January 10, 1999, was a day that SHOULD NOT have lived in cultural infamy. On that day, nearly all things culture were pretty forgettable. Aside from salacious post-impeachment gossip, 1999 was posed to be a yawner.
The top box office hit was A Civil Action, a law drama starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall. This acclaimed, but forgettable film garnered an Academy Award for Duvall and featured a young James Gandolfini. I don’t remember ever hearing about it.
The NBA had just ended it’s longest ever (204 days) lockout. Remember that? I remember Samuel L. Jackson and the funny ESPN commercials, but that’s about it.
The #1 Billboard single? Something called I’m Your Angel. This track was recorded by Celine Dion and features R. Kelly. I bet Dion regrets this collaboration now.
The Yankees swept the Braves in the World Series. Boring. I feel like that was every World Series from 1992 to 2005.
These forgettable cultural tidbits, like the whole year, were supposed to be boring filler that occurred between cranking Prince’s 1999 in the early morning hours of January 1 and ushering in the new millennium at the end of December 31.
Then, The Sopranos happened.
I remember watching trailers for this mysterious show between episodes of Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show, with my buddies Stuart and Bruce. Our interests were piqued and we waited in anticipation for January 10, and when 9 p.m. finally rolled around, the three of us crowded their filthy, broken couch (we were in college), ordered Papa Johns (it was COLLEGE) and opened some Miller Lites (I still stand by that decision) and turned the channel from Fox – probably King of the Hill – to HBO.
By 10 p.m. we were going crazy having already become addicts. We needed more of The Sopranos and we needed it yesterday.
On that stinky, greasy, beer-stained couch, we were introduced to New Jersey mafia chieftain Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the first new era television anti-hero. A charming and affable ‘waste management consultant,’ Tony was also a wunderkind mafioso who lived, enjoyed and thrived in his thinly veiled double life.
On the surface, Tony seemed to have it all – the nuclear family, pet ducks in his swimming pool, and a McMansion on a hill. Underneath this facade lived a mob boss who ruled his empire through intimidation, fear and murder. Tony was jovial and gregarious and could smile at you while picking your pocket or breaking your kneecaps.
Through the many faces of Tony, the viewer was forced to ask, ‘Who exactly IS Tony Soprano?’ It’s a good question, and his actions didn’t make the answer easy. For example:
Tony burned down a friend’s restaurant so the restaurant wouldn’t go out of business, forgave the uncle who attempted to murder him, and in a controversial act of mercy, swiftly and painlessly murdered a relative so the relative wouldn’t be tortured to death by rival gangsters.
An enigma wrapped in a riddle, Tony yearned for love, acceptance and approval while running a criminal enterprise. In other words, complexity was the name of the game, and Tony was the perfect anti-hero for the 21st century and the changing identity of the American male.
Tony’s partner in crime, in every sense of the word, was his wife Carmela.
*Duke and Duchess of North Caldwell, by Frederico Castelluccio (Furio Gunta)
Played be Edie Falco, Carmela was a loving mother, a scorned wife, a slave to materialism and a woman seeking spiritual enlightenment, all blended into a single Northern New Jersey suburban housewife. The scenes between Gandolfini and Falco are the heart of the show, a masters class in acting and some of the best crafted vignettes in any cultural convention.
On my initial watch, I believed Tony and Carmela were soulmates in a marriage built out of mutual respect and admiration. Oops.
Perspective changes. Great art doesn’t.
Together, Tony and Carmela shared a game face for the sake of appearance, but behind closed doors they had a love-hate relationship that would be just as often toxic as kind. In reality, they needed each other to survive and by the end of the series, placated each other so that their individual needs were met. As their story concludes, the viewer sees both Mr. and Mrs. Soprano for who they are and neither of them are pretty.
Tony and Carmela also had two children – the older, overachieving daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Seigler) and her younger, slacker brother Anthony Junior (Robert Iler). To me, it always seemed that these children represented the two different paths Tony’s life could have taken.
Meadow represents Tony’s best case scenario: staying out of the family business, graduating college, and being a good and decent person. I don’t believe this to be a stretch as Tony is shown to occasionally be compassionate and reveals that he briefly attended Seton Hall.
