It has caused what just may be the most overblown media frenzy of the last quarter century--and not only because The New York Times said it "just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century." I am referring, of course, to The Sopranos, the Home Box Office series that has given organized crime--the make-believe kind--a new lease on life. Its popularity is no surprise. Organized crime has fascinated viewers since Musketeers of Pig Alley hit the nickelodeons in 1912. But The Sopranos has truly struck a nerve, largely because of what The Times described as its "hyper-realism."

But how real is The Sopranos? Well, the opening of the new season certainly exudes authenticity. It begins on Wall Street, where wiseguys have been staking a claim. Tony Soprano's cousin Christopher has gotten a brokerage license by having someone take the test for him, as happened quite a bit in real life. He is running a brokerage house, where two thugs beat up a broker for not selling the house stocks. One "alleged" wiseguy I know insists that the scene was taken right out of the court record from his stock-manipulation case.

WOE IS THEM. But don't confuse dramatic realism with reality. I talked about The Sopranos with some people who have seen the real Mob in action. Some love it, as I do. Some misguided souls hate it. But they are unanimous about one thing: The real Mob would be a totally different HBO series from The Sopranos. It would be grimier. It would be nastier. And there would be nothing the least bit adorable about a real-life Tony, who is portrayed in the series as a sympathetic family man whom viewers can relate to, even though he has, well, a peculiar job. Says one trader who knows mobsters well: "They're a bit like a cross between my old Italian uncle and Charles Manson."

James Gandolfini is great as the pensive New Jersey wiseguy--but the writers have seen to it that he is no Charles Manson, even making him a tad sympathetic when he strangles an informant. A far different picture of life among the real Sopranos can be seen when you take a look at the real thing. Major discrepancies begin to emerge. One is a little thing called incarceration. Tony Soprano, unlike growing numbers of his real-life contemporaries, is not under indictment. In fact, there's no indication that he has served any time in prison.

Real mobsters are not so lucky. Most of them would prefer Tony's mother--even though she tried to have him killed--over the FBI any day. I haven't asked him--his lawyers haven't returned my calls--but I'm sure that can be said for one alleged real-life Tony Soprano. Philip C. Abramo is described by the FBI as a capo (Tony's rank) in New Jersey's DeCavalcante crime family. He is in jail awaiting trial on securities-fraud charges in Tampa, having allegedly done in real life some of what Christopher is doing on TV. The court record paints a picture of the reputed capo that is a good deal more Charles Manson than old Italian uncle.

WATCH IT. Prosecutors maintain that Abramo heard that a former employee of a brokerage firm he allegedly controlled, a fellow named Jeff Supinsky, had testified before the Tampa grand jury investigating Abramo. Prosecutors allege Abramo promptly ordered Supinsky's murder. Accounts of the alleged plot differ, but one version relayed by prosecutors says "both Supinsky and his family were to be killed in their New York apartment with hand grenades." Supinsky was swiftly put in the witness-protection program. Abramo's lawyer denied the allegations at a court hearing.

The alleged Supinsky murder plot is a reflection of the real Mob--murderous, and, above all, greedy. For real-world mobsters, cash--not "family"--is all that matters. It is an obsession. It's all they live for. So watch The Sopranos. Enjoy it. But never forget that the real Tony Soprano would slit your throat for a buck.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE