Commentary Magazine


At Home with "The Sopranos"

By the time you read this, hundreds of TV reviewers around the English-speaking world will have written that The Sopranos did—or did not—go out on a high note. Whether their readers will get the joke is another question, since the hit HBO series has utterly changed the meaning of “soprano.” Google the word, and with one exception (the Wikipedia entry) you will find the first page of search results devoted not to vocal music but to the New Jersey–based crime family whose adventures, after eight years, just came to a close.

The Sopranos, created and produced by David Chase (The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure), has done far more than change the lexicon. Probably no series in the history of television has garnered more extravagant praise. The Chicago Tribune calls it “the most influential television drama ever”; Vanity Fair, closely echoed by papers like the Detroit Free Press and the Dallas Morning News, sees it simply as “the greatest show in TV history”; upping the ante, the New York Times has judged that The Sopranos “may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter-century.” The industry has agreed, showering the series with Emmys, Golden Globes, and Peabodys.

How to explain this phenomenal success? Begin with the main characters—outsized but believable, grotesque but familiar, each a unique concoction of lusts, ambitions and, above all, lies. The main character is, of course, the mob boss Tony Soprano, who at the start of every episode drives west out of Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel. While the opening credits roll, the sequence takes Tony down the New Jersey Turnpike, past Newark Airport and the industrial wasteland of northern Jersey, into run-down Newark—we see the old butcher shop where Tony’s thugs congregate, and also a tiny boxlike pizza store—and then past rows of modest houses that eventually give way to a lushly forested road. The sequence ends as Tony pulls into the driveway of his suburban McMansion, gets out of his SUV with a scowl, and slams the door shut.

The reason for the scowl is that he does not particularly like the people with whom he shares his spacious house. His shrill wife Carmela cannot disagree with him without sparking a shouting match; his overachieving daughter Mea-dow is smugly confident that she understands the world better than her parents do; his loser son A.J. is spoiled so rotten that, unable to imagine a less privileged life, he neither studies in school nor works after he flunks out.

Outside the McMansion, but never far off, is Tony’s mother Livia, a terrifying crone who haunts Tony even after her death in the third season. Livia is the angriest, most manipulative character you have ever seen on TV—until you meet Tony’s sister Janice, who substitutes for her mother’s air of perpetual injury an air of perpetual entitlement. And then there is Tony’s uncle, Junior, a mob capo who tries periodically to whack his nephew.

But as Tony drives past the downtown factories and stores where he does business he does not scowl; there he has the appraising regard of a king surveying his realm. Sil, his loyal consigliere, is the proprietor of the Bada Bing, a strip club where Tony conducts many of his transactions. His capo Paulie is petty, aging, but compelling despite occasional fits of brutal violence. Tony’s cousin Christopher, a rising star in the organization, wrestles with his own conflicting desires, caught between professional ambition and a drug habit.

Occasionally some underling—Tony’s cousin Tony Blundetto, for example, or his former boss’s younger brother, Richie Aprile—grows insubordinate, but Tony deals efficiently with these potential disturbers of his peace. Indeed, that may be one reason why he is more comfortable at work than at home. “Outside the house, his powers are unlimited,” observes the British critic Clive James. “Inside it, he can affect the behavior of others only to a certain extent, because they know he won’t kill them.”

Only one regular character stands wholly outside the little universe that Tony rules and, for the most part, understands: his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, whom he begins to consult secretly after suffering a panic attack and collapsing. Melfi is Italian-American—that is why Tony has picked her name from a list—but unlike Tony she is educated, a good citizen, a believer in the rule of law. The show has never had her sleep with Tony, though not for lack of his trying.

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If the characters are clearly one reason why The Sopranos has found such a big audience, the title sequence may harbor another clue as well. It lasts a minute-and-a-half—a television eternity. The shots of the Manhattan skyline receding in Tony’s rearview mirror, of the smoke curling from his cigar, even of the street lamps and train tracks that he passes, are carefully framed and gorgeously composed. Each shot is precisely timed to the tune that accompanies the sequence, an irresistibly catchy blues/synth song by the British band A3. The credits differ from episode to episode, depending on which characters in the show’s vast stable are going to make an appearance.

In a word, the sequence is cinematic, a hint that each nearly hour-long, commercial-free episode is going to offer the kind of aesthetic experience ordinarily found only on the big screen. And the show lives up to that promise, boasting production values that would be the envy of many feature films: unusual camera angles, plentiful location shots, artful lighting. Watching a lavish episode of The Sopranos and then switching channels to a typical sitcom is like dining at La Grenouille and then having a Twinkie for dessert.

