The word was "hoodlum" or, depending on when you grew up, "mobster" or "gangster" or "crook." It was uttered in anger by your mother ("Don't talk like a gangster") or your father ("Do that again and I'll smack you, you little hoodlum").
It was never a term of endearment.
And never something to aspire to.
That has changed. And while I can't prove it, I'm pretty sure it started 35 years ago, when a movie called "The Godfather" was released. Suddenly, the bad guys were the good guys. The lowlifes led the high life. The dark and violent was the cool and interesting.
And the American family once defined by two kids, two cars and a house in the suburbs was recast as a dysfunctional brood with large weddings, lavish spending, violent tendencies and a blind loyalty epitomized by Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, who tells his brother, Fredo, "Don't ever take sides against the family again."
And then has Fredo killed.
The American love affair with mobsters grew from there, meandering through "Goodfellas," "Casino," "Donnie Brasco," "Scarface," "A Bronx Tale," "Analyze This," two more "Godfather" movies.
And it culminated with "The Sopranos," a TV show that, for the last eight years, brought the mob fantasy of family into the very place where real families gather the living room.
"The Sopranos" starts its final run this evening. Based on the breathless prose from most TV critics, you'd have thought the table was being reset for the Last Supper.
USA Today said "sheer genius abounds here." The Boston Globe cited "a depth and brilliance unequaled on TV."
I watch the show. I appreciate its craft. But I always felt its most critical element is being broadcast on HBO. If you held the Sopranos to network TV standards i.e. no cursing, limited violence, commercial breaks it would quickly lose its glitter and many of its cheerleaders.
Still, as the buildup for these final episodes reaches religious proportions, I wonder what it means when we are more fascinated with criminals' lives than our own.
Some claim it's because Tony and Carmela Soprano are just like us; they grapple with marital problems, rebellious children.
This is nonsense. They are not like us, because in addition to getting great dialogue and wonderful lighting lurking behind them are murders, drug deals, strippers and people who get whacked with baseball bats. Saying "Yeah, but take away that stuff and they're just like us" is a like saying shave a lion, stand him on his hind legs and he could pass for a gym teacher.
No, what fascinates many Americans is that the Sopranos seem more interesting than us. They argue over what's for dinner, but there's a gun in the drawer and a mistress on the phone. They go to work, but the "office" is a place where strippers dance on poles.
Their families seem fascinating, as did the Corleone clan in the "Godfather" saga. Mafia men have become the new American cowboys, admired for the way they go out and take what they want, how they tame the world and make it their own.
The truth is less romantic. The country really does have mobsters and Mafia. They're not as witty as the Sopranos. They're not as fascinating. They don't kiss their psychiatrists. Most cops will tell you they're pretty standard-issue punks.
We might remember that as we say farewell to Tony and his crew. Yes, there always have been gangster wanna-bes from haircuts and silk suits in the 1930s to suburban rappers spewing junk in 2007. But that was usually because they envied the stuff money, power, sex.
When so many of us revere the "family" story of the mob, it's something different. Remember, the love affair that began with "The Godfather" and continues on HBO tonight overlooks one small but important detail:
Given who they are and what they've done, almost everyone on "The Sopranos," if they stepped out of the TV set and into the real world, would be in the same place.
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