The Sopranos at 20: A Look Back at a Modern Classic
As you can imagine, a lot of fuss is being made about this year being the 20th anniversary of the debut of the groundbreaking HBO mob drama The Sopranos. And for once, the fanfare is justified. David Chase’s series broke the mold and totally reshaped what a television series could do. It turned HBO from a modest cable network into the main source for what can only be described as a revolution in what the medium was capable of.
HBO would be at the forefront for much of it: having already set the tone with Sex and the City and Oz, it would continue to shape the game with incredible series such as Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood. And if one wants to look at a series as a genealogy of television, the writers who would work on the series would go on to create some truly remarkable series as well. The most famous of these scribes was Matthew Weiner, who brought forth AMC’s Mad Men, but just as astonishing were some of the series that came forth by regulars or those who just passed through: Todd Kessler would create Damages, Terence Winter would bring forth Boardwalk Empire, and James Manos, who left after the first season would create Showtime’s signature series Dexter.
And I haven’t even mentioned all of the memorable actors who graced the screen. Understandably James Gandolfini and Edie Falco got the lion’s share of the attention as Tony and Carmela Soprano. Falco alone probably has entire shelf in her apartment holding up all of the awards she got in one of the most remarkable female roles in TV history. But the entire cast covered themselves in glory — from Lorraine Bracco in what would we her greatest role as Dr. Melfi, Dominic Chianese as Uncle Junior, Michael Imperioli as Christopher, all the way down to Steven Schirripa as Bobby and Drea De Matteo as Adriana.
It was a superlative series routinely regarded as one of the greatest — if not the greatest ever made. (Only The Wire and Breaking Bad are considered in the same breath) Yet I spent most of my early years as a television critic, railing against how messy and often overblown I thought that the series was, that it was an ugly and disgusting show, that never delivered on its brilliant first season. And that was before the controversial finale. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) Looking at my earlier readings of those reviews, I can’t help but cringe at some of my naïveté.
Among my complaint was the gratuitousness of the violence. Now compared to a lot of the series that have come in The Sopranos aftermath, it seems also mild in comparison. But I had come from being a huge fan of Oz, Tom Fontana’s prison dramas, without which, its pretty safe to say, there would have been no The Sopranos. And while I could understand the endless cycle of prison violence (many of which involved detain ex-wiseguys), for some reason I couldn’t accept it in the ‘normal world’.
I believe my biggest argument against was that it seemed to be to default reaction of every major character. They always seemed to have a choice, and they always took the bloody option. What I think I completely missed was that this was the crux of so much of what Chase had at the center of the series. Given the nature of what man deals with, he will always choose the easy option. In the case of Tony and his clique, that was omerta.
More to the point, Chase was arguing that change with people is difficult, and most people don’t want to do it. How many times did Carmela come face to face with so much Tony’s violence and infidelities? In the most famous climax of the series — that of the fourth season — she actually gathered the nerve to throw him out of the house. Yet at the end of the following season, she let him return, even though he wouldn’t even promise to change. She was trying to find a way to live, and she couldn’t do it without the lifestyle. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the implications in the legitimate world — how many times did the Clintons make their own compromises?
Perhaps the clearest case of this is Christopher. In the early seasons, he was torn between his birthright as a wiseguy, and his desire to go into movies. On more than one occasion, he tried to reach for that. But Tony’s inner ugliness — and charisma — kept pulling in. And it really cost him everything he cared about, including his life in the last episodes.
The other thing that probably unsettled me was the way that Chase and his colleagues completely destroying the idea of an arc, delivering anticlimax after anticlimax. Richie Aprile seemed to be about to become a threat to Tony. Then Janice shot him in the penultimate of Season 2. Furio seemed about to become a rival to Tony and a romantic lover of Carmela. He returns to Italy, never to be seen again. And don’t even ask what happened to that Russian who got away in the Pine Barrens. Even the writers don’t know.
Maybe that’s the real reason we shouldn’t have been so shock when the series final episode cut to black just before it seemed anything big was going to happen to Tony. Was he ever prosecuted? Shot by Members Only guy? Choked to death on an onion ring? We’re never going to know for sure, and I have a feeling Chase likes it that way. It’s possible that Chase will give a deathbed confession as to what really happened to Tony afterward, but I imagine the only reason he will is because by then, it would be an anticlimax after all the speculation before, during, and after. And I kind of think he likes that.
But for all that, perhaps the thing that really is the scariest about The Sopranos is what it says about human nature. As Tony said in the Pilot to Dr. Melfi: “I feel like I came in at the end”. Many took it to say, he meant not just the end of the mob as a power, but that of the American Dream as whole. I think there may actually be something even darker than that at the core. In Oz, one could justify all the bleakness by saying the characters were in prisoner and victims of the system. One could make the same argument for most of the characters in the spider web of The Wire. But in The Sopranos, most of the characters were upper-class or working class white people. Always making what was the easy choice for them, never thinking of other people or how thinks affected them. Never was this more evident in ‘Kennedy and Heidi’, the two teenagers forced Tony and Christopher into a car wreck, then refused to go back because it was dark and she was on her learner’s permit — an accident that led to Christopher’s death. Are we all just variations on The Sopranos? Are we all going to leave problems for other people to deal with? Its unsettling — hell, its terrifying to even think of it. And what does that say about us as viewers?
What we can be sure of is that while Tony thought he came in at the end, it was really the beginning. The New Golden Age of Television could not have happened without The Sopranos. And that really is something to celebrate. We may all be going to hell for it, but at least it’ll be fun getting there.