- The Sopranos: Born under a Bad Sign by Franco Ricci
The Sopranos: Born under a Bad Sign is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on mafia studies in particular and television studies more broadly. Published seven years after the series’s finale and one year following the sudden death of James Gandolfini, Franco Ricci’s book and Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad are the most important critical takes on the series since the late 2000s. [End Page 491]
The interesting introduction, “Coming Heavy: Revisiting, Rereading, Rethinking The Sopranos,” lays out the author’s interest in exploring how identity works in the series and situates The Sopranos in the larger discourse of television studies. In the following chapters, Ricci conducts intriguing readings around questions of ethnic identity, gender relations with a particular eye toward the construction and fragility of masculinity, word and image studies, and metatextual references. A key concern and recurrent theme of the book is that of divided or “schizophrenic” identities. This is especially the case with Tony, as Ricci makes clear in chapter four, “Two Tonys: Drawing Conclusions from Mediated Mob Images.” Instability, however, is also a key trait, as Ricci demonstrates, of several other characters, such as Christopher Moltissanti, Uncle Junior, Carmela Soprano, and even Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who struggles with her attachment to someone she frequently considers to be an abhorrent human being.
In Ricci’s analysis, characters are looking for something more in their lives, and not only because they are ill at ease with their involvement with the mafia. Indeed, Ricci makes a strong case that the anxieties experienced by members of Tony’s mafia and biological families help us think about a widespread sense of unease regarding identity, superficiality, and sense of place in our increasingly consumer- and media-driven society. Ricci has a keen eye for identifying mise en abyme in the series and discusses throughout the book how the anxieties, fears, rivalries, and passions of characters are externalized in the mise en scène. Thus, space takes on an important role in the series and is a character that can be read and interpreted, which is a key theme in chapter five, “An Appendix of Verbal Bits and Visual Bytes,” which offers a comprehensive examination of the paintings, statues, posters, photographs, verbal subtexts, signs, billboards, newspapers, books, and television episodes in the series.
What’s more, Ricci knows the series impeccably well, and his careful and astute analyses of multiple episodes are clear and persuasive. Sopranos buffs will appreciate analyses focusing both on more central characters (Tony, Carmela, Meadow, A.J., Dr. Melfi, and Christopher) and also more ancillary characters such as Paulie Walnuts, Vito, Livia Soprano, Uncle Junior, Janice, Big Pussy, Silvio Dante, Adriana, and Artie. Tony, however, is the feature of the book, which is no surprise to the initiated fan. In several of the book’s chapters, Ricci reads Tony’s crises of identification through multiple lenses (a psychoanalytic one foremost among them) and proposes insightful interpretations regarding Tony’s relationships with his friends and family. Of particular interest is the analysis of Tony’s relationship with women and the feminine, which manifests itself through a series of neuroses and panic attacks. Also, Ricci’s reading of ethnicity and The Sopranos’s place within contemporary debates around censorship, identity, and class in chapter two, “When I Grow Up I Want [End Page 492] to Be an American,” is compelling. The Sopranos: Born under a Bad Sign will find a wide readership among fans of the series as well as students and scholars working and/or teaching on quality television and onscreen representations of the Italian-American mafia.