When HBO’s “The Sopranos” became a smash sensation, speculation began as to how its theme — the everyday life of a mob boss — would translate to commercial broadcast TV. Part of the answer is delivered by “Falcone,” the CBS series based on the movie “Donnie Brasco” in which an FBI agent infiltrates the mob. Good and convincing as that movie was, “Falcone” struggles to even resemble that production, let alone establish itself as a made man among TV series. Characters are indistinguishable from each other and forced to either mutter or shout cliched New Yawk dialogue. And the editing moves the action from one scenario to another at such an exaggerated pace that nothing gets a chance to truly resonate.
The Eye web is going to great lengths to establish an immediate audience for the drama. The network will air two episodes the day after the show is heavily promoted throughout the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Show will then air nightly April 5-8 and then April 10-12.
A fair number of viewers will be turned off by the tepid first episode, as Volonte family captains Sonny Napoli (Titus Welliver) and Victor Mura (James Russo) duke it out to become underboss after the killing of Carlo Volonte. Jeff Pistone (Jason Gedrick) is the undercover agent who has become close to Napoli, using the pseudonym of Joe Falcone. Fortunate for Pistone, no matter how many red flags go up around him, Napoli and his boys remain trusting.
Falcone faces a dilemma not unlike that of Tony Soprano: the relationship between work and family, and how the over-involvement in one detracts from the other. Falcone can’t tell his wife Maggie (Amy Carlson) where he goes for weeks on end; when she gets in a car accident and he has to spend time at home, he’s plagued by a sense that he’s losing the grip he has on the inside of this crime organization.
First hour is thoroughly uninvolving, and the cookie-cutter, black-‘n’-leather-clad characters are the sort that should really have Italian-American groups up in arms: They are caricatures that lack any sense of humanity. Native Brooklynites should be outraged as well.
By the end of the second hour, which is a considerable improvement on the first, one actor emerges with a sense of ease in front of the camera: Sonny Marinelli, as tough guy Jimmy Suits, displays the degree of character depth that fans of “The Sopranos” have come to expect from their gangsters. With little more than a handful of lines that suggest he has a personality that extends beyond breaking guys’ legs, Marinelli is the one guy the eye follows. When he speaks, the words flow with street smarts and empathy.
Napoli’s other henchmen are high-strung thugs who annoy more than intimidate. The institutionalized boss of this org, Ricci (Eric Roberts), finds the “Runaway Train” actor reverting to his “Pope of Greenwich Village” street crook role for lingo and accent. This time, though, he does it with a heavy dose of affectations, and screaming, over-the-top dramatics.
Stars Gedrick and Welliver fail to bring any excitement to these proceedings. Every move is so obvious and calculated, the audience is left wanting anything that even remotely hints at surprise. (A public whacking in episode two that involves a bit of deceptive gamesmanship is as close as it gets).
Both characters are cool as cucumbers until something gets under their skin. Gedrick plays Falcone and Pistone with the same sort of hushed attentiveness; Welliver is stuck with the most unemotional character this side of “Law & Order’s” Adam Schiff.
“Falcone” is going to have to face “Sopranos” comparisons at every turn, because the two shows play by the same rules. Both shows drop in familiar rock and blues tunes — few of which have a hip cache — they hang out at a strip club, they have their own lounge, and they have some family infighting to settle , which they handle graphically and inhouse. But because the characters aren’t set up well enough in “Falcone,” there’s little concern for who’s taking a bullet or pulling the trigger.
As the show progresses, Pistone’s family will be put in jeopardy by an overconfident FBI agent. A public school kickback scheme that’s birthed in the second episode leads to further confrontations and complications, and new assistant district attorney Francesca Gold (Patti LuPone) starts looking into mob fatalities. By the end, there’s the inevitable heroin plotline.
“The Sopranos” rules the roost in Mafia TV. Imitations are not going to be accepted.