A Hit Is a Hit

Well, we’ve had a lot of heavy, serious crap going down lately on this blog, so how about lightening it up. Let’s switch from the cut-throat world of D.C. politics to the much more transparent world of, The Mafia.

I’ve been embracing my inner TV nerd of late by reading yet another critic’s book by David Bianculli. He’s charting the evolution of scripted TV shows in 18 different genres. Of course, he’s a big fan of The Sopranos.

What a coincidence. So am I.

So here are my top 10 favorite episodes from that landmark series, The Sopranos. As they say, “Come for the whackings, stay for the psychiatry.”

If you haven’t yet seen the series, be warned that spoilers abound.

10. “Made in America” (Season 6, episode 21)

Possibly the most infamous of all Sopranos episodes, it’s still being cussed and discussed to this day.

Overall, the episode isn’t particularly dramatic in the wake of the blood bath that occurred in the series’ penultimate outing, “The Blue Comet.” The whacking of Phil Leotardo is far less anti-climactic than other whackings that appear in this list.

What makes this series finale so memorable is the final seconds. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his family are sitting in a restaurant, eating onion rings and listening to “Don’t Stop Believing,” on the tabletop jukebox. A couple of suspicious characters come in.

Then… Cut to black!

What did the black screen of death mean? Many passionate fans insist that it represents Tony’s death. Other equally passionate fans insist that it just means the story ends and that life goes on in the Sopranos universe. Series creator David Chase has been adamant that we will never know, for he will remain as silent as a whacked rat on the subject.

9. “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” (Season One, Episode 13)

The central conflict of The Sopranos in its first two seasons is the battle of Tony with his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand.) This season finale best illustrates the problem. After Livia nearly burns her house down while cooking mushrooms, Tony puts her in a retirement home. Livia resents him for this, so she colludes with Uncle Junior to have her own son killed.

Tony catches on to the plot and foils it. Tony whacks Junior’s number one hetman, but Junior escapes mob justice by landing in jail, courtesy of the FBI.

Tony pays Livia a visit in her nursing home and screams at her, “I try to do right by you and you try to have me whacked!?”

All of Tony’s issues come boiling out as he bellows at the prone form of Livia on a hospital gurney. The angry, wounded little boy is clearly visible beneath the hulking form. But Tony can’t do anything to his mother as she smiles underneath her mask and is wheeled away.

8. “Whoever Did This” (Season Four, Episode Nine)

Of all the murders committed on this series, this one seems to be referenced the most by fans. Was it because Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), sociopath and misogynist that he was, also had a charming side? Was it because of the ultra brutal nature of his demise in his own kitchen, with Tony’s big hands wrapped around his neck after a fierce fight? Was it the toupee? Who knows. All we know is that Ralph was killed and buried in three separate places and no one cared.

7. “Members Only” (Season Six, Episode One)

Most of this episode concerns the fate of a small player in Tony’s organization at the hands of the FBI. However, the last moments of the episode serve as a game changer.

Tony is cooking pasta for Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) in his kitchen. Junior, who now suffers from advancing Alzheimer’s, thinks Tony is a long dead enemy and shoots him in the stomach.

This episode came along after rival series such as Lost and 24 had raised the bar, making it acceptable to kill off main characters. Fans went crazy on the internet. Would the writers actually let Tony bleed out on Junior’s kitchen floor, thereby rebranding the show as, “The Further Adventures of Christopha and Vito?”

OF COURSE NOT! They still had 20 episodes left to go before the black screen and the late, great James Gandolfini was still an Emmy magnet.

6. “Funhouse” (Season Two, Episode 13)

Speaking of the death of major characters, this episode featured the first. Sal ‘Big Pussy’ Bompensiero (Vincent Pastore) had committed the ultimate breach of the mafia code by turning rat for the FBI. Tony learned about it and thus, Tony along with his two trusted sidekicks Paulie and Sylvio, took Pussy for one last cruise on Tony’s boat. Of all the murders Tony committed, this one had the biggest personal impact on him, as Pussy was one of his mentors.

The other major aspect of this episode were the dream sequences. The show had flirted with them before, but this was the first time (and not the last) that Chase and his cohorts used Tony’s dreams as a means to advance the plot.

5. “White Caps” (Season 4, Episode 13)

Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) is mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it anymore!

She’s tolerated Tony’s infidelity for years, but when one of his mistresses calls her on the telephone and taunts her over their affair, she explodes and kicks Tony out of the house in a hailstorm of golf balls.

There’s a B-Plot involving Tony’s cold war with a shark lawyer in which we learn that Tony knows how to resolve conflict without violence. There’s also a C-plot involving Johnny Sack and Little Carmine, but it is forgettable in the wake of the nuclear explosion that occurs between Tony and Carmela as their marriage is finally revealed for the crumbling façade that it truly is.

Does Carmela divorce Tony? Hell no! After a season of separation, she makes her peace with her life and her true nature and goes back to him.

4. “Employee of the Month” (Season three, Episode Four)

Tony’s therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) takes center stage in this one. Over the course of the show’s 86 episodes, we saw a lot of violence. But nothing was quite as shocking or brutal as Melfi’s rape in a parking garage.

One of the major themes of The Sopranos is that humans, by in large, are irredeemable creatures incapable of change. But Melfi defies this existential view when she refuses to tell Tony about the rape. She takes the high road instead. Rather than unleashing Tony as the instrument of her righteous vengeance, she handles it by suffering in silence.

