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The Sopranos: A Hit is a Hit (Review)

A Hit is a Hit works a lot better than Boca, despite the fact that it’s structurally quite similar. It introduces a bunch of new characters and concepts to the series which don’t really extend beyond the episode in question. Massive G never appears again, and the pending lawsuit he threatens is never discussed in any later episode. It’s a light stand-alone tale coming towards the end of a season which has dedicated so much time and effort to building a full-formed world.

However, A Hit is a Hit doesn’t feel completely disposable. Part of that is down to the wonderful B-plot in which Tony finds himself struggling for acceptance among more the more reputable members of his neighbourhood, but it’s also down to the fact that the main plot feels like develops the themes of The Sopranos a lot better than Boca did, and that Christopher’s character arc feels like a logical progression rather than simply “an issue of the week.”

Ain't that a shot in the head?

Ain’t that a shot in the head?

There is still a bit of unease around A Hit is a Hit. There’s a sense that the writers aren’t quite as familiar with the African-American community as they are with the Italian-American subculture the show regularly inhabits. There’s something very casual and organic about the way that The Sopranos plays with and subverts various expectations about Italian mobsters. The Sopranos seems to be very little worry about how the portrayal might be perceived.

Indeed, The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti even had a great deal of fun at the expense of Italian-American Anti-Defamation League criticisms of the show. David Chase and his fellow writers seemed to be having a laugh at the expense of those overly sensitive types who might take offence at the way in which members of the Italian-American community were portrayed. There was a refuge in the audacity of the portrayal, possibly mitigated by the fact that Melfi and her friends provided a balancing contrast to the criminal activities of the show’s leading characters.

Chris in a crisis... or should that be chrisis?

Chris in a crisis… or should that be chrisis?

However, A Hits is a Hit feels a little awkward when it comes to drawing in a supporting cast of African-American characters. Perhaps this is because debates about the portrayal of African-Americans in media tend to get a bit more charged; maybe it’s because these were supporting characters who would never be fully fleshed out into three-dimensional characters in their own terms; it’s possible that the producers and writers were worried that there wasn’t enough diversity in the  African-American cast to support being as playful with stereotypes.

As a result, the only developed African-American supporting character, Massive G, feels like his edges have been smoothed off to avoid providing offence. He has a college degree (in urban planning!), he’s smart and well-spoken. He runs rings around the regular cast, seemingly more on top of matters than any of the main characters. He doesn’t seem entirely real, especially when contrasted with the “warts and all” approach that The Sopranos takes to characterisation. Massive G feels like a television guest star on a show that normally finds a way to bring out the humanity in even its most minor characters.

Genius at work...

Genius at work…

Still, there’s some interesting ideas here. One of the recurring themes throughout the first season of The Sopranos has been the way that the mob relates to other ethnic groups in the melting pot that is New Jersey. Mostly that consists of Tony complaining about racism while being incredibly racist himself. So it’s interesting to see the difference between the way the Italian-American community has dealt with criminal stereotypes and the way that the African-American community has attempted to deal with that troublesome portrayal.

Again, this is an area where A Hit is a Hit lacks a bit of nuance and complexity. The show frequently makes jokes about how the regulars are clearly in love with The Godfather. It even comes up here while Tony is golfing, and in Nobody Knows Anything, we discover that Paulie’s car horn plays the movie’s theme. It’s a beautifully paradoxical relationship, because this adoration for The Godfather is frequently juxtaposed against accusations of stereotyping or racism.

Delivery...

Delivery…

There’s something deliciously ironic about listening to Melfi’s ex-husband complain about the negative stereotypes engendered by gangster films, while Tony and his friends practically revel in their movie references and shout-outs. According to Tim Adler’s Hollywood and the Mob, this has some precedent in reality:

Just as The Godfather proved a hit with audiences, so it influenced how the Mafia itself behaved. Former US attorney Rudolph Giuliani said that you could tell the difference between surveillance tapes recorded before and after the movie came out. Gangsters began talking like characters out of the movie. For example, Puzo invented the term ‘godfather’ for head of a crime family; it had never been used by the Mafia itself. But once The Godfather was a hit gangsters began calling each other ‘godfather’ and reviving moribund customs  such as kissing the don’s ring. Nino Rota’s theme music was played at the wedding of one Sicilian don’s daughter, while Joe Adonis’s son kept asking for it to be played again in a New York restaurant. A horse’s head was found in the car of three building contractors near Palermo. One Mafia soldier working for Gambino family crime boss John Gotti referred to his hitman as ‘my Luca Brasi.’ Another Gambino solider said he tried to go straight but went back into organised crime after watching The Godfather because it made him feel ‘terribly home-sick.’

Apparently many members of the mob would become fans of The Sopranos, frequently trying to recognise fictionalised stand-ins for gangsters and crooks.

