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The Balding Soprano

Photo by Anthony Neste
The lives and adventures of Italian-American career criminals have occupied the national dramatic imagination at least since Little Caesar, 'til every 20th-century boy and girl not growing up in cultish isolation can define Cosa Nostra and "made man" and is acquainted somewhat with the real or imagined professional accomplishments of Al Capone, John Gotti and Don Corleone. (That I know such things when I can no longer do my algebra nor remember how a bill becomes law fills me sometimes right up with wonder.) Television has, of course, done its part in this grand educational project, from the Kefauver hearings and The Untouchables to Wiseguy and Bella Mafia -- a crooked line that leads us now to The Sopranos, a 13-week series from HBO, set in the suburban ménage of a north New Jersey mob underboss and created by David Chase, whose path-less-taken executive-production credits include I'll Fly Away and a couple of seasons of Northern Exposure. In broad terms, it's something of a companion piece to HBO's other hourly dramatic series, the prison-set Oz (baby of another TV maverick, Homicide's Tom Fontana), with which it shares actress Edie Falco and the ability to make one care about characters one should rather wish ill. And like Oz, it does this by making them complicated -- symbolic of nothing, full of contradiction, capable of tenderness, and as inscrutable as your own real friends and neighbors.

The show pricks the bubble of glamour in which flashy big-screen filmmakers like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese have englobed the Mafia lifestyle, even as it plays upon it -- these are mobsters who know Godfathers 1 to 3 chapter and verse and who discourse upon "how Francis framed the shot." (The younger, less traditional, less reliable generation watches Cops.) As "waste management consultant" and household head Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini -- thickly built, with a receded hairline and a pleasant but strictly ordinary mug -- is sex-symbolically no Al Pacino; but that is all to the dramatic good, for notwithstanding the guns, beatings and trunkloads of hijacked DVD players, this is the story of a regular guy, or a guy who sees himself as a regular guy, with regular-guy problems and regular-guy questions. He wants to know where the good's gone, why he's working more and liking it less, why his mother (Nancy Marchand, bravely disheveled) is impossible to please. And like every TV dad that ever was, he wants everyone to stop shouting and, for God's sake, turn that music down.

By scaling his tale to a domestic milieu, Chase brings new life to a genre that seemed ready to be hauled off and dumped in the Meadowlands. Coppola's medieval architecture of family loyalty and codes of honor here gives way to a general fractiousness not unalloyed with love: Besides mother Marchand, there's a resentful uncle, a mildly rebellious daughter, a sullen son, a wife (Falco) who cares enough to be unhappy about Tony's infidelities, a nephew whose ambitions don't tally with his own abilities; this way and that they go, against a background of barbecues, Nintendo, volleyball, school choir concerts -- and the office of the psychiatrist Tony begins seeing after he starts blacking out from anxiety. (It's GoodFellas' Lorraine Bracco behind those bookish spectacles.) This may or may not be the first gangster picture to prescribe its protagonist Prozac -- say that three times fast! -- but it's likely the first to make therapy its central issue.

Performances all around are what I'd call EMMY CALIBER! if I wanted to see my name in print in The Hollywood Reporter. (But they really are.) Not even slightly embarrassing is quondam E-Street Bandman Little Miami Steven Van Zandt, who trades his well-known Gypsy headgear for a fine head of shiny black hair and a role as a . . . henchman, I guess you'd call him. (It may take a village to raise a child, but apparently it takes less than half a dozen middle-aged men to administer the criminal business of north Jersey.) Sly humor abounds. Points deducted for semi-gratuitous T&A (one of the creative pitfalls of the premium-cable environment: What can be shown will be shown); points added for the recurring presence of Jerry Adler (Rob Morrow's hallucinated rabbi on Northern Exposure) as the Jewish guy, use of Elvis Costello's "Complicated Shadows," and Gandolfini's kitchen rendition of "A Whiter Shade of Pale."

