An episode of The Sopranos always begins with the opening credits scene. It pulls you in immediately with a compelling rock song – a little bit funky, a little bit hip-hop. It’s a song for the ’90s but it reminds you of the ’70s. The song goes…
You woke up this morning Got yourself a gun Your mama always said you'd be the chosen one
A serious looking middle aged man is driving on the highway through an industrial section of northern New Jersey, smoking a cigar. He definitely could be a 70s tough guy. The song goes…
When you woke up this morning All that love had gone Your papa never told you About right and wrong
He exits the highway and proceeds through lower class sections of the city. You see buildings that will become familiar as you watch the show, which promises to be urban and gritty. The song goes…
You woke up this morning
The world turned upside down
Suddenly he’s in a much nicer neighborhood, pulling into the driveway of an upper middle class house. The grim look on his face as he exits his SUV suggests a lot of serious business on his mind. What has he had to do, and to put up with, to get to this large automobile and this beautiful house? The scene ends as he closes the car door. He’s come home.
That’s what this show is ultimately about; coming home. It’s about family, the bedrock of American life. And in the grand tradition of American fiction, it’s about aspiration, about wanting to rise in wealth and status, and maybe even become the boss.
And, of course, it’s about crime. Because Americans do love a good crime story. Via character dialogue, the show even unabashedly compares itself to The Godfather and Goodfellas, the two iconic movies which define the modern era’s obsession with Mafia-related entertainment. Some of the characters on the show aspire to achieve the celebrated fame of those movies, though others, wisely, prefer to stay in the background.
But the real point is that these characters are part of the modern era. Organized crime, like the rest of society, has had to adapt to the times. The show famously starts with mob capo Tony Soprano in a therapy session with a psychiatrist. He’s there because he’s having anxiety attacks; even a tough guy has trouble coping in this world turned upside down.
Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions are a wonderful contrivance for looking into the psychology and the moral perspective of someone who makes a living as a criminal. Through these sessions, he is humanized, and we learn that he has the same problems as any other middle-aged family man. He has to balance work and family life, maintain his marriage, and raise his children, all while overcoming the baggage from his own upbringing. In some ways, he’s just like the rest of us.
But, of course, he also has his unique work-related problems, the exact details of which he cannot reveal to his therapist. In other words, he’s not like us at all. As the story develops, we the audience get a tantalizing look into his world. This is why we come to these kinds of shows; his life is far riskier and edgier than ours, and we want the vicarious thrill of living it through his eyes. We want the excitement of transgressing moral boundaries, but not the consequences.
Which just goes to show the moral dilemma that this show raises. If we enjoy this story, and even identify with its protagonists, are we not condoning their behavior? These guys murder people, then go to their favorite restaurant for some wine and pasta, like us when we leave the office for a night out at Olive Garden. If they’re so much like us, then are we like them? Do we accept, even celebrate, a world where crime pays?
I think that question troubled the creator, David Chase, which is why he famously ended the show without resolving the chief protagonist’s story arc. But to be fair to the television audiences of the time, crime has always been a popular subject in TV and film, and has often been glamorized. What makes The Sopranos different is how it places this subject in the context of the social era at the time of its premiere in 1999.
In the 1990s, crime rates were high, the Culture Wars were heating up, and there was a pervasive sense of society coming apart. Baby Boomers were in mid-life, parenting Millennial children. David Chase (b. 1945) is a Boomer, and I think he was exploring his generations’ experience of the era – including that question of how much moral looseness a society can and should tolerate. While not all of the actors are strictly Boomers by birth year, some being just a little too old or too young, I think the mid-life characters are meant to be. Tony Soprano clearly is, based on flashback scenes of his childhood in the 1960s.
In one scene, when Tony’s teenaged daughter uses language which upsets him, she defends herself with the statement, “this is the 90s.” Tony retorts, “out there it’s the 1990s, but in here it’s 1954,” pointing first out the window, then at the floor of the house. Tony is a moral reactionary, despite his chosen profession. His Millennial daughter is what we would call “woke” today, and might even have reacted to her father with an “OK Boomer,” though that is an expression well ahead of her time.
Tony clearly wants to return to the “father knows best” social order of the good old days. You can tell that all the old gangsters do. They even complain about the breakdown of morals in their own organization. Drugs have had a corrosive influence. You can’t trust the gangsters today, who turn state’s evidence instead of doing their civic duty and serving time in prison. You just know that any of these guys who surivived to see 2016 would be sporting red MAGA caps at a Trump rally. They certainly wouldn’t survive today’s cancel culture, being too blatantly racist and sexist and homophobic.
The Sopranos stands out as an artifact of its place in history, the Bush era transition into the 21st century, with the Cold War receding in the rearview mirror, and all of these new concerns coming down the road. With its frank maturity and uncensored sex and violence, it also helped inaugurate the television noir age we enjoy today. In many ways, it did it better than any show since. It’s so well written, acted and directed, that you might even say it achieved Peak TV.
That last statement, I suspect, is controversial, but it really was the first thought I had when I recently started rewatching the show. And I have a lot of shows fresh in my memory; I’m a man who watches way too much television, a mid-lifer in a new era of staying at home with endless streaming video. In the great trove of video content available online, The Sopranos is a real gem from what already seems like a fading time.