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Going off-key? 'The Sopranos' takes some hits for graphically portraying violence against women

Thursday, May 10, 2001

By Rob Owen and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The episode of "The Sopranos" with the misleadingly mild title "University" proved to be too much for some viewers. Watching a young, pregnant Bada Bing stripper named Tracee beaten to death was not one woman's idea of entertainment. She wasn't alone.

On a Web site frequented by "Sopranos" fans, a viewer using the name Jetgirl wrote: "I'm so glad to see I wasn't the only one sickened by last night's episode. It doesn't take a lot of talent to shock or upset people. ... I only recently started watching 'The Sopranos,' and I'm not going to give it another shot. I canceled my HBO this afternoon."

The character of Ralph Cifaretto, the mobster who killed Tracee, was the father of her unborn child. He insulted her and pummeled her as if she were an anonymous enemy; in a season marked by bursts of brutality, it was shocking.

It's not as if violence hasn't been part of "The Sopranos" all along. In the very first show, a gambler with a $250,000 debt was chased -- on foot and car -- by two mobsters and left with a broken bone sticking through his bloody leg. Later in that same hour, a man was shot in the back of the head, and we saw his blood spatter over the lines of cocaine he was about to snort.

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) may be a popular anti-hero, and to some he's a sexy tough guy or a big teddy bear, but he's always been a cold-blooded killer. Much of this season has dealt with his guilt over killing fellow mobster-turned-FBI-informer Big Pussy Bompensiero (Vincent Pastore). When his widow tried to hold Tony up for more money, claiming her poodle, Cocoa, needed surgery, he pulled a baseball bat and did a number on the new Cadillac in her driveway. But would it have surprised anyone had he bludgeoned her -- or the dog?

But with an emphasis on violence against women, this season the bloodshed has been magnified. The rape of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), the battering of Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro) by Russian mobsters and the murder of the dancer (Ariel Kiley) at the hands of ruthless Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) disturbed viewers in ways the show hadn't previously.

Michael Imperioli stars in the series as Tony's nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, and has written two episodes, including "The Telltale Moozadell." In that show, Tony and wife Carmela were called to the principal's office to discuss son A.J.'s vandalism of the school.

In a phone interview yesterday, Imperioli said viewer reaction to the violence this season has a lot to do with those on the receiving end.

"[Dr. Melfi and Tracee] are innocents," he said. "If a mob guy gets whacked, it was because he was dealing with the mob or was a mobster himself. He's playing ball. They were innocents. When violence is on an innocent, it's much more disturbing."

That may explain, at least in part, the reactions of fans.

"I don't like the way the show made me feel last night," wrote a woman posting to www.mightybigtv.com after the murder of the dancer. "I don't need to spend a Sunday evening feeling that way over a TV show, however brilliant."

"That stuff really happens, but I think it's too graphic," wrote a person posting to www.Gist.com. "Just show the start of something and we can use our imagination to figure out the rest."

Still, plenty of others defended "The Sopranos" and its dark turns this season.

"When violence is shown, it should be realistic," a post to Gist.com read. "It should be graphic enough to convey the horror the victim has during terrible events. Sanitized violence doesn't convey the ugliness of a beating or a rape and would never make people think twice about doing such a thing or about standing by and allowing someone else to do such a thing."

Imperioli said the scene of the dancer's murder was the most shocking moment in "The Sopranos" to date.

"A lot of people were very disturbed by that. Some people thought that was going a little too far, but that was where that character was going," Imperioli said. "I know they didn't do it to shock and disturb. They wanted to take the story in a certain way."

Violence in "The Sopranos" has even caught the attention of Robert C. Wright, chairman of NBC. Earlier this month, media outlets reported Wright wrote a letter to other executives at NBC, various TV studios and production companies asking for reaction to the HBO hit. He wondered how "Sopranos" is affecting mainstream entertainment and sent along a copy of the "University" episode.

Wright said he wanted to "spark a lot of people" to provide opinions on whether there is a lesson in there for NBC -- without imitating the sex and violence.

If no one were watching or rewarding the show, Wright would not care. But it's the reason many subscribers pay for HBO each month, and it's a darling of the critics and award-show voters.

Although NBC and the other commercial networks might like to imitate HBO's success, they are at the mercy of advertisers, politicians and the occasional well-organized citizens' group. Still, no one can dispute that dramas such as "NYPD Blue" have gotten bluer in recent years.

The theme of violence against women continues on this Sunday's episode when Tony's affair with mentally disturbed Mercedes Benz saleswoman Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra) comes to a chilling end. She learns you don't throw a slab of beef at Tony's head and not expect some recriminations. When he smacks her and asks, "Do you think my life's a [expletive] picnic?" she responds with the wrong two-word phrase: "Poor you."

Hmm. Isn't that what his late mother, Livia, said in Episode One? Yes, it is.

"We need to repeat what's familiar even if it's bad for us," Dr. Melfi tells Tony of the thread of his mother's influence on the women he chooses to get involved with.

The same could be said of the violence that has permeated "The Sopranos."

From Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Christopher chasing a Russian gangster they were trying to murder through the Pine Barrens in Jersey to Jackie Jr. (Jason Cerbone) and his ill-fated heist scheme this Sunday, repeated mistakes and miscalculations are a natural part of life. It's just that in this darkly comic series, violence is often a part of the picture.

Still, as one fan pointed out on a Web site: "Even the worst episode is better than anything else TV has to offer. ... I think they don't want it to be 'The Tony and Paulie Walnuts Variety Hour.' "

Nor is it "Family Affair," although this season creator David Chase has made a concerted effort to focus on the effects of Tony's mob life.

"David wanted to focus a bit more on his family and the repercussions with his children," Imperioli said. "There's been a lot of focus on how Tony's life and decisions are starting to affect the children as they grow up."

Could that family focus extend to next season? Imperioli was noncommittal about the show's future beyond the May 20 season finale.

"I can't say I'd like to see anything one way or another," he said. "Whatever comes up is always good."

How much longer the show continues is an open question, too. Chase has said he thinks the series should end after its fourth season, which will premiere next year. He later backed off from that pronouncement.

"I think it depends on how next season goes," Imperioli said. "If we shoot the season and in the middle or toward the end we've got the juice to go on another season, then we should absolutely do it. But if we feel this is as far as we can go, I'd say end it. That's going to be David's decision, and he'll make the right choice."

An end to "The Sopranos" would satisfy the show's critics, who include some Italian-Americans who feel the program perpetuates stereotypes. Entertainment Weekly reported New York state Sen. Serphin R. Maltese, a Queens Republican, urged constituents to cancel HBO due to the violence against women this season.

Imperioli doesn't understand the objections of viewers who take the series as an indictment of all Americans of Italian descent.

"Anybody who will watch a TV show and then think an entire ethnic group is exactly what the people in the TV show are is stupid," he said. "You've got to be a moron to think that. The show is not meant to represent an entire ethnic group; it's a specific group of characters that's been specifically influenced by movies and TV to become archetypal dramatic characters.

"If it was done in the '20s when Italians were first starting to immigrate here, there might be a danger of people being afraid of Italians, but we're past that," Imperioli said. "We've assimilated into American culture. We've been governors and senators and lawyers. I guess they should make their own TV show about the good Italian senator, but that doesn't sound so interesting."

Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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