On ''The Sopranos,'' while Artie Bucco's restaurant nearly goes under, Christopher flies to L.A. to take a meeting with Ben Kingsley

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 13, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos
Credit: Michael Imperioli: Barry Wetcher

”The Sopranos”: Christopher meets Gandhi

Vito? What Vito? One of the pleasures of The Sopranos in its sixth season is that we care about so many characters, major and minor, that whether we see them or not from week to week, it’s easy to believe they’re living their lives, just off screen. So this week, let’s assume Vito was learning more about antiques and art pottery. Come to think of it, how’s that handsome Barone kid with the busted kneecaps, courtesy of Paulie? Is AJ still working at Blockbuster? For that matter, how’s Paulie’s Ma since her adult son tossed her flat-screen TV out the window? On second thought, don’t answer that; the less I have to endure the Gualtieri family circus, the better.

Anyhow, aside from Phil Leotardo’s vulgar ”toast” to the gay guy in absentia, this episode kept the Trouble With Vito on the back burner and lit a fire under Artie Bucco instead. Poor Artie. Poor sincere, unimaginative, trusting, none too sophisticated Artie, who chose the path of honest business while his childhood pal Tony ran with the Mob, and who continues to receive nothing but headaches for his integrity. Sure, the food at Nuovo Vesuvio could be better, and the restaurateur’s tableside banter leaves something to be desired. But really — is emasculation (and a look-don’t-touch relationship to the girls at the Bada Bing) the fate of the law-abiding?

Artie’s troubles are real; his susceptibility to those who would take advantage of him is serious. (Last time it was arson authorized by Tony, this time credit card scams run by Benny Fazio via the cute Albanian hostess Artie ogles when his wife, Charmaine, is in the kitchen — ”another fun fact from the Balkans.”) But something happens whenever Artie’s in the picture, something that bugs me: There’s always a joke value ascribed to his situation. (Why do I hear the voice of Joe Pesci in GoodFellas saying, ”Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?”) You know, the bald guy, the black eye, the burnt hand, the wife who constantly has to smooth things over as if her husband were Basil Fawlty?

Thanks to the mysterious Ojibwe saying that pulled him through his hospital ordeal and has become his mantra, a healed Tony seems to have taken it upon himself to counsel all who walk around in pity for themselves. (Tony looks pretty robust now, wouldn’t you say? Except maybe in the, you know, Bada Bing department.) But with Artie, that pity is flavored with a ragout of putz.

And as for Christuhfuh — I mean ”Cecil B. De Moltisanti” — let the disagreements begin (and I have a feeling they will), but myself, I think the whole Hollywood excursion to see ”Sir Kingsley” was way more appropriate to Entourage than to The Sopranos — more midseason clowning around, as if to slow down the tempo and save up for a big finish. And as wiseacre as the episode was about celebrity culture — luxury lounges, swag bags, a pitch meeting in which idiot would-be producer Little Carmine tells Kingsley, ”I know your time is less than limited,” and Christuhfuh babbles about Law & Order the SUV — well, what’s the value of the L.A. interlude? So Kingsley and ”Betty” Bacall can play themselves like special guest stars on Will & Grace? I mean, it’s funny to watch the legendary Miss Bacall get punched in the face for a swag basket and say, ”My f—ing arm!” But like swag, it’s also too easy a punchline.

You disagree, I know you do, So set me straight. Look, even Tony chastised his nephew upon his return for his ”loss of focus,” asking him, ”How many times are you gonna play the Adriana card?” (Undiscussed are Chris’s real time-bomb issues of cocaine and alcohol abuse.) I’m ready to get back to Vito, and to the ”new blood” being honored at the start of the episode, and to Johnny Sack back in his orange prison jumpsuit. How about you?

As I see it, the real reason The Sopranos went to L.A. was so that David Chase could make another Hitchcockian cameo appearance. Last time I remember seeing him was years ago when Tony went to Italy and the show creator sat sipping espresso at a café table in a crowd scene. This time he was the passenger across the airplane aisle from the two Italian hitmen — a man who, without saying a word, had a great wind carrying him across the sky.

What do you think?

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