The Sopranos Stands on Top

Dear “The Sopranos,”

We’ll start with this: what makes you great, my beloved, is that you meet the criteria that make any work of art great: you tell your story ingeniously, and you explore your themes intelligently.

The story, by the way, is that of Tony Soprano, beloved family man and powerful mob boss.

Like your average mob boss, Tony extorts money and eludes the police and occasionally empties some bullets into some poor sap’s head.

But unlike your average mob boss, Tony doesn’t seem to enjoy it all that much. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to enjoy anything. That’s why the series begins with him going to Dr. Melfi, the local psychiatrist, begging for help. Over the next six seasons, Melfi delves deeper and deeper into his mind, searching for a solution as he tries to keep his two fractured famiglias, the criminal one and the conventional one, intact.

It sounds like a setup for a joke (did you hear the one about the Godfather and the Therapist?). But your genius, you wondrous show, you, was to hook us with that bizarre, slightly silly conceit, then use it to undertake an exploration of America’s deepest, most pertinent flaws.

You see, Tony isn’t depressed due to some existential dread or chemical imbalance. He’s depressed because he steals and murders for a living.

Of course, if Tony admits that his mob job is evil, he will endanger the only lifestyle he’s comfortable with. In Dr. Melfi’s office, we witness a riveting struggle between a man who’s hiding from the truth and a woman whose job is to make him stare it in the face.

Part of your greatness, oh glorious show, lies in the way you use Tony’s self-deceptive struggle to illuminate the ways in which so many of us””the ordinary Americans watching at home””also evade the truth. We may not be cold-blooded killers, but we do awful things, too. We ignore our civic and political duties, thus permitting corruption. We ignore our basic humanist obligations to one another, thus abetting poverty and abjection.

And yet we, like Tony, do nothing to change. It’s much comfier to ignore our own interior bullshit, to insist that we’re all sugar and sunshine and rightly earned dollars and well-kept promises. It’s just much easier to lie to ourselves.

Through Tony’s story, “The Sopranos” showed me the mechanisms we use to do that lying. And, by showing me that, it showed me how to better myself as a person.

All this gloom and doom doesn’t make you any less entertaining, “Sopranos.” You have a great, Springsteen-heavy soundtrack. You’re brimming with dark wit. And you’re stocked with enough shockers to give “Scandal” an inferiority complex.

But what makes you great, in addition to your sublime visuals and unshakeable performances (James Gandolfini gives Marlon Brando a run for his money), is the way you engagingly explore such an urgent theme.

Yes, you do it unevenly at times. But you often do it with a brilliant clarity, a masterful intelligence, and a subtle, incisive grace that I think “The Wire,” for all its deserved acclaim, sometimes lacks.

Then again, you also make an excellent companion piece to Monica’s show. “The Wire,” after all, is a show about the sort of  people that we usually look away from. “The Sopranos,” on the other hand, is about why we look away in the first place.