Why we’re still watching The Sopranos

By Phil Gillen

Television series have a tendency to age poorly. They’re churned out by broadcasters who have 24 hours of content a day to fill, and made by constantly shifting groups of writers, directors, and actors. Rather than a theatrical filmmaker, the TV producer doesn’t need to motivate you to leave your house and go to the cinema with an excellently crafted work of art; they just need to put something out there that will keep you on the couch and seeing the commercials. For every Seinfeld and Twin Peaks, there are dozens of shows produced every year that will be canceled immediately or survive a few seasons to languish in the bottom of the bargain DVD barrel, and out of our hearts and minds, for the rest of time.

As it turns 20 years old this January 10th, however, HBO’s The Sopranos remains a standard of TV production and a cultural touchstone that transcends the generations it straddled, showing no signs of leaving our cultural memory any time soon.

The set-up could be a joke: a mafioso seeks therapy to treat the psychological effects his high-stress job causes. But while there’s comedy in The Sopranos (of the blacker sort), the series uses that set-up – the cultural image of the mobster forced into the real world, frustrated by the mundane problems of modern life to explore the way we all live.

From the beginning, the mobster characters are hyper-aware of their own status as both romanticized and stereotypes. They ape Pacino in The Godfather and make references to Goodfellas. Their self-awareness forces us to confront that issue; the romanticized mafia versus the reality. Neither a naive idolization of the mob nor a blanket moralistic judgment, the series brings out the complicated reality; that the mob, like bank robbers and other protagonists of crime media, are looked up to for rebelling against an unjust social order, but success leads them to maintain a part of that social order and to perpetuate injustice. It’s satisfying to watch the Sopranos crew fleece a corrupt government official, expropriate a business owner, to tip the scales in favor of their family and neighborhood as we would all love to do. But the targets of the mobsters are more often regular people like you and I, or the most marginalized among us.

The performance of the late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, the central character, will long be remembered. As the embattled boss of the Soprano family, Tony has a lot of blood on his hands, which quickly increases as the series goes on. He’s more or less successful in convincing himself that he’s a good person regardless, a conviction that the audience finds harder and harder to share. Gandolfini is required to do the requisite yelling and shouting of a typical TV performance, but he’s memorable for showing the vulnerabilities of the mobster, drawing out the contradictions of the character that make it so resonant. His weakness for animals, for one thing, or his protectiveness of his children.

He’s desensitized to violence and is accustomed to dealing it out, but sometimes things get through the chinks in his armor. We’re made to understand his character as not just an individual in control of his own fate, but of a man made by his circumstances, community, time.

And so the series goes. With its cinematic trappings, polished (by TV standards) performances all around, a realistic approach to modern life that is unafraid to get a little dramatic, and a who’s-who of guest stars and bit roles, the show paved the way for our modern age of cable TV prestige dramas. Very few of its followers, however, have reached the storytelling prowess, or the social impact, of the original. For television that provokes thought, weaves interesting stories, yet still entertains, The Sopranos has been the standard for 20 years, and probably will be for 20 more.

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