Then there is the cast, led by multiple-Emmy-winning James Gandolfini. Gandolfini has an uncanny ability to communicate doubt, frustration, mounting anger, and suspicion—the tiny bud of suspicion in Tony’s mind, as when a treacherous friend or associate says something slightly wrong, that will blossom into the preemptive strike that keeps him alive and in charge. The actor’s face conveys emotion with minimalist elegance; his voice, with its thick, utterly believable Jersey accent, is a blunter but no less effective instrument. The whole is even more impressive when you consider that Gandolfini appears in most of the scenes in each lengthy episode: his performance is a marathon, not a sprint.

The rest of the cast is uniformly superb. Edie Falco manages, by dint of nasal whininess, to prevent us from liking the basically harmless Carmela too much; Lorraine Bracco conveys Dr. Melfi’s abhorrence of Tony’s power by means of stiff, clinical language, and her simultaneous attraction to him by means of long legs crossed beneath short skirts; Michael Imperioli is an energetic, pathetically harried Christopher; Tony Sirico’s engaging performance as the horrifying Paulie has earned him a host of loving fans.

If the cast is unsurprisingly dominated by Italian-Americans, one of the show’s most stunning performances was by a non-Italian: Nancy Marchand, who until her death in 2000 gave a darkly brilliant portrayal of Tony’s mother. Marchand, wrote David Remnick in the New Yorker, “played the role so chillingly that, with the mere wave of her hand, sons across the nation, Italian or otherwise, could feel the zing of guilt along their spines.”

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Perhaps the most remarkable feature of The Sopranos is its writing, and especially its use of multiple plots. Take one episode in the third season, titled “Fortunate Son” and written by producer/director David Chase himself. In it, Tony has a therapeutic breakthrough: he remembers how, as a boy, he once saw his gangster father chop off a butcher’s finger for defaulting on a loan. That, and then seeing his usually frigid mother start seducing his father after the frightened butcher’s complimentary meat delivery, led to his very first panic attack—thus explaining why his attacks tend to occur when he is eating meat.

But Tony is not the episode’s only “fortunate son.” His cousin Christopher—whom, we are told repeatedly, Tony regards as a son—finally becomes a “made guy,” but the promotion, which carries with it the responsibility of kicking money up to Paulie, makes him vicious. At one point, Christopher beats a man who owes him a paltry $300; at another, he shoves his fiancée, who has gotten in his way as he searches for one of her bracelets to pawn.

Another subplot involves Jackie Aprile, Jr., the son of Tony’s late predecessor as boss, who becomes involved in crime despite Tony’s efforts to keep him honest. “He never wanted this life for you,” Tony tells Jackie about his father. “And I’ll tell you something, I don’t want it for my son either.”

With those words, the camera cuts to a third subplot. Tony is at a high-school football game, wildly applauding his son A.J.’s recovery of a fumble. The episode concludes with A.J.’s suffering his own first panic attack during practice: like Tony, he has begun to associate a particular trigger, in his case football, with the violent man in whose footsteps he fears he will have to walk.

Literary critics have long been fascinated by the connections between a work’s main plot and its subplots. The classic example is King Lear, with its parallel between the old Lear, who is spurned by two of his daughters, goes mad, and is rescued by his third, and the old Gloucester, who is betrayed by one of his sons, is blinded, and is rescued by the other. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child!” Lear exclaims on that occasion. Tony Soprano might answer—and be joined by the episode’s three other unfortunate sons—that having a ruthless father is even worse.

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Compelling characters, cinematic production values, stellar acting, and clever writing help explain why The Sopranos has exercised so strong an appeal, and why its ratings have routinely trounced those of other cable offerings. But what may distinguish it most sharply from its competitors is its critical reception. Newspaper reviewers do not merely heap praise on the show; they almost inevitably throw in a little Italian, or a few expletives, as if to show off their familiarity with the life of the mob. The Sopranos has even won over the world of higher-brow cultural criticism. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times has aptly called the series “a gateway drug to television for the elitists who just said no.” In the same newspaper, Terry Teachout wrote that “Snobs who claim not to watch any other show (yeah, right) will be tuning in to see who gets whacked and who lives to whack again.” George Will has interviewed David Chase about the show for ABC. The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier not only wrote ecstatically about The Sopranos but played a minor part in one episode.

What explains this sympathy with—even envy of—some of the most violent characters ever seen on TV? Slumming may be part of it, of course, but there would seem to be another, more creditable reason why critics are not only fascinated by but enamored of Tony Soprano: he presents himself as someone perpetually struggling with the postmodern world, trying to make sense of a universe set adrift from the certainties of the past.