Filmed on location in Africa and set in 1931, Heat of the Sun, cranking up on Mystery!, has the modestly splendid look common to British television period pieces and is from first minute to last -- three adventures spread over five weeks -- as tasty as marzipan. Police Superintendent Albert Tyburn, played by Trevor Eve (The Politician's Wife), is more of a he-man than British detectives usually are: ruggedly appointed, physically courageous, good with his fists, at home on a horse, handy with a gun -- he even likes women. Devoted to the law but keener still on justice, he's been sent down to colonial Kenya and its community of indolent aristocrats, roving sharpers and assorted small minds for having put a bullet through an upper-crust child-murderer. Naturally above prejudice himself, he takes every man or woman at their actual worth, his own sterling character highlighted in time-honored crime-fictional fashion by the stupidity of his immediate superior, an officious old wheezy windbag. (Tyburn's various sidekicks are, significantly, African, Indian, Jewish, public-school British and female -- an indomitable aviatrix, played by the mmm-good Susannah Harker.) The mysteries themselves (murder, murder, murder) are satisfyingly full of misdirection and sensational event, realistically played but deliciously packed with pulp, and righteous on matters of race, class and gender.

The Mississippi: River of Song, airing in a four-episode marathon on KCET this weekend, is a post-holiday gift box of a documentary, dispatched from the Smithsonian Institute by way of (of all places) South Carolina Educational Television. (It comes as well in a seven-hour Public Radio International version, as a double CD from Smithsonian Folkways, as a book and as a home video, already wrapped and ready to go -- no PBS blockbuster being complete nowadays without its vertically integrated merch.) Narrated with crisp aplomb by alt-folk queen Ani DiFranco, it is neither a historical study nor a musicological overview, and is not even remotely comprehensive -- you could make six dozen documentaries out of what this one doesn't cover. It proposes no unified theory of Mississippi River music, but simply follows the river from snowy head to sultry mouth, stopping along the way to hear what might be heard in the nightclubs, churches, studios, living rooms, back yards and streets of this in-all-senses fertile slice of America, and to discover what folk roots still bear fruit at the turn of the century that annihilated regionalism. That the route runs through Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans suggests in advance that one will hear quite a bit. And one does.

Given that next to watching TV all the time I believe playing music to be the most spiritually profitable, broadly communicative, self-instructive, self-absorbing and self-transcending activity available, I vibrated like a big tuning fork through much of these four hours, when I wasn't melted down to jelly. The home-office stats state that the series features more than 40 acts, including more than 500 players, filmed or videotaped in 30 towns and cities over 10 states. Rank amateurs, old pros, students and street musicians, marching bands and drill teams and choirs and fishermen play polkas, rockabilly, blues, R&B, zydeco, Cajun, folk, punk, alt-country, jazz, ranchero, New Orleans brass-band hip-hop, Scandinavian fiddle and Hmong funeral music, and talk about what they do and why. The Ojibwe group Chippewa Nation sings a song about coming over for cookies and tea. John Hartford sings his "Gentle on My Mind" to superannuated tourists on the riverboat he also pilots. Fontella Bass explicates the rhythmic and intonational shifts that turn gospel into soul. Louisiana Hayride star and former governor Jimmie Davis performs "You Are My Sunshine," the song he made famous, accompanied by Merle Haggard at Davis' 98th birthday party. Henry Butler's here, and the Bottle Rockets, and Eddie Bo, and Babes in Toyland, and Ann Peebles. And D.L. Menard. And Rufus Thomas. And Irma Thomas. (Time is still on her side, yes it is.) Though the series is only 65 percent or so more visually sophisticated than a Huell Howser featurette, the camera is almost always pointed in the right place. And, more important, the microphone always is.

THE SOPRANOS
HBO
Sundays, 9 p.m.
(repeats Tuesdays, 11 p.m.)

MYSTERY!: Heat of the Sun
PBS
Premieres Thursday, January 28, 9 p.m.

THE MISSISSIPPI: River of Song
PBS
Sunday, January 24, 12:30 p.m.


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