Our individual devil enjoys violence and dark deeds. 

Confessions of a "Sopranos" Addict

Hi, I'm Keith and I used to be a "Sopranos" addict. It was a brief and intense affair. I saw the last shows of one season, a few reruns and some of the next season. I was hooked on the complex character of Tony Soprano. He was appealing in an odd way. He isn't a hero or a physical hunk or a total villain. He's a multidimensional character. Sometimes he shows feelings, sensitivity and vulnerability. Other times, he's violently brutal, racist, sexist and manipulative. Tony is human rather than a stereotype. The show was more reality TV than the "Survivor" and its cousins. As a guy myself, I could sometimes relate to Tony's issues.

The next season woke me up to reality. The focus on violence toward women was too much. It could be the reality of how these guys relate and react toward women, but I don't gain anything by watching it. In fact, I realized how insidious this voyeurism into the dark side of life is. I can comfortably watch and absorb the most hideous acts while being numbed into complacency. I forgive Tony for murdering someone in the line of business because he has a human side that does care about his family, etc. I rationalize the evil that Tony does as a result of the flawed human that he is. Evil deeds become separate from the person and evil is somehow justified in the process.

At first, I enjoyed the program for providing this awareness of the complexity of evil. However, I came to realize that the repeated exposure to this darkness only feeds my own personal dark side. You might recall in the Bible that God told Job that he created both a personal devil and a collective devil. I can believe that I am a good person, but that doesn't exclude me from having a personal devil to deal with. Our individual devil enjoys violence and dark deeds. Hence the feeling of addiction and the great mass appeal that the show has. We do have a fascination for the dark side of life. We can benefit by an awareness of the many faces of evil but be careful we don't indulge our fascination too much.

Evil would prefer that we don't even notice what it is, such as in entertainment. How about the Romans watching lions kill slaves in the Coliseum. Did they realize their participation in fostering evil as entertainment? If this same spectacle were televised today, wouldn't many people watch it? Two thousand years later and we are still blind to the subtle influence that the dark side has over our lives. All the better for it to control us behind our backs. We may be conscious of overt evil on a large scale, as is the case with Hitler and the Holocaust. It is the subtler everyday forms that tend to bypass our notice.

I am not a religious fundamentalist who believes that watching "The Sopranos" will corrupt your soul. I am a mental health professional who is looking at this issue psychologically and spiritually. I have felt the pull of the show, and we can all see how popular it is by how much press it gets. My comments are intended to provoke your thoughts on what you are watching and indulging in. People take bus tours of Sopranos homes and even try to imitate their lifestyle. The reality is that Tony is more villain than hero. What does that say about our cultural values when we exalt someone whose wealth was gained by killing, robbing and exploiting people? Shouldn't we aspire toward the qualities of compassion and courage rather than greed and deception as a measure of success?

"The Sopranos'" greatest benefit could be to spark a discussion of our values and ethics. What have each of us agreed to be a part of, in exchange for money, status, power or acceptance? Tony's wife asks a girlfriend that very question. They begin to examine their life choices and then switch their focus to Hilary Clinton as another woman who had made similar tradeoffs in exchange for a sense of security. They accept themselves as status quo and dismiss further exploration. How many of us have made the same choice?

I enjoy intelligent television programs and "The Sopranos" fits this category of quality. But its use of violence negates the benefits it could reap. There are plenty of venues to view mindless violence, and I don't agree with others who argue that "The Sopranos" is different because its violence is meaningful. Did Alfred Hitchcock ever graphically depict violence for us to get his point? My favorite "Soprano" episodes involved very little violence. For example, the one in which a series of Tony's dreams lead him to realize his best friend, Pussy, was ratting him out to the police. This episode involved the universal themes of betrayal and guilt that we can all relate to. I did not need to see the bullets riddling Pussy's body to appreciate Tony's conflicting emotions regarding killing his best friend.

I would like to continue with the program to see if Tony progresses in therapy and evolves into a better person. But the payoff for watching isn't worth the price of the accumulated darkness. For now, I'll stay in recovery and continue being abstinent from the "Sopranos" addiction. S

Keith Elliott LCSW is a mental-health clinician in private practice in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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