If Tony sticks it out and gets a business degree, it is not hard to imagine him doing well for himself and his family. After all, Tony was street smart, good with numbers and could see the big picture with long-term business deals. However, that CPA job would not have allotted for the gluttonous extravagances that he and his family yearned for by the series end.
A.J., on the other hand, represents the worst case scenario (albeit WITHOUT committing murder and without destroying others’ lives) for Tony: living at home, loafing from job to job and being bossed around by his mother all the while being influenced by mobster/ family role models.
There are a few occasions where Tony tells A.J that he sees himself in his son. At the beginning of the show, Tony saw the best in A.J., just like we, as the audience, saw the best in Tony. By the end of the show, Tony saw the worst in A.J., just like we, as the audience saw the worst in Tony.
The Soprano family matriarch was Tony’s manipulative, psychotic and widowed mother Olivia (Nancy Marchand). The tension between Livia (as she is referred to by those who know her) and Tony was palpable as Livia despised the man Tony had become, mocked the ‘weakness’ of seeing a psychiatrist and suppressed her role in shaping who Tony ultimately had become.
These tensions reach a fever pitch after Livia is committed, by Tony, to live in an nursing home/retirement community. After this act, Livia hated her son so much that she manipulated Tony’s uncle into an attempt on Tony’s life.
I don’t remember previously watching this mother/son dynamic on television. I mean, I loved The Sopranos almost instantly, but this plot line was so freshly unconventional that it was impossible not to tune in on a regular basis.
At this point, I would be remiss not to mention Tony’s sister Janet. The eldest of the three Soprano children, Janice was every bit the gangster her brother and father were. Janice was street smart, manipulative, tough, and knew how to play the game. Played by Aida Turturro, cousin of the one and only John Turturro, she showed that acting was in her genes and that she could hold her own with anyone on set.
Oh yeah, her character also conspired to murder Tony. If you are keeping track, that is a mother, uncle and sister that were, at a minimum, complicit in plots to assassinate Tony. And you thought YOUR family was nutty.
Unlike other popular network shows, the characters on screen were not all beautiful or young or virile. In fact, most of them were weathered, or at the very least did not fit into the norms of conventional television beauty.
In the 90s, if you wanted laugh tracks and pretty people on a conventional television procedural, you watched NBC on Thursdays. If you wanted gritty and gutty character driven drama, you watched HBO on Sundays.
And what a character-driven drama it was. As the seasons progressed, it became harder to label Tony and difficult to determine if Tony was born with or grew into his darker side. Was he always a charming and loving father who was, at a moment’s notice, capable of committing murder or did Tony gradually transition into a gluttonous, villainous, friendless creature who he was at the conclusion of the series?
This nature vs. nurture debate on Tony’s possible psychopathy was explored ad nauseam in the therapy sessions he shared with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). This stage wasn’t a plot device to move the show forward but rather a device to allow the viewer to see where Tony came from and to view how his parents, the state of New Jersey, Catholic dogma and the mafia all blended together to shape his life.
Most of the time it worked, even if it lost some of it gravitas after the passing of Nancy Marchand. These scenes are wonderfully written and acted and are a window into Tony’s soul and, perhaps, a way for him to practice and improve the rate and skill in which he lies and manipulates.
During these sessions, we learned about Tony’s father, John ‘Johnny Boy’ Soprano. A legendary New Jersey mobster, and brother to Junior. Johnny Boy, for better or worse, helped mold Tony into the man he found himself to be.
And it was probably for the worse. Through the duration of the show, Tony publicly puts Johnny Boy on a pedestal. Eventually, through his sessions with Dr. Melfi and a particular poignant episode featuring one of Johnny Boy’s long-time mistresses, Tony undresses the myth that is Johnny Boy Soprano and sees him for what he was: a stereotypical thieving and lying mafia soldier who would ultimately command Tony to commit his first murder.
To quote Anthony Junior, ‘That’s dicked up.’
After that murder there was no going back for Tony. Through his sessions with Dr. Melfi, Tony unearthed his contempt and disdain for his father, which turned into self hatred and self pity. If you think The Sopranos was just a show about the mob, you weren’t watching correctly.
