March 13, 2005

Italians for The Sopranos

By: Emily Helgersen

The Sopranos are after me. Or so it seemed in the summer of 2000, because everywhere I turned they were there. My neighborhood in Toronto, Canada was literally plastered with posters announcing the fourth season of the wildly popular TV series with a picture of a bound figure wrapped in a red and white checkered tablecloth. An ad in the elevator of my apartment building showed Tony Soprano (played by actor James Gandolfini) standing between his wife and his female psychiatrist. Beside them was the message “The Sopranos are coming to pay you a visit. Don’t turn your back.” At the beginning of each season thousands of Canadians prepare to perch in front of their TV sets to watch The Sopranos. But not everyone was so rapturously happy about the show’s reappearance. Some Italian Canadians were less than enthusiastic about it, saying it portrayed Italians in a bad light and contributed to stereotypes of them as gangsters. The editor of an Italian-language newspaper in Ottawa even wrote to the CEO of the Canadian television network that broadcast The Sopranos asking him to pull the plug on the show on the grounds that it would hurt the Italian community’s reputation. I’m part Italian myself. My family is from Sicily, and I’ve been teased mercilessly about being a mafiosa (OK, I’ll admit I wasn’t all that offended). So in some ways I understood the Italian community’s indignation about The Sopranos. However, I’d stop short of calling for a ban on it. I suppose I could go into the usual spiel about free expression and the argument that if we pulled the plug on everything that might offend a certain group, there wouldn’t be much left to watch (for example, the English could complain about the less than savory depiction of their countrymen in the movie Rob Roy). But there are other reasons to question a ban on The Sopranos. First of all, it seems somewhat late to start getting uptight about The Sopranos and its effects on the Italian community. The series is after all merely the last in a long string of films and TV shows on the Mafia, from The Godfather to Married to the Mob to Goodfellas. If all these really harmed Italians as much as some claim, surely The Sopranos couldn’t do any more damage. Furthermore, it’s hard to believe the series is some kind of anti-Italian conspiracy when practically all the actors in it are Italian American. So is director David Chase, whose WASPish-sounding surname is actually an Anglicization of the very Italian “DiCesare.” As an Anglo friend of mine remarked, The Sopranos has provided employment to a lot of people of Italian descent. Lead actor James Gandolfini explained why. In an interview with Lesley White of The Sunday Times, he said, “There are plenty of films about nice Italian Americans, but do they make $100 million at the box office?” It should be noted that not all Italian Canadians oppose The Sopranos. My aunt, for instance, became enraged when I told her about the editor who tried to get the show cancelled. “But I want to see The Sopranos!” she protested. I’ll second her. And perhaps in twenty years or so all the Italian Canadians now screaming about The Sopranos will be glued to their TV sets watching a show about the Russian Mafia. Emily Helgersen is a freelance writer and editor living in Toronto, Canada.