TV series: The Sopranos (HBO)
Originally aired: 1999-2007
Back in the day there always used to be something good on TV on Fridays at 9 PM, and my family would end up watching it because we had had food together (usually homemade pizza) in the living room watching whatever used to be on at 8 PM and then kind of ended up staying on the sofa. The Sopranos landed on Swedish screens in October 2000. My then 18-year-old self wasn’t all that interested in a bunch of New Jersey gangsters, so I only ended up watching the first season. I might not even have seen all of it, I don’t recall – I only know I liked the theme song, Woke Up This Morning by English (!) band Alabama 3 (A3 in the US).
Roll on maybe 21 years or so, and I’m reevaluating all things gangster I didn’t use to like. While 18-year-old me wasn’t keen on watching a bunch of unpleasant dudes going around killing people, late 30s me got really into Mafia narratives after playing a 1920s gangster in a roleplaying game, which in turn got me into Boardwalk Empire, so watching all of The Sopranos now seemed like an excellent idea. And it turns out it was. For starters, The Sopranos, like The Wire, was a HBO show that’s still hailed as one of the greatest TV shows ever made. Terence Winter, one of the writers, would later go on to create one of my favourite shows, Boardwalk Empire, which one of the directors, Timothy Van Patten, would also later direct. Winter is currently working on another Mafia-based show called Tulsa King, due out on Paramount+ in November, which I’m also really looking forward to.
The Sopranos was at the beginning of the era where TV started to be treated as its own, valid medium, instead of as cinema’s poorer cousin. TV could take narrative risks that films couldn’t, and it could take time to develop a story because it didn’t have to be done and dusted in under two hours. The Sopranos introduced the concept of an antihero, which wasn’t really a thing before, to a wider audience. The ending of the final episode still splits opinion, and it got people talking. And it has aged surprisingly well.
Anyway. The show’s main character is Anthony “Tony” Soprano (James Gandolfini). He has a wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and son A.J./Anthony Junior (Robert Iler). As far as the kids are concerned, at least in the beginning, he has a regular job that pays well so they can have a nice big house. In reality, he’s a capo in the DiMeo crime family in New Jersey. He also happens to have panic attacks and starts going to a psychiatrist, Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
For six seasons of various lengths we follow Tony and his family … and his Family. He goes from capo to acting boss to actual boss. It’s not just the Soprano family that’s fleshed out – a lot of the other characters are too. From Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and their godawful mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) to Tony’s childhood friend Artie (John Ventimiglia), now a restaurateur, Carmela’s cousin/Tony’s mobster protégé Chrissy Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) as well as Chrissy’s girlfriend Adriana (Drea de Matteo). Not to mention the main players in the DiMeo crime family: Uncle “Junior” Soprano (Dominic Chianese), Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa), Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), Vito Spatafore (Joseph R Gannascoli), etc.
A number of well-known faces come and go over the years: notably Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi, but there are so many others. Even actor/director Peter Bogdanovich, a name and face I’ve become familiar with through my forays into the life and works of Orson Welles, is in it as a recurring character! In one episode you even see a young Lady Gaga, and in another four a young Emily Wickersham (NCIS).
With The Sopranos, you not only have the concept of having a mobster in therapy (the film Analyze This came out at a similar time) but one that has panic attacks, and has had them since childhood. You see all kinds of scary dudes being more or less neurotic – Paulie Walnuts freaking out over a spiritualist medium in season one is hilarious, but there’s also the more serious question of “can you be a mobster and openly gay?” and “what if the FBI pressure me into becoming an informant?” Then there’s the weird notion that a man performing oral sex on a woman is somehow “unmanly”. Pretending to be senile only to shortly thereafter genuinely develop dementia. Props for having a husband stand up for his overweight wife when others were making fun of her, even if that particular storyline fell at the last hurdle. The rape subplot … kind of gets swept under the carpet a bit.
Then add in all the family dynamics. Juggling a wife and a number of mistresses, trying to not mess up your kids, trying to deal with a resentful, manipulative and abusive mother who tries to convince your uncle that you’re gunning for his spot in the Family, and so on. It makes for some compelling viewing. Turns out it’s actually about a whole lot more than unpleasant middle-aged dudes going around killing people when they’re not hanging around strip clubs.
The unpleasant dudes aren’t even necessarily that unpleasant – Bobby Bacala could even be called a sweetheart! The Sopranos, like The Godfather decades before it, humanised a group of people that would otherwise be brushed off as stereotypical villains. Even mobsters can have hopes and dreams and wants and needs, it turns out. Some of those hopes and wants are horrible, granted, but others are the same as for any non-mobsters. Chrissy wants to make a movie. Vito wants to find someone who loves him for who he is, Carmela wants to be happy, A.J. wants his dad to be proud of him, etc.
But yes, they do also hang out at strip clubs, deal drugs, and there’s a lot of gun violence. The Sopranos is gritty, but it’s also very, very good. It’s been over 20 years since it first came on air and it’s still a terrific show … if you like that sort of thing. I didn’t at age 18, but now? Now I do. Now I can appreciate it on a different level, and I know more about the organisation of crime families, so it’s easier to follow. Not to mention some of the scenes are comedic gold. Chrissy and Paulie getting stuck in the wilderness in the middle of winter is a prime example.
Yes, they have strange ways of pronouncing Italian food stuffs, but it turns out “Jersey Italian” is a remnant of old south Italian dialects that were taken to the New World and kept while the Italian language back in Italy developed in different directions. Something about vocalised vs non-vocalised consonants and dropped syllables. I may have gone down a rabbit hole wondering why they kept saying stuff like “moozadell” instead of “mozzarella” (and what the heck “gabagool” is) and an hour or two later ended up downloading a Sicilian language learning app. Like you do.
I guess like The Wire, the characters in The Sopranos are also all shades of grey. Some are darker, some lighter, but no one is really squeaky clean or entirely irredeemable, although your mileage may vary on the latter. In a strange way you end up sympathising for a bunch of these characters, despite a lot of them being hardened criminals. At the same time you also fully realise that they are, by and large, bad people who get what is coming to them. Others get what’s coming to them but they don’t actually deserve it. As for Tony Soprano himself? You couldn’t see anyone but James Gandolfini in this role. He really was Tony Soprano, but sadly he passed away unexpectedly in 2013, aged only 51.
I’m glad I didn’t stick with it back in the day, because I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Instead it has allowed me to watch it again as if it was completely new to me, and get to know the characters from scratch all over again. It really was a terrific show, and that people are still talking about it online is a testament to that.
And the theme song is still bangin’.