Sometimes, you can learn a lot from hate mail.
Long ago, when I was part of the earliest wave of critics to praise David Chase's "The Sopranos" to the skies and beyond, one self-declared Italian-American wrote me a note declaring himself disgusted at the "Ango-Saxons" of Hollywood appropriating the ugliest tales of Italian-American culture to tell the story of his people.
I sympathized. I once interviewed brilliant director-actor Stanley Tucci who expressed similar loathing for all the mob roles in movies and TV he was offered. He came, as he said, from a family of writers and art teachers.
But I pointed out to my testy correspondent that "Chase" may sound like the last name of an Anglo from a banking family but it was actually the Anglicization of a family name that, a couple generations before, had been "Di Cesare."
Chase's newest "Sopranos" tale is the current film "The Many Saints of Newark" opening this weekend on HBO Max and in theaters. As everyone knows by now, it is a "Sopranos" "prequel" telling us the story of young Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini's actual son) and the fictional father of Christopher Moltisanti (who was played by Michael Imperioli in the story we know).
You'll remember that Christopher was Tony's nephew and closest compadre until he became troublesome and was dispatched, on the original show, by Tony Soprano himself, who took advantage of a fortuitous highway accident, to reach over to an immobile Christopher and, with his big, beefy mitt, blocked off all his breathing until he could breathe no more.
To me, at the time, it seemed like a subtly diabolical moment of meta-narrative on the part of the writers. One of the stunning and weird triumphs of "The Sopranos" as a TV show is that its star had the most labored breathing I've ever heard from a major actor.
You could, on every episode of "The Sopranos" hear Gandolfini breathing with so much difficulty through his nasal passages that you could hear it while others were talking. From the very beginning I remember watching the show and wondering why more of his friends, colleagues and employers were never able to get Gandolfini to a good allergist and perhaps even a surgeon to take care of his deviated septum.
Just another detail that went to give "The Sopranos" its unique cunning and make it one of the greatest shows in the history of television.
Which is precisely why the series' ending in 2007 was the greatest disappointment in the history of television. It was godawful. One moment, Tony and his family are in a restaurant while he absentmindedly flips through the anachronistic jukebox on his booth wall while Journey is heard. And the next, there was no picture. It was as if a movie projector went off track or a whole TV network went dark.
But no, that wasn't it. That was just the actual end of one of the greatest TV shows in history – a cold, contemptuous refusal of narrative whereby, in a series' final seconds, a show's creator, took back possession of his show from its audience and made sure, for the rest of eternity, posterity would understand that, as he might have put it, the show was "mine, mine, mine, all mine." Not theirs.
Which was among the most megalomaniacally wrongheaded and incompetent creative decisions I've ever encountered in my life. At a certain point, when a revered work of fiction has become myth, it helps to have a creator deal with it as part of the real world, not a possession to be kept in a drawer next to an old letter from a teen girlfriend.
The only decent explanation for that final bludgeoning of the imagination is that it was a redemption of an earlier line of dialogue in the episode wondering what actually happens to consciousness after death. What happens when you die from a bullet to the brain? Are you looking through a jukebox and then swallowed up in nothingness that only Raymond Chandler might have tried to be poetic about?
Sorry. It looked to me like something A.J. Soprano might have devised for a TV show that made him look clever.
So all Chase could do in a new Sopranos story is a "prequel." He couldn't do a sequel because he hadn't actually ended the story. I must confess I'm not all that interested in "The Sopranos'" pre-history. A good storyteller – and God knows Chase is all of that 10 times over – could get me interested but I've never wondered about it for a second.
I would like to know what happened to the kids he left behind, Meadow and A.J. And his wife, Carmela, whose moral struggles gave the show a Dostoevskyan heart.
The genius of "The Sopranos" was not its gimmick of putting a mob boss on the couch of a psychoanalyst. Billy Crystal already did that with Robert DeNiro in "Analyze This." (Whose unwanted sequel was "Analyze That.")
The genius of "The Sopranos" was to locate a brutal, hands-on mob boss squarely in the aspirational upper middle class of suburban New Jersey. The first thing we ever saw about our mob boss was his sentimental attachment to the ducks floating in his swimming pool.
A few episodes later, we saw our mob boss take his daughter – gloriously named Meadow – on a college trip to Maine and, while she was occupied, whack a faithless old associate for a grievous family betrayal.
That single episode was one of the most devastating in the show's history. No longer were we seeing the male-dominated dark mahogany world of the Corleones in "The Godfather." This was the world of New Jersey McMansions with kids applying to good colleges with reasonable expectations of admittance. This, the show was saying, was the mob perishing from banality.
Which may be why the old mob was, in a way, passe.
My biggest worry as the show dazzled me was that its creators were making it entirely too possible to condescend to Tony's mob "primitives" – whose casting by Georgiane Walken and Sheila Jaffe was, in itself, a miracle to be told and retold as long as there are TV shows and movies.
And yet the show itself – again, in its diabolical "meta" grip on its own affect – touched on that very matter. We saw what happened, in one episode, when the Sopranos went next door to the house of their neighbors, the Cusomanos, members of the medical profession's upper middle class.
They knew what Tony did for a living but their attitude was a kind of superior amusement toward him, the way you would act toward a pony-sized neighbor's dog that had sauntered through your kitchen's open sliding door. It was a social amusement to be shared later with one's, uh, own class.
But to answer that, there was my favorite moment in the whole show after Meadow's college trip to Colby and Bowdoin.
Tony's shrink Dr. Melfi went to a hot new New Jersey restaurant where they found themselves waiting a full hour for a table and getting nowhere.
At that point, Tony and Co. saunter in. He sees Dr. Melfi and discovers her plight.
A quick wave of Tony's hand follows.
The Melfis are immediately escorted to their table for dinner.
Exploring that world is, to me, so much more interesting than the long-mythological mob world we've all too often found easy to ignore. That's why the post-mob life is so interesting to imagine –- contemporary reality and the life that Tony and his boys made possible.