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'The Sopranos' at 20: Melfi, Carmela, Livia — the women of HBO's mobster epic made it magic

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

A mobster walks into a psychiatrist's office.

As many have observed over the years, the basic conceit of "The Sopranos" sounds like a setup for one of those jokes no one tells anymore. But 20 years later, it remains the most famous narrative construct in television, with a punchline that still tests the limits of critical hyperbole.

A mobster walks into a psychiatrist's office and proves that television can do whatever film can do, possibly better. A mobster walks into a psychiatrist's office and turns HBO, a premium channel then best known for old movies, into an industry trendsetter. A mobster walks into a psychiatrist's office and births an era of antiheroes that will launch all manner of new stories, careers, networks, entire new entertainment platforms. A mobster walks into a psychiatrist's office and creates a legend.

The legend of Tony Soprano, and the men who made him -- creator David Chase and actor James Gandolfini -- has been parsed as reverently as "Ulysses" and credited with single-handedly elevating the medium previously known as the boob tube and sending it on its current march to world domination.

As with most legends, time blurs the facts in favor of hyperbole. Those who say with certainty that "The Sopranos" is the "best" or "most significant" show ever clearly don't watch a lot of television. Many other series, before and after "The Sopranos," contributed to the art form's current cultural ascendancy, just as earlier series, including "The Larry Sanders Show," "Oz" and "Sex and the City," had already put HBO on the map as a purveyor of a new kind of television.

What often gets overlooked, even by the ecstatic and exacting fans, however, is that there was a psychiatrist in that office, and that psychiatrist was a woman. The show's first episode was a bit more broad-humored than what followed (though "The Sopranos" was often very funny) and Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco, could easily have been just part of the joke -- a made guy not only seeing a shrink, but a shrink who's a girl.

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But while the series made much of Tony's women issues -- his basilisk mother, his priest-infatuated wife, his mercurial mistress(es), his crazy sister, his frank if overly entitled daughter -- none of it is a joke.

Chase has said, most recently in "The Soprano Sessions" by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, that what drew him to making "The Sopranos" was the idea of creating a family mob show, one that would appeal to women as much as men.

Not surprisingly, then, it was the women who made "The Sopranos" magic.

The caliber of performances certainly did not hurt -- Bracco, Edie Falco as wife Carmela, Aida Turturro as sister Janice, Annabella Sciorra as the craziest of the mistresses Gloria, and the magnificent Nancy Mar-chand as "Anthony's" mother, Livia, in a swan song for the ages.

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