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'The Sopranos' as capitalist angst Money worries, like bad pennies, keep turning up in the new season


I'm worried, Tony," Carmela Soprano says near the start of tonight's season premiere of the greatest show on American television, HBO's The Sopranos.

"About what -- my weight?" Tony responds distractedly as he scoops a spoonful of chocolate sundae into his mouth.

"About money," says his wife, set to launch into a speech about economic uncertainty versus certain mortality that seems just the thing a guy given to panic attacks doesn't need to hear as he's sitting down to relax with a bowl of ice cream in front of the tube to watch a western starring Dean Martin.

But, ready or not, here it comes. And with that, we are again waist-deep in the big muddy of the world of Tony Soprano, suburban mob boss and middle-aged American male trying to keep it together as he seems to be moving closer to totally coming apart at the seams.

Money always has made the world go 'round in The Sopranos. Money was so important to so many story lines that one day, about halfway through the second season, it finally dawned on me that maybe this series was as much about the economy, stupid, as it was family -- maybe even more. Specifically, it's about capitalism.

Tony isn't Everyman, what-ever the heck that is besides a critic's catchphrase bankrupt of meaning since about the time of Chaucer. No, Tony Soprano is the television version of Loman, as in Willy Loman, of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Tony's story is creator David Chase's brilliant study of American masculinity at middle age; the man fears his powers are starting to decline at the very time that the competitive pressures in the workplace are growing more intense, demanding more and more profit. See Tony struggle. Watch as these savage pressures threaten to grind the man to dust, even a man like Tony, who describes himself to his shrink as a "captain of industry."

This is not the low man on the totem pole of American business, an aging salesman. This is a high man, and it looks as if even he is going to be shredded by the system. What will happen first -- heart attack, retirement, nervous breakdown or termination?

Money, money

The primary story line of this season's first several episodes is that of economic pressure building on Tony. Carmela's on him about the economic future of her and the kids -- especially, "God forbid, something should happen" to Tony. Uncle Junior's on him for more money to pay for the high-priced attorneys getting him set for trial. Tony tells his uncle to solve his own money problems, but knows he's going to have to find the extra cash for Junior somewhere.

It's so bad that 10 minutes into the first hour, Tony is sneaking out into the backyard so he can secretly squirrel brown paper bags full of money under floor tiles in the pool house or stash them in a storage bin full of cracked corn for the ducks.

Oh, yeah, remember the ducks from the first episode, and the peace Tony seemed to find watching them in his pool -- until one day they flew away and Tony was in a full blown, pass-out-on-the-patio, hello-Melfi, hand-me-the-Prozac, panic attack? Tony's back out there looking for the ducks tonight.

Tony's also back in Dr. Melfi's office, and if you think I'm reading too much into this money business, listen to what Tony himself has to say about it to his shrink.

"I'm a little depressed," he says at the start of the session. "She [Carmela] starts ragging on me about the future. How she's worried: what's going to happen to them if I'm dead, and buy bonds, and all this [expletive]."

"A lot of people are feeling vulnerable," Melfi responds.

"Anyway, she's right, that's the point," Tony says, not listening to Melfi. "Over the last couple of years, I've been doing a lot of thinking. My uncle definitely snapped it into focus. What, he's 72 years old, what's he got? A [expletive-expletive] house in Belleville and a bunch of legal bills would make you gargle Drano if you had them.

"I've analyzed it. Two endings for a guy like me, high-profile guy: dead or in the can, big percent of the time. Even with all this terrorism [expletive], the government has resources up the [expletive]. As for my own legal bills ... "

Before the session ends, Tony confides a plan to Melfi to promote his nephew, Christo-pher, and use him as both a conduit of control and a buffer to keep himself one step removed from direct involvement in any crime.

"He's gotten his act together, that kid. And over the last couple of months, I've started the process of bonding him to me inseparably," Tony says.

"Anthony, why are you telling me all this?" Melfi asks.

"I don't know," Tony replies.

What Tony also doesn't know is that Christopher is shooting heroin, injecting himself between his toes to hide the needle marks of daily use. And what neither Tony nor Christopher knows is that the new best friend of Christopher's significant other, Adriana, is an undercover FBI agent.

Good luck, Tony, with your fabulous secret plan to beat the system and retire fat and happy in Florida on your own time-table.

Everything counts

Of course, The Sopranos is not only about the system and what it does to the middle-aged American male. If it was, it might be too depressing to bear, instead of such a darkly comic delight.

It's about many things: family, marriage, sex, power, social class, ethnicity, drugs, law enforcement, higher education and exotic dancing, to name a few. And beyond the themes themselves is the care taken in writing and producing the show; almost every moment counts, from the second you see Tony stumbling down the driveway in his bathrobe looking like a man with at least two worlds of misery on his shoulders.

In the scene that finds Carmela interrupting Tony's television viewing, it isn't just that he's watching TV, but what he's watching. Tony sits back in his recliner watching Dean Martin, who is playing a cowboy who is lying back against his saddle in almost the identical position. Martin is singing about how he "longs to be with my three good companions -- just my rifle, my pony and me."

Last year, it was Tony, the gangster, finding pleasure in watching gangster films late at night. This year, it's Tony, the aging outlaw, watching Holly-wood westerns with plastic cowboys and outlaws, hoping just to find a little peace beside the campfire.

Season premiere

What: The Sopranos

Where: HBO

When: Tonight at 9

In brief: The Sopranos is back, and more than worth the wait.

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