Robert Hanks' Television Review

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YOU DON'T have to look far to find precedents for The Sopranos, C4's new drama about a modern-day Mafia family. There are clear echoes of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films in the way the series meditates on the kinship between the institution of the family and the institution of the Family, the way organised crime is equated with American life. Early on in the first of the two episodes broadcast last night, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the anxious Mob boss at the centre of the narrative, was trying to describe his mid-life crisis to a psychiatrist: "Lately, I get the feeling that I came in too late, that the best is over." To which she replied: "Many Americans get that feeling."

There are also nods to Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas: the milieu in which The Sopranos is set, among the suburbs and industrial wastelands of northern New Jersey, is far closer to Scorsese than Coppola. And Gandolfini's overweight, shirt-sleeved don is closer to Paul Sorvino's Fat Paulie than to Al Pacino's tragic Michael Corleone, with his soulful eyes and dandified suits. And where Coppola liked to show his mobsters ordering senators around and bending Hollywood studios to their will, both Scorsese and David Chase, the creator of this series, show the modern wiseguys as petty hoods, jostling for position, perpetually worried for their dignity. Last night's scenes of trucks being hijacked and the goods being transferred into car boots could have come straight out of GoodFellas, and any resemblance is presumably entirely intentional. Not only is Tony Soprano's shrink, Dr Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco, the mobster's wife in the Scorsese film, but Scorsese himself (impersonated by an actor) had a cameo in a nightclub scene.

But on this showing, Chase has managed to avoid the great flaws of both Coppola and Scorsese. On the one hand, he eschews the grand aesthetics and the stark contrasts of good and evil that Coppola indulged in; on the other, he doesn't get carried away by the macho bonding and the rattling, jittery vernacular of the hoods in the way that Scorsese did. There is an atmosphere of mundane frustration, a sense that even a gangster can succumb to the daily grind, that makes The Sopranos seem closer to The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin than anything in the modern canon of Mob movies.

The frustration was expressed most clearly in Tony Soprano's relationship with a family of ducks living in his swimming-pool. He was seen wading in the pool in his dressing-gown, feeding them scraps of bread, to the disdain of his wife and teenage kids. The reason he was seeing a psychiatrist at all was that he had suffered an anxiety-induced collapse brought on by the sight of the little ducks flying away; the point where he described this incident to her was irrationally moving, a tribute to Gandolfini's marvellous performance.

The Sopranos has a sentimental streak. But it also has a humorous vein, a violent side, and a line in the purely enigmatic. In the sleazy topless bar that the Sopranos use as their headquarters, Tony's cocky, troublesome nephew summed up a family dispute in the two words "Sadness accrues".

It deployed an impressive array of linguistic registers. At times, Chase's gangsters rattled off obscenities Joe Pesci-style. At other times, their speech had the stately formality of Damon Runyon characters. Sometimes, you got the sense of men reaching far beyond their accustomed range to find a way of expressing themselves, as when Soprano talked to Dr Melfi about his father: "Guy like that and my mother wore him down to a nub. He was a squeaking little gerbil when he died."

Only occasionally was this verbal style matched by visual flair, though I did like one shot of the multi-coloured trash at the Sopranos' waste- disposal facility (Tony gives his profession as "waste-management consultant"). And even in the second of last night's episodes, Soprano's consultations with Dr Melfi, which had promised to become a rich and complex aspect of the drama, had already started to degenerate into nothing but a framing device. But those are minor gripes. The Sopranos is shaping up to be as ambitious, sharp and original as any drama we've seen this year.