In answer to your first question: Yes, Falcone (CBS, April 4, 9-11 p.m. ET; April 5 through April 12, every night at 10 p.m.) is a rip-off of The Sopranos. In answer to your second question: No, don’t stop reading your kids bedtime stories in order to tune in to this midseason mob drama. How cocky can a network get? CBS wants us to watch nine episodes over the course of eight consecutive nights. They must imagine it’s the pop-cultural equivalent of Passover.
To get away with such programming chutzpah, Falcone would have to be good–world-historically good–and it isn’t. Falcone poses an interesting question for future cultural historians, though: Why does it seem so much worse than it is? It has a respectable pedigree. The show is based on the book that gave us Donnie Brasco, a plangently tragic movie in which Al Pacino’s nervously striving schmo of an aging mob underling was played for all he was worth against Johnny Depp’s sweetly treacherous undercover agent. Falcone’s major theft from The Sopranos is one of that show’s more laudable–and portable–contributions to the genre: a new level of commercial realism. At long last, we’re getting close looks at the unbelievably petty schemes that make up the majority of mob business. Contrary to prior representations (i.e., almost every mob movie before The Sopranos), running a crew does not entail elegant and elaborate black-market schemes. It’s penny-ante bullshit work. So many pizza joints and gambling addicts, so little muscle. What a drag to have to shake them all down.
Falcone isn’t nearly as awful as it gets when it comes to wise-guy melodrama and CBS (remember Bella Mafia?). Titus Welliver, as mob underboss-wannabe Sonny Napoli, has flashes of Godfather-like majesty when confronting the suffering of an autistic nephew. Jason Gedrick’s portrayal of Joe Pistone, a special agent with the FBI who goes undercover as Joe Falcone, is of a man tough enough to keep playing poker with his crew when he learns that his wife has been in a car wreck, yet sensitive enough to read the Odyssey to his daughter. Gedrick, though, can’t seem to put across the one thing we need to understand in order to give ourselves over to him: Why does he do this to his wife and daughters if he loves them so much? He ought to have some streak of crazy righteousness, à la Serpico, but Pistone just seems like an ordinary guy taking incomprehensible risks. This murkiness is more a function of mediocre writing than of Gedrick’s acting. Gedrick was fantastic in EZ Streets, an unfairly underestimated and subsequently canceled show (New York magazine’s John Leonard, making a bit too much of the question of why Falcone, why now, speculates that CBS felt it owed Gedrick this series as payback for all the lousy roles it has made this talented actor take in recent years–such as the truly appalling The Last Don).
Nonetheless, not-terrible as it is, Falcone is agonizing to sit through, which tells us something about the world post-Sopranos. CBS shouldn’t feel bad: Even The Sopranos can’t live up to the Sopranos anymore. On the other hand, David Chase would never allow his show’s plot points to be telegraphed with such crudeness, or its scenes to be so leadenly workmanlike. Pistone’s wife is predictably, if understandably, accusatory; his little girls tug at the obvious heartstrings; his FBI boss presses him hard but is fundamentally fair; and the mobsters are for the most part just evil scum we’ll be glad to see put away. Welliver’s the exception–you can already tell that he’s going to provide the few crumbs of moral ambiguity Falcone’s writers will toss our way. I suppose we ought to be glad that these made men aren’t garlanded with wit and ironical insight, the way they are whenever Tony Soprano is around–yes, mobsters are nasty thugs, and no, we shouldn’t glamorize them. But it’s hard to feel grateful for boilerplate ethics. If it’s more psychopaths the world needs, let them at least be as mesmerizing as Joe Pesci in Casino. It’s not as if, in an economy in which the real scams occur at the level of multimillion-dollar IPOs, the mob life is gonna be that tempting anyway.