Putting 'The Sopranos' on the couch
Psychiatrist digs into psyches in new book
(CNN) -- Tony Soprano cheats on his wife, runs several shady businesses and has little compunction about offing competitors.
It's obvious the Mafia boss on HBO's "The Sopranos" has a few issues.
But it's those issues that make Tony (played by James Gandolfini) such a complex, fascinating character, and "The Sopranos" such compelling television, notes Dr. Glen O. Gabbard, a professor of psychiatry at Baylor University and author of "The Psychology of the Sopranos" (Basic Books).
After all, Tony isn't some hoodlum who goes about his godfather-ness mindlessly. He's seeing a therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and trying to get a handle on what's going on inside his head.
It's Tony's relationship with Dr. Melfi that drew Gabbard into the show, he says. Gabbard, also author of "Psychiatry and the Cinema" -- a study of how the movies have viewed psychiatrists -- had seen all too many movies and television shows that misrepresented the therapy process, with doctors going to bed with their patients or acting in an unprofessional manner. Most on-screen depictions of therapy (think of Ingrid Bergman in "Spellbound," for example), he says, were completely unrelated to actual psychiatric practice.
So when "The Sopranos" debuted in 1999, Gabbard was skeptical. "I thought, 'Oh boy, here we go again,' " he recalls. "Another beautiful psychiatrist going to bed with her patient, disgracing the profession."
But the first episode made him a believer. First he was impressed by Melfi's competence; then he "jumped with joy" when Tony attempted to kiss her and she rebuffed his advances.
"So I got sucked in by the most realistic representation of psychotherapy ever seen on TV or in the movies," he says.
Melfi is actually a flawed human being, which says something about how therapists are usually portrayed. She makes mistakes. She sees her own therapist. And "she does a fairly decent job," says Gabbard.
Gabbard was invited to write about the show by the online magazine Slate, which wanted a week-by-week analysis on how Tony's analysis was going. Gabbard suggested getting other therapists involved, and soon their discussion was attracting thousands of readers.
Much of the discussion has revolved around Tony himself. Professionals debate whether he's beyond help or simply a troubled man trying to tame his demons, if not exactly succeeding. Gabbard firmly believes Tony belongs in the latter camp.
"It's abundantly clear he's capable of loyalty and of loving attachment. He loves his kids and his mobster family," he says. "He is tormented by pangs of conscience. He is a thug, he's racist, and he's very capable of being violent -- but most of his violence is dictated by a moral code."
On the other hand, Tony's late mother Livia and sister Janice are bitter figures out of a Greek tragedy. Livia's abuse contributed to Tony's anxieties and mood swings; in a famed series scene, she even ordered a hit on him, her own son.
Janice, a professional victim, has searched endlessly for spiritual and loving support but is incapable of attachment. She also has a nasty temper, having killed her brutal lover Richie Aprile after he hit her.
But nobody in "The Sopranos" is perfect -- whether perfectly good or perfectly evil, observes Gabbard.
"Several characters are more evil than Tony. It's a way the writers keep us off balance," he says. "[And] the writers have created complex characters. Everyone has one type of conflict or another."
'There's no stigmata anymore'
It's not just the mobsters. The show has featured an ethically slippery priest, imperfect cops, and even sharkish Hollywood types who befriend screenwriting hopeful Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli).
"I don't think anyone is a pure two-dimensional character," says Gabbard. "Even Carmela [Soprano, Tony's wife, played by Edie Falco] is seen as not just a victim. She's an enabler who can use mob tactics," as when she pressures the professor sister of a neighbor to write a letter of recommendation for Meadow, Carmela and Tony's daughter.
David Chase, who created "The Sopranos," has made no secret of his own therapy, and some of Gabbard's colleagues have credited the show with encouraging more adult males to pursue analysis. The program even shows its hardened mobsters trying to understand Tony's concerns that he's somehow less of a man for seeing a therapist.
"I was seeing a therapist myself about a year ago," Paulie Walnuts tells Tony on one show. "I had some issues."
"What comes to mind is when a mob boss tells Tony, 'There's no stigmata [sic] anymore,' " says Gabbard. "Even the writers deal with it."
If there's an irony to "The Sopranos," a show that seems so rich and realistic, it's that one of its central conceits -- Tony's analysis -- is so unlikely, says Gabbard. In real life, would such brutal and frightening characters be so introspective?
That's just part of its storytelling charm, says Gabbard.
"It says something about what the audience wants to see -- that a mobster is really a pussycat," he says. "It makes us less afraid of the bogeyman."
HBO, like CNN.com, is a unit of AOL Time Warner.
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