Jul/Aug 2004 Humor/Satire

Reality T.V. Guide

by Sarah Posner

New Drama Rivals Sopranos

Attempting to capitalize on the cult popularity of HBO's The Sopranos, Reality USA Network is launching a rival organized crime family drama, The Westa Wing, available anytime on your TiVo.

The Westa Wing (which bears no resemblance to the West Wing of the eponymous NBC drama), is centered on the machinations of a family outsider, Carlo Roviano, who has hijacked the family's business. Carlo, ostensibly the right-hand man of the presumptive capo, Giorgio "Junior" Bushini, has made a pact of sorts with Junior which entitles Junior to figurehead status while Carlo actually runs the show. Carlo is the filter through which Junior makes all decisions affecting the family.

In the first episode, Paulie Wolfits, for years a captain to Junior and the more senior members of Junior's family, presents a plan to whack the head of a rival family who once had ordered an unsuccessful hit on Junior's father, who is openly revered by the family (but secretly reviled for being too much of a pussy). Instead of presenting the plan directly to Junior, Paulie must first present it to Carlo, who approves the idea while placing many conditions on its execution. For example, younger members of the family, and possibly some hired guns, would be required, at risk to their own lives, to lay the groundwork for the ultimate hit. But once the rival, Salvatore Husseini, was felled, the credit, of course, would have to go to Junior. Otherwise, in Carlo's view, why bother? Husseini presented no immediate threat to Junior, but taking him out would certainly elevate Junior's status and consolidate his power over not just one, but possibly several families.

The series' first major conflict, therefore, flows from Paulie's high-minded attempts to attach some moral imperative to taking out Husseini: that he is an evil guy who has turned against his own family members and generally presents a danger to the domination of the Bushinis. While this seems, to any self-respecting mobster, to be sufficient reason to order a hit, Paulie takes the moral outrage a step further: Husseini has designs on taking out the entire Bushini clan. Forming an alliance with another captain, Donnie Brashco (who had a decades-long alliance with Husseini, abandoned for the expediency of pleasing Carlo), Paulie convinces Carlo that this lofty rationale would elevate Junior's status in the eyes of the family, and hence, enhance Junior's dependence on Carlo's good judgment.

The remainder of the first season, then, proceeds from there and revolves around Carlo's effort to hide each misstep—and there are many—in the quest to take out Husseini. (In fact, it is well into the eighth episode out of thirteen that Husseini is finally found in a cavernous den, unarmed, clutching a 1998 Barolo and a stained menu from Babbo.) But Junior, and therefore Carlo, are under fire. Other members of the family, curious reporters, and law enforcement officials keep poking around. What secret pact does Junior have with yet another rival family, the Saudis, so that he parties with them but takes out Husseini? Who are all those guys in suits who meet with Junior's other right hand, Dickie "The Slasher" Chenini? Are all those guys in suits the source of those fat envelopes of cash Junior has hidden in a composter in the Westa Wing backyard (to provide one of many fronts for himself as an environmentalist) and that his wife has been secretly pilfering for their "future," unaware that there's more where that came from? All these curious interlopers are sporadically hot on the trail but easily are distracted thanks to behind-the-scenes machinations by Carlo.

While the dramatic heart of The Sopranos lies in Tony Soprano's emotional turmoil, fueled by the stress of running the family business, coping with an embittered wife, rebellious children, and unresolved issues with his own parents, Junior Bushini is living in an angst-free, soulless parallel universe. Like Tony Soprano, Junior Bushini has an attractive counselor who guides him through the murky waters of decision-making in a world spinning out of his control. Like Tony Soprano's shrink sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, in The Westa Wing Junior Bushini is often seen on the couch talking with his own counselor, Dr. Condoleezza Risotto. But Dr. Risotto is no Dr. Melfi, to be sure. Like Dr. Melfi, she is lean, attractive, and well-dressed, often wearing skirts above the knee, tantalizing viewers and her patient with her well-toned calves. But while Dr. Melfi pushes her patient to probe into the parental sources of his current mental state of affairs, Dr. Risotto praises the parents and urges her ward to blindly follow suit. Certainly a different school from Dr. Melfi, and it shows in her patient. Junior, free of anxiety, panic attacks, and a reliance on Prozac, muddles through, happily dependent instead on his cherished doctor's unwavering, lucid advice, coordinating each next step with Carlo. While Tony Soprano must have his hand in every pot, a say in every decision, a finger on every pulse, Junior is content to let Dr. Risotto and Carlo guide him through.

The viewer expecting the bold and often bizarre sex scenes in The Sopranos to be mimicked here or to see the lap-dancing hotties of Bada Bing fame make an appearance in The Westa Wing will be sorely disappointed. Much is made of the prior controlling family's obsession with sex and its capo's relentless pursuit of goomahs, all of which is contrasted with the Bushinis' sexless existence. In fact, the only reference to sex is a "sexed-up" story about Husseini, which had nothing to do with sex, actually, but with his weapons.

A viewer might wonder what, apart from his obvious dimness, would cause Junior to cede all his authority to Carlo, an outsider with the looks and charm of a Weight Watchers drop-out on speed. As the series proceeds, though, it becomes clear that Carlo, despite having been born outside the family, has all the skills of a highly trained mafia boss: a fondness for a prominent Italian autocrat (Machiavelli), a well-honed ability to persuade through threats, and an extraordinary facility for shaking people down for large sums of money.

Questions remain for the second season of The Westa Wing, both for its own internal logic and viewers' estimation of the project as a whole. From the producers' standpoint, will this Faustian bargain still work for Junior and his minions? The more critical question, however, is whether viewers will tire of a drama animated by antiheroic bullies.


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