Mob Mayhem Spreads to CBS With 'Falcone'

"The Sopranos," HBO's bada bing of a series about a New Jersey crime boss, just won a prestigious Peabody Award. And richly deserving it is.

Yet Italian Americans can't be faulted for vociferously resisting the entertainment industry's Mafia mania. Every time they look up, a Sal, Vito, Angelo or Tony is creating mayhem on the screen, perhaps feeding a perception that the bulk of Americans of Italian origin are up to their godfatherly necks in violent crime.

Now here we go again.

Say hello to this charming trio: Raymond "The Madman" Ricci (Eric Roberts), Victor "The Pick" Mura (James Russo) and Santino "Sonny Boy" Napoli (Titus Welliver).

Each is stopping at nothing--do you hear, nothing!--to clamber up the food chain beneath fallen New York mob boss Carlo Volonte, who gets whacked in the early minutes of "Falcone," creating a job opening at the top.

And each is Italian American.

As is Joseph Pistone (Jason Gedrick), the FBI agent posing as a mobster named Joe Falcone. His undercover stealth threads this series--one of some merit--that CBS is compressing into an eight-night block starting Tuesday.

Although fed-up-to-here Italian Americans won't buy it, "The Sopranos," instead of stereotyping, strips back gangster mythology to expose characters of stunning moral complexity. Although essentially corrupt, these Italian Americans are not one-dimensional zombies standing around with dead eyes. Some of them feel deeply about some things even as they refuse to acknowledge the pain they create for others.

Good one moment, terrible the next, Tony Soprano and his families on the criminal and home fronts deliver a message from executive producer David Chase that all of society, even its predators, are hybridized products of conflicting influences, impulses and emotions.

That critical nuance is mostly absent from the killing fields of "Falcone," which exists because of buzz generated by "The Sopranos" but is based largely on "Donnie Brasco," a 1997 theatrical movie drawn from the real-life Pistone's memoir of his FBI undercover work.

"Falcone" is vastly better than such CBS lowlifes of the '90s as "The Last Don," "The Last Don II" and "Bella Mafia," these miniseries together affirming just how deep into muck a network would dig to mine profits from the Mafia brand.

Although it's suspenseful, and Gedrick performs ably in the role that Johnny Depp played on the big screen, this latest series about an FBI agent's perilous double life isn't even in the same galaxy as "The Sopranos." That series raises the bar so extraordinarily high for TV mob sagas that all that follow will suffer by comparison.

Opening with a double-size episode, "Falcone" is flat-out repulsive for about an hour before softening a bit into an interesting study of a man pulled like taffy between his conflicting worlds. One centers on his wife (Amy Carlson) and two daughters, the other is a murderous, crime-infested milieu where he is an accepted but never fully trusted associate of Napoli.

There is no excuse for the barbaric first half of the premiere. Whereas "The Sopranos" is merely violent, "Falcone" is no less than a gratuitous blood bath featuring slaughters galore right out of the box. And they're surreally out in the open, in front of witnesses, a risk surely no professional killer would take.

In one absurd sequence, a victim is gunned down in daylight without anyone on the busy pier outside hearing the loud gunshots. That is followed by someone else coolly walking up and blowing away two other guys in plain view, then taking his time getting away, as if begging to be arrested. Of course, he isn't. The hit man, incidentally, is named Lucky and played by young Lillo Brancato Jr., who has gone from being a recent whackee on "The Sopranos" to being a prolific whacker on "Falcone."

Elsewhere, when that madman Mura tries to recruit three of Napoli's mugs and only one says no, you immediately know what's coming. But if it's obvious to a viewer, why isn't it just as obvious to the guy about to be whacked?

Or obvious to the producers that a female assistant D.A. here is foolishly over the top and nearly as repugnant and criminally irresponsible as the mobsters she's pursuing?

Finally, why do the jailed Ricci's top guys talk about crime business with him in loud voices that the cops could easily overhear?

By the end of its first installment, happily, "Falcone" is doing much better. There's an arresting plot line and neat little twist ending involving another undercover FBI agent whose bungling threatens himself and Falcone. In future episodes, Falcone's family is increasingly affected by his work, Napoli takes it out on others when his nephew turns out to be autistic and, in an amusing bit, Lucky winds up with an exotic dog when his pet-napping scheme backfires.

Well, no one ever said it would be easy being Mafiosi. Or for Italian Americans, seeing them depicted again and again and again on TV.

* The first two episodes of "Falcone" can be seen Tuesday at 9 and 10 p.m., respectively, on CBS. The network has rated it TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for coarse language and violence).

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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