(Kindling Lou Carlozo is an entertainament writer for the Chicago Tribune. He offers his thoughts "The Sopranos.") The beginning of the end has come for Tony Soprano: April 8 marks the first episode in the last season of HBO's ultra-popular series "The Sopranos." And when that final bullet casing falls to the floor, that final drop of murderous blood is shed, that final sip of Chianti passes over some sated hit man's lips, I know I'll party, as I expect so many of the devotees of the show will.
Except that I'm no "Sopranos" fan. Instead, I'll celebrate the overdue death of a show that perpetuated the ugliest and least accurate of stereotypes: the Italian American as mobster.
I understand the arguments supporting this series. Tony Soprano is a different kind of criminal, they say. He's conflicted and sees a shrink: how post-modern! The show's extraordinary writing garnered a 2006 Emmy award. And the program has critics tripping over their Olive Garden mostaccioli to praise it.
But just as Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" could be called a cinematic masterpiece, the excellent craft behind "The Sopranos" serves only to make the offensive and repugnant look attractive. As someone who takes pride in Italian American contributions to art, culture, science and cuisine, I find the show's popularity maddening. "The Sopranos" represents a huge billboard that makes a horrid, media-perpetuated cliche look hip and cool.
I've raised this point with "Sopranos" fans in the newsroom, and many of them look at me as if I lack sophistication. I've actually heard words to the effect of: "Come on Lou, it's a great show. You're being too P.C. Can't you just get over it?"
Though I've never actually tried this"and if you offend easily, please skip this paragraph"I wonder what those co-workers might think if I suggested competing shows targeted to the sorest spots of their race, religion or ethnicity, with titles and themes such as "Sambo the Shiftless Negro," "Survivor: Illegal Wetback Mexicano Border Run" or "Those Money-Grubbing Jewish Slumlords."
They'd be outraged, and very rightfully so. When it comes to false images that hurt, the final word should come from people who belong to the targeted group. That's why I sympathize so much with the Native Americans who sought to banish Chief Illiniwek from the University of Illinois. While oblivious (and non-Native American) U of I alumni blathered about Indians and school tradition, the Native Americans gave the chief a new name: degrading.
I can only imagine what the fight might've been like if the chief had a lot of Native American fans.
And therein lies the rub with "The Sopranos:" An overwhelming majority of its cast members can claim Italian roots. The very people who should rise up against a show like this instead help bring it to your living room every week.
"Italian Americans in Hollywood today are the modern-day Stepin Fetchit," says Paul Basile, editor of the Italian-American newspaper Fra Noi. "They can make a living off of it, but they don't have enough social conscience to rise up and change it."
The facts speak: 1999 F.B.I. statistics show that the total number of Italian criminals in the United States numbered 1,150"less that eight one-thousandths of the entire Italian- American population of about 15 to 16 million. Compare that to statistics of how Italian Americans get portrayed by Hollywood: roughly 300 Mob-related movies made since the release of "The Godfather" in 1972. No wonder a 2003 Zogby poll found that 78 percent of American teens ages 13-18 associate Italian Americans with either crime or blue-collar work.
And a survey by the Response Analysis Corp. reports that 74 percent of adult Americans believe most Italian Americans have "some connection" to organized crime.
Do shows such as "The Sopranos" help with the gross, inaccurate depictions? Of course not. But do Italian Americans aid a corrective cause by creating such entertainments? Whether it is Robert De Niro lending his Oscar-winning talents to "Shark Tale" or "Analyze This," or James Gandolfini taking on the role of tough guy Tony, viewers get the message: If actors and artists with a vowel at the end of their names have no problem with Mafia stereotypes, they must be OK.
"It's easy money," Basile says. "These are the parts where you make a lot of fast money in Hollywood. And Italian Americans haven't developed the backbone to say no."
The negative effects are so pervasive that they seep right down to our local classrooms. The unthinkable happened in November when Rotolo Middle School in Batavia fought"that's right, fought"to defend its right to stage an original play called "Fuggedaboutit: A Little Mobster Comedy," performed by the "Bada Bing Players."
The Bada Bing, in case you didn't know, is the topless strip club featured in "The Sopranos." The author of the play was Matthew Myers, a teacher at the school (where apparently lessons in the First Amendment trump values of ethnic sensitivity).
Well if Myers can write a script, I can too: I indulge in my own Hollywood daydreams from time to time. And while the word "meta" has likely never been uttered in a "Sopranos" episode (doesn't rhyme with bada bing, ya know), here's my meta fantasy finale: Led by undercover cops Joe Pistone (a.k.a. Donnie Brasco) and Frank Serpico, federal authorities catch up to Tony Soprano and his posse. His linguini-loving butt is hauled into court, where Rudolph Giuliani is prosecutor and Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito preside as judges. Soprano faces the bench and as Giuliani rattles off the charges, he turns to the jury and says:
"But of the most offensive hits delivered by this thug Mr. Soprano, here's the worst: He systematically slaughtered the cultural pride of so many decent, law-abiding Italian Americans: all 99.992 percent of them."
There's just one problem. Giuliani loves "The Sopranos."