Massive trouble...

Massive trouble…

It’s interesting to explore another community that has faced many of the same sorts of issues of representation. As Massive G explains at his very polite sit-down, the African-American community has also been subject to many stereotypical portrayals in media. “If you’ve read Chuck D’s book, you’d know that he advises that reparations be made by the Jewish studio moguls in Hollywood on account of the way black folk have been portrayed on film.”

Things get a bit thorny when Massive G starts talking about “reparations.” The word is frequently used in the context of race-relations to suggest financial restitution due to the descendent of freed slaves from the families that kept their ancestors in bondage. In 1999, the same year that A Hit is a Hit aired, the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission demanded the West pay $777 trillion to Africa within five years.

Has a nice ring to it...

Has a nice ring to it…

The issue is contentious, and A Hit is a Hit never really explores the idea particularly thoroughly. It’s clear that members of the African-American community were exploited by the establishment and by members of other ethnic groups. However, there’s also something very cynical about Massive G talking about reparations and worrying about the portrayal of black culture in cinema when he’s perfectly ready to exploit stereotypes in order to secure his brand and maintain his image. “I like any kinda music that turns sh!t green,” he explains to Adriana at one point, cementing the idea that it’s all a front.

In typical Sopranos fashion, there’s a wonderful sense of just how petty and circular all this is. When Massive G alludes to the history of exploitation of the African-American community, Hesh responds with by complaining about the oppression he has witnessed. “My people were the white man’s n—– when yours were still painting their faces and chasing zebras.” In a recurring theme throughout The Sopranos, individuals are able to dismiss or justify the hurt or suffering that other may have experienced by reference to their own circumstances.

Suit yourself...

Suit yourself…

It’s no surprise that Hesh meets Massive G’s threat of a lawsuit with the threat of a counter suit. It doesn’t matter that Hesh was involved in the exploitation of African-American artists, because Massive G has done his own exploiting – in the form of a sampling. It plays into the idea, reinforced throughout the show’s run, that all this posturing and posing is really just a front for what’s a pretty run-of-the-mill business. The mob is about money, and the lawyers are as credible a weapon as a gun.

That notion of the family business plays through the episode. I particularly like Tony’s instructions to Christopher about how to manage his money. You don’t just dump the money into brothels or gambling dens. You have to manage your fund. He suggests IPOs. “You gotta find some insider market trader sh!t here,” Tony offers, as the voice of experience in such matters. You don’t hide the money under the mattress. You make it work for you. (“Sometimes I think the only thing separating American business from the mobs is f&%@ing whacking somebody,” one of the guests at Melfi’s dinner party confesses.)

They're the number one delivery company in town... with a bullet...

They’re the number one delivery company in town… with a bullet…

Which is part of the reason that A Hit is a Hit works better than Boca, despite its problems. While Massive G isn’t developed as a character, and his world seems very superficial, he works well as a foil to Christopher. Christopher is trying to leverage his own experiences in the mob into a film career. So his frustration when he witnesses how skilfully Massive G has leveraged the stereotypical perception of the African-American subculture into fame and fortune feels organic.

“That guy’s a gangster?” he rages. “I’m a gangster!” Lamenting his low profile, Christopher explains, “Sopranos crew, it’s always secret this and omerta that!” You’d swear that being a gangster was a profession you’d want to keep quite about. Christopher’s ambitions were never quite in line with the expectations of a mobster. He doesn’t want money or power. He wants fame and glory. In a way, it’s a reflection of Tony’s frustration with his own life – the fact that he doesn’t have the perfect nostalgic family life that he was told to aspire towards.

Making sweet music...

Making sweet music…

I quite like Adreana’s suggestion of what fame might bring. It’s not even the monetary success or return on investment that Christopher seems to want. “Maybe Alec Baldwin would come to our house,” she suggests. While the notion of Christopher suddenly becoming a record producer for an episode feels a little too quick and easy, especially compared to the much longer arc concerning his cinematic ambitions, it fits what we know of him as a character. In particular, he sudden resentment of Adreana’s involvement is perfectly in keeping with Christopher’s selfishness.

The show got very lucky when it case Drea DeMatteo. DeMatteo took a supporting character and fleshed her out into a surprisingly well-formed member of the ensemble, going from a bit player in the pilot to one of the most memorable cast members. A Hit is a Hit is fascinating if only because it gives Adriana a bit of focus, and allows DeMatteo a chance to do some heavy-lifting, rather than simply supporting (the wonderful) Michael Imperioli. A Hit is a Hit allows Adriana to become more than just an extension of Christopher, fleshing her out into a character with her own needs and aspirations.

A package deal...

