//LOVE//

THE GREATEST SOPRANO: EDIE FALCO AND CARMELA's MANICURE

In a series marinated in the Mob machismo of its male stars--and has there ever been a male star more imposing than James Gandolfini's bear-with-the-heart-of-a-snarling-puppy-dog Tony Soprano?--The Sopranos' most complex, emotionally nuanced character is its female lead, Falco as Tony's wife. In the pilot, Carmela is adither about a party she's throwing; she acts as though she prefers to remain as ignorant as possible about the details of her husband's occupation as long as the cash enables her to keep their Jersey mini-mansion spiffy and her manicure gleaming. What could have been an ambivalent, even weak role became, via Falco's sad, tragic glances and fleeting but volcanic temper flare-ups, a crucial alternative to the series' men screw-up and -over/women-fuck or die ethos.

Who knows whether creator David Chase planned it this way or began to see it as the cameras rolled, but Carmela quickly transcended the laquered-hair crime-family harridan enshrined in Martin Scorcese films. By The Sopranos' fifth episode, "College," Falco had a poignant subplot in which she invites the family priest--Father Phil, a smarmy moocher--over for dinner and a movie. Carmella's loneliness often manifests itself as a desire for compliments and to learn more about culture (two areas in which her husband is woefully wanting), and so she was easy prey for Fr. Phil's raves for her cooking and his half-baked autuerist theories. They came close to kissing--a triple Catholic sin, I would calculate--but Carm came to her senses. Toward the end of that first season, she observed the cleric exhibiting similarly creepy behavior on others, and righteously tells him that he exploits "spiritually thirsty women."

On her career report card, you might say that Falco plays well with boys: A few appearances on the grungy Homicide: Life on the Streets cemented a friendship with producer-writer Tom Fontana, who took her to HBO and a recurring role in his male-dominated-to-put-it-mildly prison series Oz. Director-writer Hal Hartley used her in two of his male-menopausal films, and John Sayles, one of the movies' strongest writers for women, wrote her a role in his 2002 Sunshine State. An experienced stage actress, she has appeared in off-Broadway and Broadway productions including Sideman, Johnny and Frankie in the Claire De Lune, and Shooting Gallery.

But Falco will always be best known for The Sopranos.

Carmela only grew more central to the show as her marriage grew weaker and her two children entered noxious adolescences. Tensions peaked at the end of the fourth season, when Carmella and Tony had a rattle-the-plaster argument that pushed both actors' to their finest, most subtle yet explosive performances to that date. By the fifth season, Tony and Carmella have separated, and she roams the house as though it's an abandoned castle, forced to be both nuturer and protector, resenting both roles. A sucker for love and book-learnin', she entered into a queasy relationship with her son's guidance counsellor (David Strathairn)--as written, a far too hasty, hard-to-believe attraction, but once again, Falco redeems the writers' material for the way she quickly scribbles down the teacher's book recommendation--Flaubert's Madame Bovary, of which she's clearly never heard--on a scrap of paper, promising, "I'll stop by Borders on the way home and get it." And says it in such a way that you know that, unlike her mob-wife friends, she'll also read it.

//HATE//

THE MOST OVERRATED WRITER IN PRIME TIME HISTORY: DAVID E. KELLEY

A boomer Boston lawyer who used his law degree in court for three years and in the TV industry ever since, David E. Kelley is the ambulance-chaser of the airwaves. He's never met a cultural hot-point he hasn't tried to haul into a script to make a quick buck. You name it, he’s perverted it: Capital punishment, pro- and con-; religious beliefs versus hard-headed science; teachers having sex with students on Boston Public; corpulent people ridiculed (a recurring theme in all his shows); Ally McBeal's Fish (Greg Germann) jonsing for Judge Dyan Cannon's neck wattles; Randy Quaid, on The Brotherhood of Poland, NH, putting a crimp in his married sex-life because he has a "Katie Couric fetish"; and the Fonz's fetish exposed: Henry Winkler, playing a dentist on The Practice, likes to watch women in spike heels squish cockroaches.

Kelley is the L.A. Law producer who sent semi-regular tough-"bitch" attorney Rosalind Hayes (Diana Muldaur) spiralling down an elevator shaft to boost the series' sagging ratings and get the star protagonists making "splat" jokes well into the next season. He's the guy who invented the bucolic, Mayberry-like town of Picket Fences and then populated it with verging-on-the-perv characters like a guy who broke into people's homes only to take baths. He had Mandy Patinkin bite off the tip of a co-star's finger in Chicago Hope to settle an argument. Alright, that last one doesn't sound too out of character for anyone who's seen the frequently over-the-top Patinkin in concert--I think Patinkin'd probably do that if his piano-player plinked a bum note. All of Kelley's shows seem to start off with the crisp, well-ordered intelligence of an impeccably composed legal brief but sooner or later devolve into a succession of cheap stunts and surreal running gags, like Ally McBeal's dancing-baby: a water-cooler topic for a day; a tiny big bore for subsequent months).

Known for his old-school work-ethic, famous for writing entire seasons of shows in longhand on yellow legal pads, Kelley is a control-freak freak. I was once told by a writer who's since gone on to create shows for NBC and HBO that the year he spent on the staff of Picket Fences was "the most boring period of my life--you'd write a scene based on Kelley's story idea, and then he'd take it away and rewrite it completely. Or he'd just cut you out completely--you learned nothing. Having a writing staff was a needless expense for the network." Kelley hit a career high point during the 1999-2000 season when he maanaged to wedge five shows onto the air: Chicago Hope on CBS, The Practice and Snoops on ABC, and Ally McBeal and Ally (a curious half-hour version that edited the series as pure sitcom) on Fox. During this period he became the first producer to win Emmys for best drama (The Practice) and best comedy (Ally McBeal) at the same ceremony.

Beloved in Hollywood, an industry town where an East Coast pedigree and a star wife (Michele Pfeiffer) excuses a lot of self-indulgence as long as the latter is productive labor that snags media attention, Kelley is the most overrated, highly-decorated scribe in L.A. His feature films Mystery, Alaska (1999), Lake Placid (1999), and To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday (1996) have been squishy flops, and 1999's Snoops, girl-girl private eyes complete with "nipple cams" for surveilleince work, and 2002's Girls Club (girl-girl-girl lawyers) reiterated his career-long obsession with squabbling, preferably catfighting women. These shows disappeared after a mere few episodes.

Don't get me wrong: TV could use its own prime-time Marquis DeSade, a producer-writer who'd really get into the muck of human (and sometimes animal) sexuality. But Kelley is such a company-town man that his thematic quirks never lead to any interesting or revelatory point. They're just gimmicks, gussied up with well-structured plots and snappy dialogue. He gets good performances out of actors early on in his shows' runs--think Kathy Baker in Fences, Peter McNichol as a pesty lawyer in Chicago Hope, and in the initial editions of McBeal, Calista Flockhart was an adroit ditz, not the cartoon she later was forced to become. He even knows how to switch professions and doctor an ailing show, allowing Robert Downey, Jr., to bring welcome earnestness and wit to McBeal and letting James Spader deploy his arsenal of smoth-smuggie mannerisms to great effect in the cast-decimated 2003 season of The Practice.

But sooner or later, Kelley always succumbs to the cute, the cutesy bizarre, the coyly controversial. He's like so many of his characters: a master of the fasctinating come-on, he never goes all the way.