Or you were, or are just young and dumb – like me during the shows initial run.
I have to admit in my 20s, I found these therapy scenes boring. I was part of, as The Soprano’s creator David Chase famously put it, the ‘hits and tits’ crowd. In my 30s, these scenes made more sense and now that I am in my 40s, I would like to assume that I get it.
Perspective changes. Great art doesn’t.
At this point, it should certainly be pointed out that The Sopranos wasn’t always heavy or insightful. There were many moments that caused deep belly laughs, a ton of gratuitous violence, plenty of nudity and swearing and even hints of the supernatural. You know, all the things that make television great.
The morons, scumbags, and degenerates who were responsible for these moments are members of Tony’s crew, and even though they were liars, murderers and thieves, you rooted for them anyway. Great writing does allow for that juxtaposition.
The most relevant characters in this tribe are Tony’s nephew Christoper Moltasanti (Michael Imperiolo) and Tony’s uncle Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano (Dominic Chianese).
Christopher is an insecure and manipulative drug addict who fails more than he succeeds, and Junior is an insecure and manipulative aging mafioso fighting a losing battle against dementia.
Christopher’s relationship with his uncle Tony ironically mirrors the relationship Tony shares with his uncle Junior.
Both nephews yearn for acceptance and approval from their uncles and both uncles repay their nephews in scorn. Tony is particularly ruthless to Christopher after Christopher puts into motion perhaps the most hurtful murder of the whole series.
The other main mafioso were:
- Salvatore ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero – Tony’s close childhood friend turned FBI informant. (Vincent Pastore)
- Paul ‘Paulie Walnuts’ Gualtieri – an old time knock around guy who worked for both Johnny Boy and Tony. (Tony Sirico)
- Silvio Dante – Tony’s calm, cool and collected consigliere. (Steven Van Zandt)
As a younger man, I thought this crew was super cool. As an older man, I see them for what they truly were: ruthless sociopaths, pariahs and terrible people.
Perspective changes. Great art doesn’t.
All of these amazing characters are contributed to series creator and show runner David Chase. Chase, whose background includes producing and writing for other television gems The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, took HBO to new heights with The Sopranos.
Chase, who is notoriously surly, has a reputation of being rough to work with and didn’t care what his viewers thought about his art. I firmly believe their is a correlation between apathy for your audience and being a good artist, which makes Chase the Michelangelo of television.
It is not hyperbole to say that Chase reinvented the television serial, was responsible for the television revolution and redefined the modern American anti-hero. Without Tony Soprano, we don’t get to meet Don Draper. If Tony Soprano doesn’t exist, Walter White doesn’t either. If we never met Tony Soprano, we don’t get to explore the city of Baltimore with Jimmy McNulty.
So at the end of the day, what is The Sopranos? Is it a drama about Tony’s two families? Is it a program about relationships? Is it a venture into the nature of psychology? Is it a show about the nadir of American culture and the soulless consumerism that was then and is still king?
It is all of these things and it’s timeless.
Perspective changes. Great art doesn’t.
That was some great damn art.
PEPPERS & GABAGOOL
- Want to really feel old? Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played overachieving daughter Meadow Soprano, is older now than Gandolfini was when the pilot aired.
- If you have never watched The Sopranos, this video should put you in the mood to start.
- Want to feel REALLY old? Lorraine Bracco, who played Dr. Melfi, is older now than Bea Arthur was when The Golden Girls premiered in 1985.
- ‘You’ve got a bee on your hat’ may be my favorite line of the whole series. Primarily, because I firmly believe all golfers should be slapped.
- For my money, this is the best 3:40 of the show.
- I am looking forward to The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to The Sopranos written by David Chase and directed by Sopranos veteran Alan Taylor. The cast is already impressive and features Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga and Corey Stoll.
- It goes without saying that the loss of James Gandolfini, in 2013 at the age of 51, was tragic for many reasons. One of those reasons, at least for me, is that we will never get to see another scene, ever and in any medium, between he and Falco. Rest In Peace.
- The classification of whether Livia lived in a nursing home or a retirement community is a tremendously funny running gag.
- If you like the drawing below, check out Reddit user u/shiftrefresh