A package deal…

I also love that scene where the sound technician – the working stiff paid to help record the band’s music – weighs in with some advice about what they are doing wrong. It’s something as simple as basic song structure. Their songs lack choruses, which you’d imagine would be one of the core building blocks of a song. It sounds like Song Writing 101. The technician points out that it worked for the Beatles, prompting a typical tirade of cynical entitlement from a member of a generation with no real interest in learning from its elders. “The Beatles, the Beatles, the Beatles! It’s been forty f&@!in’ years now!”

The show’s subplot with Tony works a lot better, because it finds a way to make the privileged character that occasionally appear as part of Melfi’s subplot work better than they did in The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti. While there wasn’t anything inauthentic about those scenes of rich people talking in pseudo-intellectual terms about the themes of the show, they work a lot better when we get to see Tony interact with them.

Adrian! Adrian!

Adrian! Adrian!

I really like the one-degree-of-separation thing between Tony and Melfi, and in particular the sense that the distance between the pair is eroding. She has dinner on his street, and even sneaks a peak of his house from a bathroom window. Melfi would become a bit less interesting as a character in her own right as the show went on. Even now, towards the end of the season, she’s less of a character and more of a plot device. Moments like Melfi peering out of the window at Tony’s house help reinforce the idea that Melfi has her own agency and that she’s more than merely a sounding board for Tony’s inner monologues and rationalisations.

There’s also something quite interesting about the fascination that these upper-class individuals have in Tony, as if he were the subject of some academic survey. “What does that do to the property values, having a gangster living in the neighbourhood?” one wonders. Inviting Tony for a round of golf is just an excuse to sate that curiosity on “safe” ground. “Tony, let me ask you a question – and if I’m stepping on toes here, tell me – how real was The Godfather?” one asks. Later, the same character wonders, “You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but did you know John Gotti?”

Everybody dance now!

Everybody dance now!

There’s a reason that these people feel so comfortable talking a joking with murderer in the comfort of their fancy golf club. He’s a curiosity to them. The moral and ethical difficulties inherent in dealing with a gangster are removed from the equation. They can deal with the concept of “Tony the mob boss” in the abstract. When it comes to discussing the mob, the most visceral response Tony’s neighbour will acknowledge is a reaction to a Martin Scorsese film. “That scene where Pesci sticks the guy’s head in a vice, and then he pops his eye out? I thought I was gonna die!”

Tony kills and murders, but he kills and murders outside this fancy neighbourhood. The fact that they can exploit Tony’s insecurities by hinting at inviting him to join the club so he’ll tell them sensational stories suggests just how insulated they feel. That’s what makes the ending so beautiful, as Tony finds a way to assert his own control over the situation by reminding these upper-crust gentlemen just how vulnerable they are. Using nothing but some sand and a package, Tony terrifies his neighbour. That final lingering shot is absolutely wonderful.

A music-makin' partnership...

A music-makin’ partnership…

At the same time, Tony’s desire to fit in, and his own frustration when he realises how clearly he is being used, makes us feel sorry for the guy. That’s the wonderful thing about Gandolfini’s performance. The audience never forgets how scary Tony can be, but he remains curiously sympathetic. We can understand him, despite the extremes of his character flaws. Tony is very human, despite his violence and his lack of empathy. He’s self-absorbed, but his needs and wants are easy to comprehend.

A Hit is a Hit also develops Carmela a bit, building off her character arc earlier in the season and towards some later developments. While she struggled to justify her complicity in Tony’s criminal career, it’s very obvious that she’s worried about the family’s financial security. When Tony tells her that they have enough, she responds, “I know we got enough, but how much is enough?” Wondering what might happen if Tony should pass away, she’s not convinced by his blanket assurances. “You always say the same thing, that I’ll be taken care of… by who?”

The inside looking out...

The inside looking out…

These are nice moments which makes sense with what we know of Carmela so far. She is very good at feeling guilt and shame about the things her husband does to provide for her family, but she’s also prudent. For all her soul-searching in College, she was very quick to help Tony hide evidence in The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti. At the same time, there’s a sense of her own insecurity creeping in here. “A woman’s gotta keep her individuality,” she tells Meadow, later in the episode.

It’s been clear from the outset that Carmela is more prudent and practical than she’d like to believe. She feels shame about how Tony makes his money, but she’s shrewd enough to want to protect herself and her family. Like Tony, there’s a lot of self-deception going on here, as she tries to balance her idealistic difficulties with her more practical concerns. It’s amazing how well (and how quickly) The Sopranos developed this ensemble.

It's a wrap...

It’s a wrap…

A Hit is a Hit isn’t a monumentally strong episode. It is, however, a solid one. The season would come to pretty fantastic climax and while A Hit is a Hit doesn’t quite measure up to the strength of the three-part finalé, it’s still a well-made piece of television, and one that connects very well with the show’s core themes and ideas.

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