The Sopranos: saluting the greatest TV drama ever made

On its 20th anniversary, we salute HBO's The Sopranos, a show that redefined television drama, led by the redoubtable James Gandolfini...

This feature was first posted on Den of Geek UK in July 2013.

Great care has been taken to remove spoilers from this piece to encourage as many people as possible to visit the show, but some, rather like nuts from a factory-line, may remain.

‘If you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments… like this… that were good.’ Tony Soprano 

At its heart, The Sopranos was a show was about family, both gangster and blood. But it was also about the soul, society, psychology, identity, gender politics, love, hate, greed, lust, power, loyalty, the rising gangsterism of corporate America, the legacy of Bush-era America, the hypocrisy of religion, the limitations of psychiatry, the fall of the Roman Empire, the dark underbelly of the American dream… Hell, there was very little it wasn’t about. If Seinfeld was the ‘show about nothing’, then The Sopranos was the show about everything.   

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For those unfamiliar with it – The Sopranos is ‘about’ Tony Soprano, a  suburban family man with a wife and 2.4 children, who also happens to be the head of a New Jersey organised crime family. On the surface, life appears to be rosy. He’s powerful, rich and respected, and is able to finance a luxurious existence for himself and his family. The catch? He’s in therapy being treated for depression and panic attacks: a secret that – in the macho, murderous, omerta-sealed world of the mafia – could get him killed. Series creator David Chase claims that Tony’s depression was the essential joke behind the show’s conception: that the modern world had become so callous, brutal, me-me-me and horrible that even a mafia boss would struggle to cope with its selfish excesses. 

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano is an integral part of the drama’s appeal and genius, but no discussion of its worth can rest upon his shoulders alone. I’m going to explore what made Tony Soprano tick, and what made audiences love him, but also explain why The Sopranos deserves its title as one of the greatest television shows ever created. In my opinion, only Breaking Bad and The Wire even come close.

The Enigma of Tony Soprano

Can you guess who this is?

He fiddles with the coffee maker, favouring threats over charm in his dialogue with the increasingly disobedient device. Anger, hot and molten, rises in his veins as he strides to the fridge. He can feel a crushing in his chest, a fizzing in his brain. Why won’t this machine work? He reaches for the milk carton. Grabs it, shakes it; hears a pitiful, hollow slosh. Feels the anger flooding his limbs as he crushes the carton in his fist and hurls it across the room, his white dressing gown billowing like a cloak. ‘Motherfucking cock-sucking fucking milk!’ he roars, each expletive punctuated by a violent slam of the fridge door. ‘Why the fuck does this shit always happen to me?’

That’s an easy one! It’s got to be Tony Soprano, right? Wrong. It’s me: after eight years of watching Tony Soprano. The changes were subtle at first: a ‘shit’ here, a ‘fuck’ there, the odd stray ‘cocksucker’. But those were only gateway swearwords. After a few short months, utterances of ‘motherfucker’ had increased 6000 per cent, and the ‘c’ word was being dropped as liberally as aitches in a Danny Dyer movie. There were other changes, too. If I received upsetting news I wouldn’t cry, sulk, or pout. I’d simply shrug my shoulders, scrunch my face into a Silvio sneer, sigh deeply, and say, “Whaddya gonna do?” Whacking quickly cemented itself in my mind as the preferred method of conflict resolution. “Hey, an old lady just bashed me with her trolley in the supermarket, but whaddya gonna do?” I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do, mate: whack the motherfucker! Before too long it became clear: gradual exposure to Tony Soprano had turned me into an armchair gangster.

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Tony Soprano’s philosophy for wrangling with the world is deliciously appealing because of its emphasis on obeying impulses. I’ll break it down: if he’s hungry, he stuffs his face; if he wants something; he takes it; if something’s in his way, he smashes it to pieces; if he feels an emotion – however primal – he expresses it (with special emphasis on lust and anger). He bribes, steals, screws, cheats, punches and kills his way through life. In the fast, gas-guzzling SUV of life, who wouldn’t want an id like Tony’s behind the wheel? Even just sometimes? Especially a guy like me, who sits at the opposite end of the alpha spectrum, and is generally considered to be about as ferocious as a dead budgie. Were I to join the ranks of the mafia I suspect I’d be about as useful to them in the capacity of soldier as the character of Brad Bellick was to Prison Break‘s narrative after its second season. Which is probably why it’s better to admire somebody like Tony from behind the safety of a television screen – in the same way that it’s fascinating to watch a wild bear on a nature documentary, but not so fascinating when you‘re in a tent in the woods and it‘s tearing your face off.   

