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Yesterday's TV, Today's Economy: The Sopranos

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The Mafia's influence in traditional mob sectors has waned, but a Great Recession-era Sopranos series would work, with just a few cosmetic updates.

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America's most loveable Mafia family aired its dysfunction on HBO (TWX) from 1999-2004. Since then, the economy has gone on the lam and the Feds have arrested more than 130 mobsters. But the Mafia is still extorting, racketeering and brutalizing with the best of them. That hasn't changed since the DiMeos' time.

A Great Recession-era Sopranos series would have the same fundamentals as the original series, with a few cosmetic updates. "Gone are the tailored suits and cashmere overcoats favored by Gotti," writes George Anastasia in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Today's thugs are more likely to be found in hoodies and sweats, "with names like Junior Lollipop (and) Tony Bagels."

Anastasia was describing photos of this year's Mafia roundup, the biggest in FBI history. On January 20, 800 federal agents arrested 125 members of seven New York and New England crime families. Prize catches included the entire Colombo family leadership and two senior Gambino family officials.

The arrests required unprecedented insider cooperation, similar in to Season 1 of The Sopranos, when someone in Tony's organization ratted him out to the feds. The FBI recorded "hundreds of hours of conversation from phone taps and body wires worn by cooperating witnesses" for this year's bust, according to Anastasia. Some of the crimes went back 30 years. Irked mafiosos are demanding iPods from jail to the wiretapped conversations that got them there in the first place. Picture Johny Sack Sacramoni would be hooked up to an iPod in his prison jumpsuit.

The massive federal sting may have scattered the Mafia, but, as The Sopranos proved, shaking up a crime family doesn't kill it. Today's Mafia men are still making a living by loan sharking, gambling, extorting, and threatening people. Meanwhile, influence in traditional areas like waterfront trafficking operations, union racketeering, and trash collection has waned since the DiMeos' time

That makes room for newer ventures, like the multibillion dollar Somali piracy industry. European companies have reportedly been dumping nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia. The Italian Mafia reportedly sunk up to 50 waste-laden ships. Tony's Italian connections would have to entangle him in this, because it would make for a darned good Sopranos '11 episode.

Thanks to the Great Recession, several other American Mafia rackets aren't doing as well as they used to. During Season 4, Tony bought and profited off a racehorse named Pie-Oh-My (later killed). Horse racing purses are down by about $150 million (14%) since their peak in 2007; today's Tony might opt out. The $29 billion online gambling industry looks a lot juicier, even if it means mixing with the Russian Mafia.

In Season 5, Tony's cousin Tony Blundetto, played by Steve Buscemi, forsakes crime to make a living as a massage therapist. Today, he might have thought differently about his career choice. The number of adults getting massages doubled between 1997-2005, but the recession reversed that trend. Tony B. today might choose a more promising career in health care, perhaps in X-ray technology or phlebotomy, instead. (Tony Soprano shot him dead at the end of the season anyway. But one can speculate.)

During Season 5, Tony offers his daughter Meadow's boyfriend a summer construction job. That construction job would not have happened today, as housing starts are down nearly 70% between 2004-2010 and new home sales are at an all-time low. With teen unemployment hovering around 25%, he probably wouldn't get a job at all.

Overall, the Sopranos would still be viable today, but with fewer union rackets, more federal infiltration, and, with gas prices the way they are, dumping bodies from Honda Civic hatchbacks instead of SUVs.
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