'The Sopranos Rewind: Season 1, Episode 8: 'The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti'
Welcome to the eighth installment of our summer trip through "The Sopranos" season 1. When I revisited early seasons of "The Wire," as well as the whole run of "Deadwood," I did separate versions of each review for newcomers and veterans, but over time realized that the newcomers weren't commenting much, if at all, and that it therefore made sense to simply do one review. Any significant spoilers for episodes beyond the one being reviewed will be contained in a separate section at the end of the review; so long as you avoid that, and the comments, you should be fine.
Thoughts on the eighth episode, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti," coming up just as soon as I devote my energies to the dignity of Connie Francis...
"Where's my arc?" -Christopher
And here we come to the meta — before it was even 100% meta.
"The Sopranos" quickly became a hit for HBO in the early months of '99, and just as quickly became a source of controversy among Italian-Americans — many of them just like Dr. Melfi's ex-husband, Richard LaPenna — who were tired of seeing themselves portrayed as gangsters in movies and television. As the two TV critics at Tony Soprano's favorite newspaper, in a state with a robust and proud Italian-American population, Matt Zoller Seitz and I heard early and often from citizens who resented the popularity of the show and the way it once again cast a dark shadow over their people. At the same time, we were also hearing from Italian-Americans who loved the series, and felt every bit as much pride in having Tony as their pop cultural avatar as Tony does in this episode having Frank Sinatra as his(*).
(*) For the first half of the series, I was living in an apartment in Hoboken a block away from an Italian deli named after Luca Brasi from "The Godfather," and it's hard these days to find an Italian deli in the state that doesn't have a picture of Tony Soprano up on the wall, alongside various Corleones and the cast of "Goodfellas."
This dichotomy of reaction to "The Sopranos" would in time become just as much a part of the show's fabric as Tony's dreams, as characters like Richard became stand-ins for the protesters, as the show engaged indirectly with its harshest critics. These first season episodes, though, were made in a vacuum, all written and produced before any of them aired, and before David Chase (who wrote "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti" with Frank Renzulli) had any idea how successful the show would be.
But if Chase didn't know how many people would be watching, he and Renzulli very clearly knew the two extreme reactions that a story like this had tended to generate in the past from their fellow Italian-Americans. Whether you view "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti" as a more general commentary on the relationship we have with mob movies, as a pre-emptive defense against the most vocal protests Chase and company knew they were likely to get in success, or something in between, it covers all the possible bases.
Reports of pending federal indictments for members of the DiMeo Family are all anyone can talk about in this episode, whether they're in the mob or not. For seasoned wiseguys like Tony and Big Pussy, it's nerve-wracking, but also the cost of doing business, and they focus on the practical: hiding or destroying evidence, preventing the FBI from trashing too much of the house, or warning Dr. Melfi that some upcoming appointments may be missed due to "vacation."
For Melfi's loved ones, alarmed to learn that she's treating one of the mobsters being discussed on the news, it's an opportunity to again debate the enduring popularity of mob stories and the alleged harm they do to the overall image of Italian-Americans. The conversation grows a little didactic at times (as would often be the case whenever the series revisited the topic), as Melfi's son Jason points out that the whole concept of Italian-American anti-defamation was started by mob boss Joseph Colombo (who did, indeed, found the Italian-American Civil Rights League), while Richard argues that the number of Italian-American criminals in pop culture is disproportionate to the number of Italian-Americans actually involved in organized crime.
The one counter-argument neither Melfi nor the show bothers making here is that Hollywood isn't biased against Italian-Americans, but towards excitement. There have also likely been more Irish-American gangsters in the movies than in real life, more glamorous drug kingpins, etc. That's what sells. A little over a year after "The Sopranos" debuted, CBS launched "That's Life," a likable drama(**) about an Italian-American family who lived in the same part of Jersey as Tony and Uncle Junior, but who had nothing to do with the mob. It limped along for two seasons of meager ratings(***).
(**) Created by future "Veronica Mars" and "iZombie" producer Diane Ruggiero-Wright.
(***) Though that was still one more season than "Falcone," a "Donnie Brasco" adaptation whose poster was a blatant rip-off of "The Sopranos" key art. So Italian-American mob stories are no guarantee of success, either; they've just been a safer commercial bet.
It's also interesting to compare Richard's horror at his people being tarnished by the actions of a Tony Soprano with the way Jason's Jewish therapist Sam Reis boasts of having a relative who was a wheelman for Louis "Lepke" Buchalter. "Those were some tough Jews," he says wistfully. If the archetypal media depiction of Italian-Americans is Vito Corleone, then the archetypal Jewish-American character is Alvy Singer, or some other quick-witted but not particularly tough Jewish comedian. For Richard, Italian mobsters are a stain on his people's legacy; for Dr. Reis, Jewish gangsters show that his people aren't just neurotic wimps.
Amusingly, Richard finds a kindred spirit of sorts in his wife's "Patient X," who responds to the FBI raid on his home by lecturing his kids about all the great Italian-Americans (like Antonio Meucci) who had nothing to do with organized crime. Tony is, as always, in denial about many things — including the idea that spaghetti could have been invented in China, not Italy — but here it's part of his larger desire (which was emphasized last week in "Down Neck") to keep his children as far away from the Family as possible.