Gandolfini sheds light on New Jersey criminal

Since his first appointment in 1999, Mob kingpin Tony Soprano has visited Dr. Jennifer Melfi 69 times — at least, in the portion of his life chronicled by episodes of HBO’s “The Sopranos.”

After six seasons’ worth of psychotherapy, the question has to be asked: Is the patient getting better?

“I don’t think he’s learning anything — it’s more venting for him than anything else,” says James Gandolfini, who plays the complex New Jersey criminal. “Maybe it’s taught him to hold his temper a little bit, or maybe he’s learned some stuff for his business. But you’ve got to remember who he is. He’s not going to change his spots that much.”

But that’s just one actor’s opinion, according to denizens of the psychotherapy profession, many of whom raptly follow the series for what they feel is TV’s most accurate representation of their business.

“He has bursts of getting better,” notes Beverly Hills therapist Samara Fabrick, who counts herself as a devoted “Sopranos” fan, digesting each full season on DVD. “He will have periods where his panic disorder will decrease. I think that has a lot to do with how consistent he is with his medication, and how his business and his marriage are doing. But I think at least some of that has to do with the therapy.”

“Last season he went through a real transformation,” adds Victoria Moreno, another Beverly Hills shrink who likewise says she is a devotee of the series. “He became much more willing to resolve conflict by talking about things, and he seems much more connected to his feelings.”

Moreno points to the fever dream Tony had early in season six while recovering from the near-fatal gunshot wound he received from Uncle Junior — imagining himself as an average guy with a civilian job, marooned on a business trip in Orange County, Calif., and struggling to figure out his own identity.

“That’s the part of him that was so split off — that ordinary guy,” Moreno explains. “In most episodes, we just see his aggressive, violent defenses in operation. But what we saw in this last season was the integration within him of this softer side that had been cut off.”

Such meaning may well have been the intention of series creator David Chase, who has underpinned the skein’s narrative to Tony’s complex emotional makeup — and his relationship with his manipulative mother — from the beginning.

According to Moreno, Dr. Melfi treats Tony in classic Freudian psychoanalytic style, focusing on childhood traumas and sitting back “while the patient just sort of rambles.”

Both Moreno and Fabrick contend this style is out of vogue, with most patients seeking a more engaged therapist. “I groan when she comes on the screen because I don’t like her style of therapy,” Fabrick says. “She sits in silence and doesn’t say anything.”

Still, both real-world practitioners agree that actress Lorraine Bracco — who has published her own battle with depression in memoir form — brings authenticity to Dr. Melfi.

“David had been in therapy and I’d been in therapy, so we kind of knew what to bring to her,” Bracco says.

Bracco says the overriding theme is for her character not to give into her corpulent patient, who has come to regard her as “forbidden fruit” over the years.

“The thing with Tony Soprano is that he’s never had a relationship with a woman who’s smarter than him, who is not going to let him take advantage of her,” Bracco explains. “I always knew not to give in to him — if you gave him a finger, he was going to take your whole arm.”

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