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Whacks Works

Don't let the familiarity of subject -- another inside-the-mob job -- turn you off to CBS's surprisingly well-made (if surprisingly glum) "Falcone."

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Analyze this: Robert John Burke and Jason Gedrick in Falcone.  

Postponed last fall on account of gratuitous violence in the middle of a national guilt trip about the Columbine High School shootout and other deadly gunplays, here at last is Falcone (Tuesday, April 4; 9 to 11 p.m.; April 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12, 10 to 11 p.m.; CBS), in which an FBI agent goes undercover in the New York mob every night of the coming week except next Sunday -- and we are entitled to wonder why.

Not about Sunday. That's easy. There's already an FBI agent undercover Sunday nights on the USA Network. But why another Mafia show? Besides getting a second season of The Sopranos, we've been asked to waste television time with wiseguys in Mario Puzo's The Last Don, parts I and II, and in Bella Mafia, about Black Sicilian Widows; Witness to the Mob, so Sammy "The Bull" Gravano could rat out his buddies again; Lansky, who got kicked out of picky Israel; and Bonanno, so the mobster could explain the Kennedy assassination. We've been encouraged to believe that Danny Aiello, Kirstie Alley, Beverly D'Angelo, Illeana Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss, Dennis Farina, Nastassja Kinski, Martin Landau, Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Lo Bianco, Costas Mandylor, Joe Mantegna, Debi Mazar, Edward James Olmos, Eric Roberts, Vanessa Redgrave (!), Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Tilly, Nicholas Turturro, Frankie Valli, and Abe Vigoda are mob-connected. We've been to Long Island, Las Vegas, Havana, and Palermo -- not to mention that Brigadoon for organized-crime families, the Witness Protection Program. And Bugsy Siegel is still dead.

My guess is that CBS thinks it owes Jason Gedrick something. He was the "good seed" in both Puzos. He should have been a star in EZ Streets, but nobody watched. He became instead an evil clone in The Third Twin. Perhaps feeling that he's more than made his bones, the network surrounds him with savvy executive producers. It supports him with actors like Patti LuPone and Eric Roberts. And it sends this crime-fighting married (to Amy Carlson) man with two young daughters (Delanie Fitzpatrick and Sarah Hyland) undercover as "Joe Falcone," a jewel thief from Miami who has to play cards, shoot pool, grunt in monosyllables, and handle the wheel for an ambivalent lowlife like Sonny Napoli (Titus Welliver) in the middle of the Wars of Succession to determine the next underboss of lower Manhattan.

Because Jason feels his own pain at least as much as he feels anyone else's, the energy has to come from somewhere else. That somewhere else is Welliver's Napoli. It's a career-making performance, like Kevin Spacey's as Mel Profitt in Wiseguy, the series Falcone most resembles. The son of a mobster who was whacked for betraying his comrades, who in his turn will be asked to whack his own uncle, Sonny Napoli is violent but cerebral, loyal but skeptical, shadowed, as it were, by another self he could have been in a different world. We see both of these selves, the one watching the other with a kind of bipolar detachment. We're obviously meant to contrast Sonny's bipolarity with Joe's double life, his schizoid masquerade. And because Falcone is inspired by the 1997 movie Donnie Brasco, we'll also know in advance that Joe will fall into a sort of Leslie Fiedler love with Sonny -- not to get into his mixed feelings about another Napoli, Sonny's sister Dede (Marisa Ryan), whose autistic child causes so much of Sonny's introspection.

Falcone is as well cast as it's well made. Don't miss the Tuesday two-hour debut, or you will miss the brief return of Karen Sillas as a racket-busting assistant district attorney, who is almost immediately replaced by Patti LuPone. (I don't know why, but Patti's good, too.) As a mob boss in prison, Eric Roberts is crazy again, but this time he's supposed to be; everybody says so. Carlson as Joe's frazzled wife, Maggie; Robert John Burke as his worrywart FBI caseworker; and Bobby Costanza as the Uncle Jackie whom Sonny is supposed to whack all buy into their fugitive roles in this netherworld with a conviction bordering on genuine enthusiasm. It is also, however, glum, even with the usual colorful motley of Jimmy Suits, Sammy Coke Bottles, and Sally Soaps. These mafiosi are men whose merriment would have to be measured with an electron microscope. Life in their "social club" looks to be about as much fun as Sartre's No Exit. Whacking people is the way they punctuate their tedium. So why, again, are we watching?

Frankly, I've reviewed so many of these Mafia movies and mini-series that all my theories are out of gas. I suggest you pick up a copy of the March 20 radical biweekly In These Times, in which Bill Boisvert discourses at witty length on our love affair with The Sopranos. According to Boisvert, the old mob fought "a doomed battle against the dehumanizing effects of the market by creating an alternative economy, structured around personal honor and clan solidarity" that was "done in by the very dynamic of greed it sought to harness." What Tony Soprano represents, in a bathrobe or an SUV or a bear hug, is suburban flight to a New Jersey where "the Old Mafia's misgivings about modernity have been allayed by the New Mafia's embrace of management theory." Thus, not only is consumerism "really the only authentic mode of being in the world," but there is "nothing wrong with the Mafia that a leadership seminar couldn't cure." Now you know.


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