes artists' hypocrisy
04/18/00: Not much difference between TV journalists, TV actors

© 2000, TMS