A couple of years ago, a producer from a radio station here in Philadelphia called my house at a ridiculously early hour of the morning to tell me that a talk show host wanted to interview me about my appearance on "The Sopranos."
I thought it was my brother playing a practical joke on me. But this was no joke. Yes, I had been on the show -- I was on TV in Tony's living room during one episode, reporting on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, while Tony was having an argument with his son.
I didn't have to stand in one of those long lines in North Jersey. I didn't have to endure a tedious casting call. And here I was, given a bit part on one of the most popular shows in the history of television.
And I was outraged.
Over the next two days, my phone never stopped ringing. Radio stations, friends, relatives all called, looking for a reaction, a story, anything that could connect them to "The Sopranos."
Once I told them that I had nothing to do with my appearance on "The Sopranos," that it happened against my will, and that I thought the show was the worst kind of harmful stereotyping of Italian-Americans imaginable, the interviews quickly turned sour, then became a shrill and often pointless debate.
"The Sopranos" has been on the air now for seven years. Two Sundays ago, all over the New York metropolitan area, bars and restaurants emptied early -- people were trying to beat the traffic to get home in time to watch the opening episode of the new season. On his Monday morning radio program, Don Imus said, "It's like the Super Bowl."
The reaction I always get is: "How could you not watch 'The Sopranos'? You have a vowel on the end of your name. You live in New Jersey. These are your people."
No, they're not. And this is precisely the problem that the show has caused for many, many Italian-Americans. For seven years now on television, which night in and night out provides the unavoidably relentless reflection of our behavior and values, "The Sopranos" has given the country a horribly skewed version of what Italian-Americans look and act like in modern America.
Let me give you one tiny, but potent, example. In several of the clips of the show I have seen, Tony's son routinely curses out his father -- and his mother, in front of his father. I have spent countless hours in dozens upon dozens of Italian-American households, including my own. I find it hard to believe that behavior would be tolerated in any Italian family, be it working class, super-rich, or anywhere in between. Ever.
I know the argument. It's just a TV show. As former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani recently told the New York Times: "You could spend your whole life wanting to be insulted."
I'm not insulted by "The Sopranos." I just want people to know that this show is not universally embraced, as some in the mainstream media would suggest.
And, lost in the all the media slobbering over "The Sopranos," the show is losing some of its audience. The season opener was down nearly a quarter from last season's finale -- from 12.1 million viewers to 9.5 million.
Often, critics praise the show for being well made. Well, Leni Riefenstahl's movies for Hitler were well made. So was "The Birth of a Nation." "The Sopranos" is just another form of propaganda -- which can be defined as anything that confirms what we already think we know. It does not challenge us. And in that way, it is not art. It is comfort food for the brain, feeding a century-old stereotype of a great people.
Art is the act of taking the impossible and transforming it into something we all care about. "The Sopranos" is just garbage. It appeals to the worst in all of us -- whether you are Italian-American or not. And we should not care about that.
David Chase, the creator of the show, has provided us with cartoon characters who steal, cheat, murder and treat each other like crap. The show is about sex, profanity, gambling and violence -- and you don't have to get up from your couch. Oh man, start printing the money. (See the No. 1 thing the Internet is used for: porn.)
Here's the kicker: Chase should know better. His original name is DeCesare. That means that somewhere down the line, his surname was Anglicized -- perhaps because he was being victimized by the kind of stereotyping that he now exploits.
And the mainstream media should know better, too. For weeks prior to this season's opening episode, the giddiness over the arrival of the final season was nauseating. The praise for the show almost universally ignores the harm it has done.
Just imagine this for a moment: HBO, or any other television network, decides to put a series on the air that depicts Latino-Americans -- the nation's fastest-growing minority group -- as uneducated drug dealers whose lives revolve around gang warfare, a seven-year run of bad behavior that reinforces America's fears about the influx of illegal immigrants into the country.
A show like that would be, and should be, excoriated. And it probably would never make it out of the pilot stage, no less have a run of seven years of great reviews.
How about, for example, a TV series about athletes who engage in all kinds of illicit behavior, including adultery and illegal drugs? Wait a second. There was a show like that: "Playmakers." Critics loved it. It had a solid following on ESPN.
When the show was on the air, I remember having a long discussion with Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, who found "Playmakers" to be an offensive and outrageous depiction of who he is. Brooks is a philanthropist. Every year, he takes disadvantaged children on a trip abroad. He is overwhelmingly generous with his time and money.
Brooks was one of a number of players who complained to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who put pressure on then-Disney chairman Michael Eisner to pull the show. Few doubt that that pressure helped end the show's short run.
Of course, no one is going to watch a show about NFL players taking kids on a safari.
And unlike many groups who claim to speak for Italian-Americans, I've never thought that "The Sopranos" should be pulled off the air. And unlike many Italian-American critics of the show, I'm not going to rattle off a bunch of numbers trying to convince you that the mob is a minuscule percentage of the Italian-American community. To justify our objection to the show, it doesn't matter how many of us are doctors and lawyers and judges and teachers and sportscasters.
But just remember this when you tune in on Sunday nights: "The Sopranos" is not who we are.
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.