More to ‘Sopranos’ than stereotypes

“The Sopranos” has made television history, and HBO, always the front-runner in cable TV, has put itself ahead of the competition again.

What is the appeal of this series?

Some say it is because Americans love humiliating images of Italians twisted up in crime, murder, screaming matches and endless plates of spaghetti. According to this critique, no group other than Italians is so consistently depicted as caught up in underworld life, vulgar fashions and crude loyalties.

Maybe so, maybe not. But I think the appeal is that “The Sopranos” is the best tale of gangsters and their families since “The Godfather,” one of the greatest films ever made.

We will never forget “The Godfather” as long as films are made because it totally reworked the subject of organized crime and was moved along by a remarkable script, extraordinary performances and a sense of the unpredictability of the human personality that resonates far outside of the world of crime.

Tony Soprano has risen to where he is by an alternate set of rules that perverts the ideas of family, responsibility, risk, protection, loyalty and retribution. But at the same time, he hasn’t. He is a monster with a heart, a demon whom we cannot dismiss as a cartoon, a man not particularly smart but one who is clever enough to stay ahead of the game in a profession that does not draw many great minds.

James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony is one of the finest things that has ever happened on television. He possesses the quality that Gregory Peck once pinpointed as the appeal of the bad guys: Audiences love ’em because they give them a surprise. Playing by no conventional rules, they might do anything.

That aspect of surprise, of both identifying with and being repulsed by Tony and his crew, of sympathizing with his wife and children and therapist while seeing them as often pathetic, gives the show its special thing: the feeling of looking at human beings handling and mishandling, building and destroying, betraying and disappointing. It is a view that we know is true about the human condition, whether it functions within the world of murder or ordinary life.