Some of Tony’s battles with the 21st century are transparently reactionary. Once, he informs his daughter Meadow that whatever the case outside, in his house it is still 1954. When he meets a half-black student who is dating Meadow, he uses vilely racist language to tell him to get lost. But there is more to this than latter-day Archie Bunkerism.

Consider the clash in the show, as James Bowman has described it, between the mafia’s “honor culture” and our contemporary “narcissistic culture of therapy and self-indulgence.” The most obvious example here is Tony’s own turn to therapy, which he conceals from his buddies for a while, fearing that they will see it—as he does—as a sign of weakness. For anyone disposed to harbor similar reservations, it is undeniably refreshing to hear Tony tell Dr. Melfi that psychoanalysis is so much humbug (not the word he uses), and undeniably amusing to observe the gangsters’ own frustrated interaction with the puling admonitions of the therapeutic culture all around them. At one point, the portly Tony taunts an even heavier underling, Bobby Bacala, about his weight. “Why don’t you look in the mirror sometime, you insensitive c—ksucker,” Bobby mutters as Tony drives off, concisely fusing the demotic idiom of the mob with the touchy-feely language of the couch.

Skepticism about psychotherapy is not the only area in which many critics, like many viewers, can sympathize with Tony. Ellen Willis was close to the mark when, in the Nation, she invoked the catch-all phrase “contemporary reality” to describe the vast array of forces with which Tony struggles: Tony’s son’s possible attention-deficit disorder, his daughter’s experimentation with designer drugs, his sister’s departure for the West Coast and Buddhism, and (in Willis’s words) “the dirty little secret of 90’s middle-class parenthood: you can’t control teenagers’ behavior without becoming full-time prison guards.”

But “contemporary reality” is too vague a name for Tony’s bête noire. The force he is fighting is at once the thing he wants most in life and the thing that hurts him most. It is money—or, in a trendier term, affluence.

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Therapy is an expensive luxury. So are designer drugs. Tony’s sister’s slacking-off is paid for by American affluence, in the form of federal disability insurance that she does not in any way deserve. The reason you cannot control your children without guarding them constantly is that they and their friends have cars of their own.

To these problems of Tony’s we may add dozens more, drawn from nearly every episode of the show. To which exclusive retirement facility will he send his aging mother? To which exclusive college will he send his clever daughter? What in the world will he do with his son, who has grown up so comfortably that, having flunked out of school but still living with his parents, he can imagine no other life than sleeping late every day and then partying at Manhattan clubs, where his friends expect him to cover the $625 bottles of Cristal?

In short, Tony Soprano has devoted his professional life to procuring massive wealth that finances a miserable personal existence. Does this, on however exaggerated a scale, begin to sound familiar? A recent cover story in the Economist wondered about the “paradox” to which many other cultural observers have similarly begun to draw attention—the paradox, namely, that “affluent countries have not got much happier as they have grown richer.” The Sopranos, itself an entertainment for viewers with enough spare cash to afford HBO, may be the first TV show to examine carefully the travails of a family beset by problems not unlike their own. Call it, as Gregg Easterbrook does, the “progress paradox”; or call it the anxiety of affluence.

But why should the task of portraying the tribulations of rich Americans fall to an affluent mafioso? Why not a show about a manic-depressive investment banker?

Enter the American Dream—another powerful, if inverted, element in the show’s critical appeal. In the title sequence, remember, Tony is driving west, not east—not into New York City but away from it. Unlike The Godfather (1972) or Goodfellas (1990), two famous mafia movies set largely in Gotham, The Sopranos takes place in affluent, suburban New Jersey, and its title sequence offers a visual metaphor for the journey that poor American immigrants have made over the last century. In The Sopranos, those immigrants have finally made their way to the world of good schools and manicured lawns—they have finally achieved the American Dream. And yet they remain unhappy. Is the fault with them, or are we to understand that the fault is with the American system as a whole, with the dream itself?

Enter now a second damning element—the fact that this show is all about family. In two senses of the word: with the exception of Dr. Melfi, its characters can be divided fairly neatly between, on the one hand, members of Tony’s biological family and, on the other hand, members of his crime family. Perhaps half of all the advertisements for the show depict Tony flanked on one side by personal relations and on the other by criminal ones. The boxed set of DVD’s of the show’s first season reads, “Meet Tony Soprano. If one family doesn’t kill him . . . the other family will.”

It is true, of course, that no subject has been more thoroughly explored by television than the family. “The Sopranos is rooted, and rooted deeply, in television’s half-century portrayal of the dysfunctional American family,” writes Geoffrey Dunn in Metro Silicon Alley, going on to compare Tony with Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners and even with Fred Flintstone. But The Sopranos’s twist on this convention is to link the nuclear family with the crime family. It asks, repeatedly, whether Tony’s biological family—and by extension, all biological families—are not the safe, comfortable havens that we like to imagine but crime-family-like battlegrounds of perpetual power struggle.