Undoubtedly, there’s a vicarious thrill to be had in watching the show, but that only tells a small part of the story. After all, Grand Theft Auto provides a vicarious thrill, but there’s only so long you can spend shooting down police helicopters with a rocket launcher before feelings of numbness and hollowness rise to claim you. If Tony had been nothing more or less than a brutal, two-note thug I wouldn’t have found the character so compelling, and critics and fans alike wouldn’t still be singing The Sopranos‘ high praises after all these years. Despite the views of a miniscule minority, The Sopranos isn’t some blood-soaked love letter to crime and murder. It neither exalts nor glamorises its characters, or the lives they lead, which are – particularly in the case of the gangsters themselves –  fraught with never-ending fear, anger, conflict, guilt and death. Nobody really ‘gets away with it’. Well, sometimes they do.

 Until The Sopranos – aside from the slick, stylised violence of Scorsese’s mob films, or the operatic grandeur of The Godfather trilogy – for the most part mobsters on screen had been portrayed either as two-dimensional, dead eyed psychopaths, or else functioned as the comic relief. Or both. The Sopranos took pains to present its mobsters as fully fleshed-out people, driven and trapped by their own fears, foibles and desires, just like the rest of us. Tony’s many humanising qualities – among them his fierce urge to protect his family from harm, his fear of his son following in his footsteps, or of not matching up to his own father‘s legacy, his compassion for children and animals (admittedly this was a quality that was turned on its head late in the series), his loyalty to his closest friends, his need to be loved, his capacity for generosity, his childish and infectious sense of humour, and his occasional capacity to do the right thing – made it almost impossible to dislike Tony for his even longer list of faults and misdeeds. He wasn’t good, bad or evil. He was just Tony. And for that you loved him, and rooted for him, despite the moral flip-flopping that stance demanded.  

Of course it helped that Tony usually found himself opposed and antagonised by people who were even more immoral, inhuman and openly sociopathic than him: Mikey Palmice, Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto, Phil Leotardo, Feech la Manna – not to mention his own mother, mafioso uncle, and sister, who at various points throughout the series schemed to bring about Tony’s violent demise. How can you have anything but sympathy for a man whose own mother wants him dead, and for the non-crime of being forced into an expensive and luxurious retirement community for her own safety and comfort? Or is it a nursing home… No wonder he ended up in therapy.  

In Treatment

 ‘This psychiatry shit. Apparently, what you’re feeling isn’t what you’re feeling and what you’re not feeling, that’s your real agenda.’ Tony Soprano

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Tony’s relationship with his therapist, Dr Melfi – the mobster’s very own Greek chorus – made us privy to the inner workings of his mind, heart and memories. We got to see him removed from his many masks and roles, and watch as he was stripped back to his core. We didn’t always like what we saw, and he wasn’t always honest – even in the few-holds-barred arena of therapy – but there was no denying the intensity and complexity of Tony as a human being; one who was clearly struggling against his past, his destiny, his identity, his place in the world and, of course, his own nature. Tony certainly could be a brutal thug – not to mention a murderer – but he could also be, in the words of Dr Melfi, his therapist, ‘such a little boy sometimes.’ The little boy who wanted to please his coach, be liked by his friends, loved by his mother, and, on occasion, just be left alone to feed the ducks. 

It’s a testament to the quality of the writing, and to the exceptional acting skills of James Gandolfini and Lorraine Braco, that their therapy scenes together – which were ultimately just two people talking in an office, sometimes for a very long time, during a show about the mafia – often were as powerful and arresting as any gunfight, vengeful whacking or chest-thumping showdown. Tony shared things – thoughts, feelings, attitudes – with Melfi that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, share with anybody else in his life, including his wife, Carmela – and especially his mother. He also couldn’t corrupt, seduce, taint or possess Melfi, however much he sometimes tried (particularly where his libido was concerned), and I think he respected her – even loved her – all the more for her refusal to be swayed from her moral centre. She became, in a sense, his unwitting consigliere; the good woman who tried to help a sociopath cultivate his soul, but accidentally made him a better mob boss.

