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Among the hubbub of excitement attendant upon the airing of the final episode of The Sopranos — the black-garbed mourning, the vexed questions about the final show’s last seconds, the online forum feeding frenzies, and the pundit throat-clearing — there was one element that received curiously little attention. The show’s penultimate episode brought to near-resolution one of the many themes and subplots that gripped the nation over the program’s nine years, 86 episodes, and (officially, anyway) six seasons, and the response was, well, baffling. Culturally speaking, that is.

This refers, of course, to the A. J. Issue. Readers will recall that Anthony junior was always a problem child. Throughout the years he went from lazy butterball to sullen back-talking teen to failed lover and stepfather to, finally, suicidal leftie protester with a special interest in the injustice of the war in Iraq. You could always rely on A.J. to do, say, or think the most selfish thing possible at any given moment. On popular Sopranos forums such as Television Without Pity, special hatred was reserved for this spoiled scion of hoodlums. It was Tony Soprano taking out a hit on Dr. Spock.

The Sopranos is a show whose fans pour over it like a fortuneteller over tealeaves, and no facial expression, cultural allusion, or throwaway remark goes unnoticed and subsequently analyzed ad infinitum. Not that A. J.’s boorish behavior was ever that subtle.

Tony talking

Nationwide A. J. hate reached its apotheosis in the next to last episode of The Sopranos, which aired on June 3. At one point Tony goes into A. J.’s bedroom, where he is lying in bed while his “just friends” girlfriend Rhiannon (Emily Wickersham) is doing a search about political matters on the computer. After kicking out Rhiannon, Tony reveals that “Uncle Bobby’s dead.” Instead of being willing to help his family in a life-or-death time of need, A. J. throws attitude. “This is really depressing to me,” he complains. “I was already having so much trouble maintaining.” This proves too much for Tony who abruptly drags the youth out of bed, wrecking a telephone and a CD player along the way, and throws him into the closet, where he leaves A. J. a quivering, weeping wreck, giving his son but a few minutes to get packed and prepared to leave.

Fans were ecstatic. The nation seemed to rise as one in joyous approval of Tony’s rage. Characteristic of most posters was the contributor who wrote, “Finally somebody had enough of that whiny piece of garbage! I got up and cheered when Tony dragged that punk across the floor and told him to pack a bag. DUDE, your whole damn family is under attack and your uncle just got killed and you’re worried about your depression levels? … Please don’t anyone ever suggest AJ could go into mob life. I would be surprised if this kid could survive anything.”

Tony kid

But a silent minority may have found this reaction rather extreme and wholly inconsistent with some earlier real world explosions of rage at spoiled youth and its parenting. Wasn’t it just two months earlier that the nation was up in arms over Alec Baldwin calling his daughter Ireland a “rude, thoughtless little pig”? The 30 Rock actor is engaged in a custody dispute with his ex-wife Kim Basinger, and was angry at his daughter for missing one of their regularly schedule cross-country telephone conversations. Telling Ireland in a phone message that she doesn’t have “the brains or the decency as a human,” he warns her that he is going to fly to the west coast and “straighten” her out. Baldwin’s words, leaked to the Internet gossip site The TMZ , inspired raw national disapproval of the actor for what TMZ among many others sarcastically called “incredible parenting skills.” Yet little Ireland’s iPods and Uggs didn’t go flying across the room as her father grabbed her by the ponytail and thrashed her. In fact, we don’t know what he did, if anything.

In addition, moralists have no problem rooting for the public humiliation of other wild children of the media. When Lindsay Lohan started pulling a Monroe on the set of Georgia Rule last summer, producer James G. Robinson sent her an excoriating letter that somehow found its way to the media. In part, Robinson, head of Morgan Creek, wrote in the letter, printed in full on The Smoking Gun, that Lohan’s behavior was “discourteous, irresponsible and unprofessional,” and that Lohan “acted like a spoiled child” and “alienated many of your co-workers and endangered the quality” of the film. Again, the public warmed to the public spanking the 70-year-old executive administered to the then-20-year-old starlet.

Tony angry

OK, so what’s the difference? Why does Tony Soprano, a fictional gangster who has killed numerous characters over the years, get a pass, while Baldwin, an esteemed actor going through an uncomfortably public brawl with an ex-wife, is excoriated by pundits and platitudinists who in reality know little about the nature of his marriage, his parenting, or his problems?

Well, for one thing, viewers feel that they “know” Tony and A. J. and the others whom they touch. This is testimony to Sopranos creator David Chase and the various writers he has employed over the years (Chase and Matthew Weiner wrote the A. J. episode), who created viewer intimacy with characters unique in its intensity. The Sopranos, often acting as a sort of thermometer inserted into the body politic, captured the ambivalence that America may feel about its offspring. A rooting interest in A. J.’s comeuppance not only held the show together, among many other threads, but tapped into otherwise unbidden parental frustrations. (Also, another factor that makes a difference is that Ireland is a female, and America seems to recoil, publicly anyway, from daughter mistreatment of any kind.)

Tony closet

In The Sopranos, television did what television does best (when allowed to). It created a whole world around a group of fictional characters whose problems and reactions to them were achingly real and clumsy. Though set in the tense morally compromised world of crime, The Sopranos dealt with issues that many modern American families face, from spoiled children to marital woes to income decreases to therapeutic intervention. In fact, the Sopranos weren’t all that different in spirit from the Loud family, subject of a 1973 reality television series on PBS. What the Louds, not to mention the Bunkers, were to 1970s America, the Sopranos were to Americans at the turn of a dire century. It will be interesting to see what, if any, television show in the future captures the hours and the times with the same intensity and intimacy.

By the way, don’t worry about any real lasting harm to A. J. from Tony’s hands-on perorations. When last seen, A. J. was in the movie business, driving too fast through the Jersey streets in his new BMW and picking up his high school aged fashion model girlfriend.

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