The Sopranos is filled with repellent characters; who is there to root for, really, or even like? Yet we still like, or root for, many of them.
Aida Turturro’s Janice, however, is one of a handful that prompts cries of “What a bitch!” the instant she appears onscreen.
Me? I love Janice because she’s so damn fun to hate. On a series filled with professional killers, her brand of moral corruption is closer to a reality I recognize. As Sopranos go, Janice isn’t larger than life—she’s life-sized. The series thrives on unpredictability, but Janice can always be counted on to do exactly what Janice would do.
In that respect, she’s one of the show’s dramatic anchors. The “villains” of The Sopranos are the weak, the predictable and the easily led. Identifying a hero on the show requires noting some kind of moral fiber that elevates a character above the pack. If you buy that equation, Janice is a true villain because she’s completely amoral—a totally expedient character. She left the family, went out on her own and attempted to create an identity separate from her upbringing; then she returned to the life (at least twice) and embraced the seediest aspects of Soprano home cooking. Others have fallen into similar moral quagmires, but few have had Janice’s freedom to escape; she escaped, and then she came back. (Following this logic, maybe Tony and Janice’s rarely-seen sibling Barbara stands as the family’s only true hero.)
Maybe the lesson of Janice is that if you spend your life trying to find a truth—rather than create your own—you eventually return to the truth you know. In Janice’s case, it’s an ugly truth, and one she’s failed to confront head on. You know, I can’t think of a single decent thing Janice has ever done (the killing of Richie doesn’t count), which is noteworthy for this saga. Hell, Paulie’s even been known to do an occasional good deed.
“You can’t trust Melanie—but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie.”—Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown
Forgive that my Sopranos knowledge isn’t encyclopedic, but hasn’t Tony said something similar about Janice? If he hasn’t, he could have. Janice will be Janice.
As much of a pain in the ass as she is to her brother, Janice serves a much-needed purpose: she’s Tony’s reliable circus mirror. He can laugh, poke fun at and feel superior to her, but she still presents Tony with a distorted version of himself. She’s a constant reminder of his failings and successes. She’s searched in vain for many of the answers Tony’s managed to find. Bro’s been in therapy since Day One, but Sis should be right there beside him on Melfi’s couch. Imagine the pair bickering back and forth as Melfi’s jaw hits the floor.
Janice: “All I’ve ever tried to do is be a good sister to him and does he appreciate it? Well you’d think so. You’d think a normal brother would, but noooo…You don’t know what I’ve had to live with my entire life, Doctor. It’s no wonder I ran away and changed my name to that of a Hindu goddess.”
Melfi: “You did wha-?”
Janice: “He’s a murderer…a killer…a cold-hearted goon!”
Tony: (stifling a guffaw) “Yeah babe. Try tellin’ that to Richie. (to Melfi) So she kills this guy in cold blood and who’s the first person she runs to? Me!! Like I don’t have enough on my plate without Little Miss The-World-Oughtta-Run-By-My-Watch over here callin’ me up in the afternoon to dispose of another dead body! It’s always about her, her, her.”
Melfi: “A lot of what I’m seeing here goes back to your mother…”
The extreme choices in beaus have been at least half the Janice ride. Richie Aprile (David Proval) was a by-the-books kinda guy—a true cardboard cutout of everything she’d been running from her entire life, and as she should have expected, it ended badly. After that there was Aaron the narcoleptic fundamentalist Christian (Turk Pipkin), a gent whose ability to fall asleep at the family dinner table all but cemented his exit. If there’s a cure for narcolepsy, wouldn’t it be watching your new girlfriend bickering with her mobster brother at the Sopranos family dinner? Aaron didn’t fulfill Janice’s need for drama. And Ralphie Cifaretto (Joey Pants)? It’s as if Janice’s offing of Richie coupled with her boredom of Aaron led her down the most twisted path yet; it’s mostly a shame she didn’t get to off him as well, preferably in the midst of some deviant act. All these choices eventually led her to a guy who’s somewhere between the rest: Bobby Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa). By this point, she’d already eased back into a familiar life; her decision to marry Bobby and have his child cemented that decision. She doesn’t need to leave Bobby, and shouldn’t have any reason to want to; he too easily suits her needs. He’s a nice guy (by Sopranos standards, anyway). If Janice has a downfall, it’ll be the result of her decision to hook up with the weakest of the Soprano soldiers.
At this late stage, it’s impossible to resist guessing who’ll be left standing when the series draws to its close; given Chase and Company’s track record I’m uncomfortable making predictions in print, but part of me says Janice is a survivor (albeit a weak one) who’ll escape to her own NBC sitcom (hopefully with Paulie) after the final credits roll. But the laws of drama also dictate that nobody deserves a good whacking more than Janice (even if she’s merely caught in a crossfire; right now I don’t think she deserves a full-on hit), and I suspect that if she were to exit Jersey via a hail of bullets, viewers would jump from their seats yelling “Fuckin’ A!” Either way, nobody’s going to miss Janice…except maybe me.
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”—William Munny in Unforgiven
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.