As the series nears its end it becomes harder to love Tony, as he slowly sheds most of his redeemable qualities and becomes more like the monsters against whose evil we held him up as a paragon of humanity, if not exactly decency. This fall from ‘grace’ goes in tandem with the collapse of his empire, and the turning-to-shit of the fortunes of all those around him, his family included. We ask ourselves – as Melfi does – if we’ve been charmed by a sociopath all along. If there really were Two Tonys – the family man and the Family man – which was the real one, and which a mask? Finally, in light of his growing degeneracy, we‘re forced to ask ourselves another question: why do we still love him anyway?  

Why The Sopranos kicks ass

‘Those who want respect, give respect.’ Tony Soprano 

David Chase was able to stay true to his vision thanks in large part to the creative and monetary freedom afforded to The Sopranos under the HBO banner. Advertisers and focus groups had little or no influence upon the show’s direction; the contrary has certainly been the case – and to the cost – of so many network dramas over the years. ‘Hmmm. 27 per cent of the group felt that they liked Tony 44 per cent less after he’d punched that man in the face. Could Tony maybe just give him a stern telling-off? Maybe he could cuddle a puppy in the following scene? Oh, and our main advertiser for the time-slot doesn’t think that the word ‘fuck’ is compatible with their corporate image and ethos. Could Tony maybe say ‘mother-fudger’ instead?’ 

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An absence of ad breaks also meant an absence of manufactured, unnecessary climaxes designed to keep the viewer from switching channels. This is a convention that’s integrated into and expected of soap operas like Hollyoaks and Coronation Street, but one that would’ve destroyed The Sopranos’ verisimilitude and ‘real-world’ feel. 

That’s not to say that the show was free from the horrors of advertising entirely. There was a great deal of product placement. I defy you to watch any given episode of The Sopranos and not find at least one example of a character enjoying a Coca Cola or one of its fizzy stable-mates. There’s one scene in particular during the third season – where Ralph Cifaretto is dispensing mafia wisdom to Jackie Junior and his friend – in which a can of Coca Cola is displayed so prominently that it almost becomes a fourth character. ‘Hey, this is your cousin Roccoco ‘Cokey’ Cola from Naples: he’s a friend of ours.’ Also, Members Only, season six’s opener, contains some of the most blatant product placement ever seen. Although I suppose if you’re making a show about tacky criminals with huge disposable incomes it makes sense to reflect their appetite for conspicuous consumption. 

In summary, The Sopranos is one of the greatest, cleverest, darkest, and funniest shows you’ll ever watch. The production values are cinematic, as is the scope of the narrative. Each episode is dense with layers of subtext and symbolism, but they’re threaded so delicately into the fabric of the story that you won’t see them unless you want to see them: if you just want to watch people fighting, shagging and shooting, there it is; if you want to have your attention and intelligence rewarded, it’s all there, too.

 The dialogue is rich and authentic, in a way that is seldom seen on network television. Characters don’t trot out lazy exposition or spell out their feelings in never-ending monologues, like they‘ve had their lines written by some piss-poor high-school playwright. The speech is all naturalistic, in the sense that most of it is an intricate patchwork puzzle of lies, the truth there to be unstitched by the discerning viewer. The female characters, Carmela in particular, are exquisitely written and acted. 

Dramatically speaking, everything in the show seems inevitable without ever being predictable. As in real life, loose ends are left hanging, but never at the expense of narrative credibility or structure. The Russian, anyone? Tropes – the mainstay of mediocre mainstream shows – end up bundled in the trunk and shot through the head (and even when they do the trunk-kill trope it’s with a sly nod to a certain character’s past life in Goodfellas) The acting, writing and directing is so good that an episode can end with Tony and his Carmela sitting in awkward silence at opposite ends of their dinner table, and still feel like an intense cliffhanger.   

You’ll often hear the claim that The Sopranos changed the TV landscape. It’s arguably true. That’s not to say that there weren’t great dramas before its arrival, but The Sopranos busted the mould and opened the eyes of a generation to the creative and dramatic possibilities of the medium. Without the show’s trail-blazing, risk-taking brilliance, or the career-defining performance of James Gandolfini, we might never have had Vic Mackey, Walter White or Dexter. Great shows like The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men might never have seen the light of day. 

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Not a bad legacy for a show about a man who was, in his own words, ‘a fat fucking crook from New Jersey.’ Long live The Sopranos.