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What you see is what you get


WASHINGTON -- Who is this Bob Wright? Some kind of a wise guy?

No, he's the president of NBC. Instead, that gang over at HBO's hit show "The Sopranos" are the wise guys and they've really got Mr. Wright rattled.

In a recent letter to executives at his own network and various television studios and productions companies, Mr. Wright asked for opinions on the award-winning HBO mob hit.

On some Sunday nights, the show brings in bigger ratings than any of the four major over-the-air networks, even though HBO reaches only about a third as many homes as the networks do.

In interviews, Mr. Wright does not hide his resentment over the way "The Sopranos" wins Emmys and a prestigious Peabody Award while featuring a level of sex, violence, nudity and profanity that would cost NBC its license if it tried anything similar.

But if Mr. Wright thinks the secrets to the success of "The Sopranos" are bullets, bare breasts and bad words, he's really missing the point. If he fails to learn the lessons of "The Sopranos," he is doomed to repeat NBC duds like last season's XFL football games.

I can think of four important reasons why "The Sopranos" is a hit:

No. 1: Unlike most network shows, "The Sopranos" actually shows some original thought. It doesn't look like it rolled off a Hollywood assembly line. It doesn't look, as someone once said of a camel, like a horse designed by a committee.

No. 2: It shows respect for the intelligence of viewers. It offers superb writing, acting, directing, editing and all that other technical stuff that makes moving pictures look good.

No. 3: It's believable.

This is not the romanticized mob of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." This is the modern mob, hanging on to what's left of itself in the era of suburbia, psychotherapy and federal RICO laws (the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act).

The show works not because it is about them, the Sopranos, but because it is about us, middle-class Americans.

The sex and violence are occasional and pushed into the background. The "family business" is less important than its impact on the families, particularly the Sopranos.

Here we have Big Tony, who has to see a shrink to spill his guts about the people he's killed, the father whom he adored and the mother who wanted to kill him.

Here's long-suffering Carmela, who maybe should have married that nice car dealer after high school. Instead she is struggling mightily to hold her family together and raise their bright but troubled kids, the collegiate Meadow and the athletic Anthony Jr., without their falling into drugs, promiscuous sex or their father's line of work.

"The Sopranos" works in part because they are us. They are the middle-class American dream, except for Daddy's business, which is delicately referred to as "waste management" or simply, "this thing of ours."

Which brings me to my fourth and far-fetched reason for the success of "The Sopranos": It suits our political times.

When "The Godfather" became a smash hit and instant classic in the Watergate election year of 1972, Norman Mailer immediately picked up the theme in his campaign book "St. George and the Godfather." President Richard Nixon was the Godfather, in Mr. Mailer's view, clobbering in a 49-state victory the pious, but politically inept Sen. George "St. George" McGovern, who didn't seem to know what hit him.

If "The Godfather" echoed the mysterious, brooding Nixon, with his "enemies list" and scheming associates, "The Sopranos" in some ways echoes the enigmatic and philandering Bill Clinton, the sitting president during the show's inception.

Our fascination with "The Sopranos" is not unlike our fascination with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Love them or hate them, we still found ourselves wondering what they were going to do next and who was going to get hurt by it.

George W. Bush and his family are, by comparison, easy to read. What you see appears to be what you get.

Some humorists have compared President George W. Bush's clan to the Corleones of "The Godfather," except with dim-witted baby brother Fredo taking over the family business.

That's good for a laugh, but the Bushes do not come closing to matching the Corleones' aura of menace. So far the Bushes seem more like situation-comedy material.

That, by the way, is precisely what they are in Comedy Central's "That's My Bush."

But give them time. The house of the Sopranos is worth watching. So is the White House. I intend to do both.

I can't get enough, even when I don't like what's going on inside.

Clarence Page is a Washington-based columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

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