"Sopranos" Symposium Creates Mob Academia

From left, Tony Sirico, Steve Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastore, shown in this undated photo, star in the HBO drama series "The Sopranos." (AP Photo/HBO, Anthony Neste) AP/HBO

Tony Soprano, the TV mob boss who seemed to spend as much time with his psychotherapist as his consigliere, was no stranger to analysis.

But not this kind: "Body of Evidence: Tony Soprano's Corporeal Battle." "Episode Five, or When Does a Narrative Become What It Is?" "Carmela Soprano as Emma Bovary: European Culture, Taste, and Class in 'The Sopranos."'

Nearly a year after the smash series' finale left fans guessing what it all meant, dozens of scholars gathered at Fordham University Friday to parse what "The Sopranos" had to say about topics ranging from gender roles to the justice system, race relations to health care. The conference, which is open to the public, spans four days and 60 research presentations. It's expected to draw an audience of hundreds of researchers and fans.

Photos: Is There Life After The Sopranos?
It's tempting to wonder whether any phrase has been left unturned in discussions of the HBO hit, which ran from January 1999 until its famously oblique ending in June 2007. It inspired exhaustive media criticism and books on psychology, criminology, cooking, even waste management. It has cropped up in some college course catalogs, and Fordham hosted a 2002 panel discussion of the show's impact on television history.

But this weekend's symposium, which drew researchers from as far as Australia, appears to be the biggest academic airing of Sopranos-ophy yet.

"One of the deepest issues in the academic world is the relationship between fiction and reality," said Fordham communication and media studies chairman Paul Levinson, who organized the conference with colleagues at Fordham, Suffolk County Community College and Brunel University in London. As a fictional lens on the true-life phenomenon of organized crime, Levinson says, "'The Sopranos' typifies that fascinating intersection."

Photos: Sopranos' Swan Song
Indeed, the conference lineup included a New York criminal defense lawyer and two Mafia prosecutors from Palermo, Sicily, looking the show's engagement with legal issues.

Their session mingled with headier intellectual fare, such as discussions linking "The Sopranos" with Yeats, playwright Tom Stoppard and novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor. Other researchers delved into the show's dream sequences, use of silence and approach to epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with the source and nature of knowledge. The postmodern French philosopher Michel Foucault was invoked at least three times Friday - before 10 a.m.

Some observers sniff at the idea that the small-screen misadventures of a suburban Mafia don deserve academic attention. Candace de Russy, a State University of New York trustee who writes a blog on education issues for the conservative National Review, suggested the "Sopranos" conference smacked of "what the Bard called ... 'three-piled hyperboles."'

Photos: The Sopranos
"There are important kinds of ideological messages and values that are communicated in (television and other popular) media that are ripe for analysis," said Marymount Manhattan College English professor Peter Naccarato. He and communications professor Kathleen LeBesco were due to give a talk Saturday on how food and meals reflected the series' currents of loyalty and betrayal - as when Tony feels guilty about patronizing a new restaurant instead of his longtime friend Artie's eatery.

To Ohio State University English professor Sean O'Sullivan, complex series such as "The Sopranos" are modern-day mirrors of 19th-century serial novels - a "Pickwick Papers" for the cable generation, perhaps.

O'Sullivan was scheduled to discuss the narrative structure of "The Sopranos," as was Ilaria Bisteghi, a recent graduate of Italy's University of Bologna who wrote her senior thesis on the show. It "demonstrates that television has arrived at its top level of maturity and understanding of what you can do with it," she said.






By Jennifer Peltz
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