Slice of Ricotta Pie from ‘The Sopranos’
By Bethonie Butler
The Washington Post
The pop culture references keep coming in the college admissions scandal involving Oscar-nominated actress Felicity Huffman and “Full House” star Lori Loughlin.
The actresses were among 50 people charged by the Justice Department with participating in a bribery scheme to get their children into prestigious colleges and universities. Authorities allege that the fraud ranged from cheating on standardized tests to bribing college officials into falsely claiming that certain students were athletic recruits.
Prosecutors say the admissions case, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues by the FBI, involved millions of dollars. Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters designated as recruits to the University of Southern California’s rowing team. Huffman is accused of paying $15,000, disguised as a charitable donation, to have a third party correct her daughter’s SAT scores.
Parents taking extreme measures to get their kids into elite schools has been a recurring subplot in TV and film. As noted by The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu, the theme even came up on “Full House,” where Loughlin’s character, Aunt Becky, was unwittingly embroiled in a scheme to get her twin toddlers into an exclusive private school.
On “The Simpsons,” Mr. Burns was advised to donate “an international airport” to facilitate his son Larry’s entrance to Yale. (Larry certainly wasn’t getting in on merit or even legacy: “He spelled Yale with a 6,” one admissions officer told his wealthy father.)
“The Perfect Score,” a 2004 teen heist comedy starring Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans, devoted its entire premise to desperate attempts to game the collegiate system, following a ragtag group of high school seniors who conspire to steal the answers to the SAT.
Until the Varsity Blues case gets the inevitable Lifetime treatment (though “Varsity Blues” is already taken as a movie title), the most on-the-nose example of fictional parents scheming to get their kids into college might be found on HBO’s groundbreaking drama “The Sopranos.” On the series, which aired from 1999 to 2007, introspective mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), were particularly invested in their daughter Meadow’s education. And so was their illicitly obtained money.
In a Season 2 episode, Carmela asks the family’s neighbor to ask her sister, Joan, a Georgetown alumna, to write a letter of recommendation for Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). When Joan declines, Carmela stops by her office unannounced with a ricotta-pineapple pie, Meadow’s school transcripts and a
thinly veiled threat. “I don’t think you understand. I want you to write that letter,” Carmela says calmly, knowing Joan is well aware of the Soprano family’s mafia connections.
Meadow eventually gets into Columbia University, where her parents donate $50,000 to help fund a student center at the behest of a dean who pointedly brings up the couple’s donations to their kids’ tony private school. It’s not, ostensibly, a bribe, but Carmela tells a reluctant Tony that the dean “talked an awful lot about Meadow’s having the best possible university experience.”
Granted, the Sopranos could have used other measures to ensure Meadow’s place at a top-tier university. But the couple’s efforts were reportedly unsavory enough to deter the actual Columbia from allowing the hit series to film there -- a 2000 New York Times article noted that the Ivy League school had permitted “The Sopranos” to shoot a few scenes on its campus, but balked after learning more specific details from the script.
The Sopranos have been referenced quite a bit as the internet devours the details of a scandal involving celebrities and other wealthy parents. Based on the reactions, the pop culture callbacks have been as delicious as, say, a ricotta pie with pineapple.