Tony’s mother tries to have him killed (probably—the show never quite lets us be sure); in revenge, he nearly tries to smother her with a pillow. Uncle Junior tries to kill him twice, once calculatedly, the second time in an Alzheimer’s-induced haze; in revenge, A.J. tries to stab Junior. Although Alessandra Stanley has pointed to the “contrast” in The Sopranos of “feral street violence and collapsing crime-family values with the most prosaic suburban concerns,” it would be more accurate to say the show equates all of these things, or at least forces us to consider how closely related they are.

At one level, this is all perfectly absurd. The distinguishing characteristic of the mafia is that it pursues wealth not just single-mindedly but brutally and illegally, bullying the innocent in order to get a share of their hard-earned money. Nor does The Sopranos ever romanticize the mob’s dependence on extortion and violence. In one memorable episode in the second season, Richie Aprile shatters a pot of hot coffee over the head of a pizzeria owner after he refuses to pay up, and later, simply because the guy has failed to show him enough respect, runs him over with his car, permanently paralyzing him.

Yet in suggesting that our own families bear discomfiting similarities to crime families, the show simultaneously insinuates that normal Americans are unhappy today not in spite of the wealth they have accumulated but because of it—and that this wealth, like the mafia’s, has been similarly gained at the expense of those less powerful. And this idea, despite its perfect absurdity, is one that is again only too familiar, having been richly drummed into our heads by America’s radical intellectual elite. “If you can convince students of two things,” says an English professor in Evan Coyne Maloney’s new documentary Indoctrinate U, “if you can convince them that no one can prosper except at the expense of someone else, and if you can convince them that all of history and experience has been a struggle and is a struggle between the oppressed and those who oppress them . . . then it’s game, set, match, Karl Marx.”

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A lecture on the evils of capitalism The Sopranos surely is not. But if it has an iconic scene, it is of the bathrobe-clad Tony walking down his driveway to pick up the newspaper. The scene has been repeated in nearly every season, with some variations, usually toward the beginning of each season’s first episode. It is a direct allusion to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which ends with the mobster-turned-informer Henry Hill, now in a witness-protection program, clad in his bathrobe and picking up his newspaper in front of his suburban house.

“We were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking,” Hill reminisces wistfully in a voiceover. “And now it’s all over,” he concludes as he picks up the paper. “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

In Hill’s simple world, you can be either a merry gangster or an ordinary schnook; picking up the paper in your bathrobe represents schnookdom. The Sopranos offers a far more complicated situation. Tony does not have to choose between luxurious crime and comfortable suburbia: he has both. He can screw strippers, gamble thousands, gobble filet mignon—the kind of thing that Hill lived for—and then go home to his neatly trimmed lawn and capacious swimming pool. In today’s America, you can have it all, right?

Wrong. Tony may seem luckier than his gangster forebears, but despite his affluence he remains so unhappy that he needs to consult a shrink. In fact, the very first time we see Tony fetching the paper—early in the first episode of the first season, back in 1999—it is as part of a flashback in which he is telling Dr. Melfi what happened to him on the day of his most recent panic attack:

TONY: The morning of the day I got sick, I’d been thinking. It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.
MELFI: Many Americans, I think, feel that way.

Do they? Even as we reach unheard-of heights of wealth and comfort, are we all heading for some kind of crack-up, the karmic result of our supposedly ill-gotten gains? As Tony utters the words “The best is over,” we see him, in flashback, heading down the driveway for a newspaper whose headline reads clinton warns medicare could be bust in yr 2000. Tony’s wife Carmela, confessing to her priest that she has tolerated having a mafioso for a husband because she wanted the money it brought to her, says: “It’s just a matter of time before God compensates me with outrage for my sins.” This is the anxiety of affluence taken to its (pre-9/11) extreme.

Nearly sixty years ago, Robert Warshow wrote in Partisan Review that in gangster movies, “the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche . . . which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself.” Warshow added:

The gangster is the man of the city . . . not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.

Today, a cultural revolution later, the situation is different. The gangster is no longer a city-dwelling criminal, and neither is he doomed, as Warshow wrote, to die by reason of his rejection of “Americanism.” To the contrary, he has moved to the suburbs; he has become one of us; and we are invited to believe that his ill-gotten gains are no more ill-gotten than our own. The gangster himself is still a gangster; in that respect, he has not changed. But our popular myth-making has changed, and it has taken some of us along with it.

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