Introducing "The Sopranos" to the Italians has not been as easy as I first thought. I thought they would find these cappocolo-munching gangsters, with their overbearing mothers and archaic Italian expressions entertaining. Instead, it generates confused debate over an aperativo or at a dinner party. As an anthropological experiment it hasn't produced the results I first imagined.
With that in mind, I wrote this article for today's Media Guardian, summing up why the Italians just don't get the Sopranos. Whadayagonnado?
Monday July 23, 2007
Why The Sopranos flopped in Italy
A few times an hour, the No 8 tram rolls into Rome's historic centre bearing the 10ft-tall likeness of four mobsters from New Jersey: mafia boss Tony Soprano and his crew.
Beginning this month, Italians are getting their second dose of The Sopranos, accompanied this time by a massive promotional blitz from the broadcaster, Cult, a Fox cable channel on Rupert Murdoch's fast-growing satellite TV service Sky Italia.
Six years ago, The Sopranos flopped in Italy, which was unexpected in a country where critically acclaimed American TV imports - and Scorsese and Coppola gangster flicks - are popular. The lacklustre ratings were blamed on everything from a poor time slot - Silvio Berlusconi's Canale 5 ran The Sopranos on Saturday nights after 11 - to the idea that Italians have had their fill of overbearing families.
"In Italy we have this concept of familismo amorale, where the family supersedes all. It's evident everywhere, in the schools, in government, finding a job. Italy's problems stem from the family. To see this on TV, for the average Italian, it is just not very exciting," says Luca Tummolini, a researcher at Italy's National Research Council.
The language could be a problem too. Tony and his crew, whose forebears hail from outside Naples, use a New Jersey slang to describe the women and lunch meats in their lives that would make most Italians wince. For instance, capocollo Italian ham is called gabbogol, while gumar, the label the American mob use for mistress, would confound even the most prolific womaniser in Italy. "Never heard of it," Italian TV critic Italo Moscati says, confirming a common response. "It's a forgotten language they speak. Their view of Italy and Italian culture is a nostalgic one, the Italy of the 30s and 40s, the land of their grandparents," he says.
It is not so much an antiquated view but an American approximation of Italian culture that has proved to be a turn-off for Italian viewers. "Italians see in The Sopranos 'lo zio d'America'," Moscati says, referring to the cliched Italian immigrant who finds a better life in America, only to return home for visits, pockets bulging with cash, to find an alien country and distant relations.
Of course, it is this blind pride in their Italian roots that makes Tony Soprano and his captains such flawed, but classic, TV characters. What second- or third-generation American isn't guilty of romanticising his ties to a nonexistent "old country"?
As David Remnick recently wrote in the New Yorker, "The Sopranos are a recognisable reflection of all of us," a statement most Italians would find as scandalous as gabbagol
If Italians are to develop a taste for The Sopranos, now is the time. Cult channel is showing The Sopranos and another critically acclaimed series, Six Feet Under, back-to-back. The combination could work. As Tummolini says of Six Feet Under: "A family show about death, a topic that is so taboo in Italy, now that's interesting".