I will never forget the opening scene of the very first episode of this magnificent show: Tony Soprano, the future boss of the North Jersey's underworld, sitting in the waiting room of a psychiatrist office, looking curiously at a statue of a naked woman. Dr Melfi opens the door and asks: "Mr Soprano?". Tony nods, walks into her office, has a seat, looks around the office and doesn't utter a single word, seemingly uncomfortable. He looks like he has no clue of what to say. He doesn't even seem to know why on earth he's there. After a while, he begins to tell the story of two ducks from Canada that migrated to New Jersey and made their home in the pool of the Soprano home. They soon mated and had several ducklings. Tony remembers the joy it was to have those ducks in his pool. They stayed there until the young were able to fly. And one day, while Tony was grilling food for his own children, the ducks suddenly flew away. This sad sight caused Tony to have a panic attack and pass out. "At first, it felt like ginger ale in my skull" - were his actual words.
Dr Melfi is curious about why these ducks seem to mean so much to Tony. He talks about the sorrow of watching them leave and begins to cry. Dr Melfi reflects on what she just heard, offers him a tissue, puts it together and deduces that when the ducks had babies in his pool, they became family to Tony. This is quite a breakthrough. Tony Soprano's greatest fear is that one day he might lose his family and end up being alone and isolated.
Although highly confused in the beginning of his journey, Tony has high hopes of finding a remedy to his panic attacks and his passing out. Yet, deep down inside, he knows his therapy goals are not to experience a change in lifestyle, but quite simply to ease the pain and guilt that overwhelm him. Every week, for an hour, he will seat there, in front of a therapist who will not call a spade a spade and who will insist that Tony's problem is a medical one. The psycho-nonsense offered by Dr Melfi is hardly a real cure. Therapy will lead to more therapy. Prozac will lead to more prozac. Yet it all seems very clear that Tony's life needs much more than psychotherapy, it needs, first and foremost, a judgement of what is right and what is clearly wrong; it needs confessing what he simply can not confess. In journeying through Tony's painful experiences, Dr Melfi can not offer him a true story of hope. She can not judge. She obviously knows too well what his patient's problem is. Instead, she choses to sit, diagnose and prescribe. "Are you still taking the lithium?" she asks. And Tony replies: "Lithium, prozac... When is this gonna end?"
Tony's main problem is not the FBI, or the rival mob families or the betrayal of a lifetime friend. His life tormenting arch-enemy is his own mother, Livia Soprano. In a show full of monsters, she is the biggest one. Livia Soprano is a woman incapable of experiencing love or joy. This neurotic, bitter, manipulative, domineering, overbearing, larger-than-life woman is the real boss, and she continues to run the show even when she's hidden away at the Green Grove retirement community. "I don't know, Im just a babbling idiot" - she says to her brother-in-law, Tony's uncle Junior, New Jersey's acting boss, who would not even dare to make any important decisions without Livia's consent. She sentences someone to death by simply shrugging her shoulders. Livia Soprano haunts almost all of Tony's sessions with Dr Melfi. He squirms at the mention of her name. His deepest desire is to feel loved and nurtured by his own mother, while she is constantly obsessed with infanticide and young mothers throwing their babies off the top of skyscrapers: "Babies are just like animals, they're no different from dogs" - she likes to repeat. This is a woman who wore her husband (Tony's father) down to a little nub, and he was one of the toughest guys in his neighbourhood. Tony can't even remember a single joyful experience with his mother. This is a woman who lives a life devoid of joy, love and friendship.
I have often caught myself thinking about why I love "The Sopranos" so much. This is a show about gangsters, but also about family relationships, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, God, faith, fear, loathing, lying, disgust, violence, joy, sorrow, depression, murder, infanticide, you name it. "The Sopranos" sheds light into very dark areas and it directs attention to the flawed state of men. You may not completely identify with most of the characters, but you know that what some of them do or say strikes deep into your heart and what or who you are. This show somehow shapes the way you view the world, or at least changes it. It paints an accurate picture of the reality and at the same time it destroys the illusion of our security and well being, and exposes the hypocrisy and vanity of men living in a certain place at a certain time. There are many gutwrenching scenes in this show which don't have to be explained at all. Some of them are really horrific, yet you always come back for more.
Like many, many people who seem to be in awe of this show, I love this murderous, lying, adulterous boss simply because he is real, raw, barenakedly exposed. Tony's a mobster, but he's a likeable guy. He has this raw magnetism, he's bigger than life. And I guess I, like many other people, I'm in awe of powerful men. No matter where their power may spring from. Just like Dr Melfi, who feels attracted to him like a moth to a flame. He kills people, cheats on his wife, has a terrible temper, consorts with strippers, worries about everything under the sun, and he feels really bad about the consequences of his acts. But Anthony Soprano is not a sociopath after all. In his own manner, he cares about his friends and family, and he suffers from self-doubt and panic attacks. He is human. He is a highly complex human being. He manages to remain a largely sympathetic figure because of his many personal foibles. He is a very successful guy at what he does, he's got the world by the you know what, and yet, he can't help feeling like a looser. He is a contradictory character, like so many other literature or movies characters are. His brutality is profoundingly disturbing, maybe even disgusting, and yet it erupts from what seems to be a normal social framework.
Like Tony and his ducks, we all have similar stories to tell and we are in constant search of somebody to tell them to. We all have our fears of maybe one day ending up alone and forgotten. And maybe that's the main reason why we all can't wait to see the next episode of the show. But just like Anthony Soprano, do most of us need a "professional" advice about painful personal childhood or adult experiences, or simply someone to talk to?
With a highly intelligent, extremely well-written story, sublime acting and excellent directing, this show simply represents the best that television has to offer. So far.