Earlier this week, the Paulist Fathers —you know, the people who run this fine website—were the beneficiaries one of the more unusual product placements in recent memory when the Paulist-founded Humanitas Prize, was showcased on The Sopranos…right before it was used to bash someone’s head in.
To quote its network’s old slogan, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” As the legendary series makes its way through its final season, its impact on pop culture is secure.
Two hours into the last call for “Bada-Bing” and Baccalas, there haven’t been any major on-screen “whackings.” At least not yet. But it still feels like we’re bracing for a death in the family—my family, that is.
I know, I know, it’s a touchy topic for a lot of my fellow Italian-Americans, who feel that the juggernaut epic detailing the life and crimes of a fictional North Jersey mob family is exploitative and plays to the worst stereotypes of our kind. For my South Philly-based, Italian-American clan, however, it’s anything but.
A good many Catholics from my parents’ generation might remember the slogan “The family that prays together, stays together.” Well, eight years of Sunday nights with my sister, my parents and I held in suspense around the TV has proven that the same is true of the family that watches The Sopranos together—an experience that, to be sure, has often led to prayer, just for the souls of the (fictional) dead.
With my sister in college and yours truly either on the road or lost in the funnel of my job, we don’t get the time with our parents that we did when we were younger. The four of us attend Mass separately, don’t see much of each other the rest of the time, check in on each other by phone when we can and hinge our lives on schedules that often find one or more of us beginning our day when the others are just turning in for the night. But, through the years, Sunday at 9PM has become a rather profane “sacred space” surrounding the altar of the tube in our parents’ living room… so much so that trying to watch it elsewhere or with others just doesn’t feel the same.
You see, as far as we’re concerned, the chronicles of Tony, Carm, AJ, Meadow, Christopher, “Paulie Walnuts,” Silvio and the rest of the series’ cast of thousands aren’t about the gratuitous violence, the just-as-gratuitous sex, the carefully-planned heists or the omerta of the underworld of the New York suburbs. Gangsters have long enjoyed a bizarre hold on the public imagination. But, admittedly, as a great many of us who grew up in the old-school Italian enclaves of the Northeast know members of “made” families.
We grew up alongside them, counted them as classmates, neighbors, friends and loved ones without understanding what their family businesses entailed until well after lifelong bonds were established, it would seem that a fascination with la cosa nostra diminishes with one’s proximity to it. So for us, in the sense of the deeply-rooted culture of the Italian diaspora, its public values and imperatives, at times watching the show almost feels like watching ourselves—thankfully, without the disappearing relatives.
Some Sopranoisms have even become a running thread of life among my family. For five years we’ve been referring to my mother as “Melf” —shorthand for Dr. Melfi, the psychologist whose sessions with the Tony Soprano have provided one of the show’s key underpinnings. Mom has earned the title thanks to her instinctive drive to “shrink” people and give them tips (usually unsolicited) on how to fix whatever’s wrong. And, more often than not, the show’s depictions of family gatherings and the other events of the characters’ non-criminal lives will lead various members of my family to just glance at each other and burst out in spontaneous, knowing laughter, as more situations than not could’ve been ripped straight out of the lives of our own wild, extended clan.
Did you see…?
Post-show, my parent’s phone starts ringing with calls from their siblings and friends dissecting the smallest details and asking “Did you see…?”
But this week, it was my Mom and Dad putting that question to the rest of us as I got to experience a bit of refracted glory from the show.
When the Humanitas winner, played by Tim Daly, mentioned the award given to him by the Paulist “Brothers,” given my connection to the community (because of this column) my parents eyes shot in my direction as my mother asked, excitedly, “Are they the ones you write for?!”
The truth is my folks are more interested in what David Chase does with his days than what I do with mine, so this moment from a fictional world offered them a better glimpse into my very real one. It’s just another reason to give thanks for Sunday’s dual communion with “the family”–the one on TV and the one gathered around it—to mourn the passing of the one, and to cherish the continuing gift of the other.
Some might take issue with that characterization, but in the living room of the little house where I was raised, seven seasons of sharing one of our era’s defining cultural moments has done a lot of good. And that will survive a lot longer than the series that made it happen.