3. “Pine Barrens” (Season Three, Episode 11)

The Sopranos wasn’t just all about the drama. It could be hilarious, too. This is the best example.

Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) go to pick up a collection from one of Tony’s Russian contacts. How they bungle the job and end up spending a freezing night in the Jersey woods is something you have to see to believe.

This wasn’t a Tonycentric episode. Gandolfini was surrounded by a superb cast that often carried the action to great effect. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and served as one of several plots that drove fans to distraction because it was forever left unresolved.

2. “Long Term Parking” (Season Five, Episode 12)

Poor, poor Adriana (Drea de Matteo.) She didn’t mean to get nabbed by the FBI. She didn’t want to become an informant against Christopher. She never, ever should’ve admitted it to him. She winds up buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Jersey woods, while Christopher once again falls off the wagon.

This is a wonderful, yet heartbreaking episode from start to finish. It is notable because of the different approaches that the characters take when dispensing with a troublesome FBI rat. Big Pussy dies under a cloud of sorrow while he and his comrades do tequila shots on Tony’s boat with Sinatra crooning in the background. Adriana dies crawling on her hands and knees, begging for her life as Sylvio calls her a “cunt,” and puts three bullets in her back.

1. “College” (Season One, Episode 5)

The Sopranos was noteworthy for its serialized storylines, yet this is what producers call, a bottle episode. That means that all events are self-contained and don’t require having viewed the shows that come either before or after.

Tony is taking his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) on a trip to visit several college campuses. While doing so, Tony spots a rat who is responsible for the incarceration of several members of his crew. Much of the episode is a cat-and-mouse game between Tony and the rat, all while Tony tries to keep his daughter out of the line of fire.

The B-plot involves Carmela as she deals with her sexual attraction to her priest. It sounds lame on paper, but Edie Falco makes it work.

Surprise, surprise. Tony catches and kills the rat. This was the first time (and not the last) that we see Tony commit cold-blooded murder on screen. The HBO executives were worried that seeing Tony kill a man would turn the audience against him. David Chase argued that Tony would have no credibility if he didn’t whack the rat in true mafia style. Of course, Chase won out and the audience was clearly behind Tony as he wrapped a jumper cable around the rat’s throat.

Honorable mentions:

“Boca,” “Knight in White Satin Armor,” “Marco Polo,” “University,” “The Test Dream,” “Mr. and Mrs. Sacrimoni Request,” “Full Leather Jacket,” “Another Toothpick,” “The Strong, Silent Type,” “Proshai, Livushka,” and “The Blue Comet.”

“Wa wa wa wa wa wa.”

I am an American first, a Republican second and a disabled person last. If you doubt these words, consider the fact that I went against the grain of my party by not voting for Donald Trump in the last election. I was certain that he would not be the best outcome for this country. Despite my misgivings, I love his cabinet picks.

Speaking of which, Betsy DeVos is officially our new Secretary of Education. This came after a nocturnal Democrat “talkathon” that added up to absolutely nothing but juicy fodder for headlines. At least Ted Cruz was gracious enough to recite Dr. Seuss back in the day.

Many of my disabled friends and colleagues have done a great deal of hand-wringing over the fact that DeVos seemed less than prepared when discussing IDEA (The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.) I understand the concern. I wish her staff had better prepared her for the adversarial process of a confirmation hearing.

That said, despite video clips taken out of context, DeVos has never demonstrated hostility toward IDEA or disabled students in general. DeVos is our new reality and going forward, we of the National Federation of the Blind had better spearhead the effort to meet with her and educate her.

If I looked at the picture through the lens of my disability, maybe I would have called for DeVos to be benched. As a Republican, on the other hand, maybe I would have blindly followed my party no matter who they chose.

As an American, I have to look at the bigger picture. That picture comes in the form of an article from the Washington Post published on October 28, 2015, in which the latest results of testing from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were revealed. They showed that 64 percent of fourth graders and 66 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in reading. It also concluded that 60 percent of fourth graders and 67 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in math.

Consider those figures for a moment. That is nearly 2/3 of our national student body. If those results were confined to a specific school with 2/3 of the students failing in basic reading and math, how long do you think the principal would last?

After seven years of a digression from results that were already tepid, it’s time for a change. Devos’s signature issue is school choice. Contrary to liberal talking points, school choice would benefit poor and minority students more than the rich, since affluent parents are already sending their children to private schools. If you doubt it, just ask many of the Democrat senators who oppose DeVos as being predisposed against public schools. Many of them, as well as their children, have bypassed public education for the private sector.

I don’t believe that school choice is the stake that will finally put this American vampire to rest all by itself. There are a lot of angles to consider. Standardized testing is proving to be a disaster. The teachers unions have entirely too much influence and that is not likely to change without someone in power to challenge them. Too many parents think their kids live in a snowflake culture and bristle whenever a teacher brings constructive criticism to bear on their child.

But if you believe as I do that America is the most powerful nation on Earth, then these NAEP results are nothing less than embarrassing. We’ve thrown money at the problem for decades and have seen too little improvement. It’s time for a new approach. I believe that Betsy DeVos represents an appropriate shake-up of the status quo. If I’m wrong, she can be removed and replaced, but how will our children get their formative years back if we continue to fail them?