David Chase’s new film The Many Saints of Newark, a Sopranos prequel taking place during the Newark Riots of the late 1960s is a microscope into how the people surrounding young Tony Soprano, played astonishingly by the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael, influenced him to become the monster that we know him to be. And while the movie focuses partially on how Tony could not help but be entranced by his “uncle” Dickie Moltisanti, it got me thinking about why the same lure attracted us to The Sopranos in the first place.
What is it about Tony Soprano that made watching him every week irresistible? Was it the fact that quite often throughout the show he was charming and funny? Or that he was wealthy and powerful and looked up to by his crew and those around him? Or was it something more? The character is the apotheosis of the post-modern anti-hero—a vicious, brutal, murderous, criminal sadist, who stops at nothing to achieve his goals, be they financial, “business,” or hedonistic. In short, a monster, and frankly this is likely the true interpretation of the character as a symbol of the Organized Crime life. Tony is personally responsible for eight murders on screen, and as Boss of the DiMeo family has the blood of dozens more on his hands His murder victims include two of his actual family members and one of his best friends. If not for the intervention of a few hospital orderlies, he may very well have murdered his own mother. And yet week in and week out, we cheered for him, admired him, and felt sorry for him. Makes you wonder who the real depraved ones are, especially those of us who live having to fight the very stereotypes in our own lives while simultaneously embracing them through the films and television shows we watch.
The gangster has been a staple of the American pop culture pantheon since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Americans love a good mob story, as evidenced by the ever presence of Godfather references that are peppered throughout popular culture. This is not to say that these stories don’t present problems, particularly when addressing the perpetuation of a stereotype of a certain element within the Italian-American community. I have written on how some of these stereotypes have affected me personally, and yet there is something, perhaps morbid, that draws me to watch media in this genre. I often feel like a hypocrite for denouncing negative Italian-American stereotypes while at the same time embracing them in the shows, movies, and podcasts I consume. While the portrayal of this sub-culture is always controversial, The Sopranos made it impossible for America to ignore watching for a variety of reasons. Part Greek Drama, part morality play, part Italian Opera, mixed with the well-established mafia notes of Coppola and Scorsese, with an added layer of pop culture, The Sopranos changed the way we watched television permanently.
While it takes a perfect storm of creative factors to produce such a high-quality show, The Sopranos benefited from some of the most original writing ever brought to life on the small screen. Chase and his co-writers addressed many themes throughout the run—primarily psychological, philosophical, social, and political. While this was not the first show to explore these themes, it took the unprecedented step of combining these issues with some of the now cliched parts of the gangster genre: ineptitude, mangled language, and misunderstandings of the simple workings of life due to poor or severely interrupted education. This effectively created the funniest serious drama on television. How did they do this? By layering humor on top of drama in an intricate pattern. More often than not, the intricacies of the humor-laden drama forced us to decide between laughter and visceral shock, perhaps best encapsulated by young wiseguy Christopher Moltisanti’s assertion that one would not know “whether to shit or go blind.” The show’s editors patched the scenes together so that while you were laughing one minute, the likelihood was that within the next minute, you were covering your mouth in shock at some bestial act of brutality.
One of the better aspects of the show was that it portrayed these gangsters in a far less idealized light, as did films like The Godfather and others like it. It was the realism of the buffoonish characters that kept viewers coming back, not the sense that they were people to be idolized. The characters are stereotypical to be sure, but they were also incredibly believable in the sense that it was not a stretch to imagine that they existed (unlike the living caricature that is Gianni Russo, who gets less believable the longer you listen to him). The show’s realism is reinforced by the fact that none of the characters can necessarily be reduced to a single attribute or stock character. The characters are so fully fleshed out that they appeal directly to the audience’s emotions. Are they criminals? Absolutely—but in many ways, they are flawed humans just like each member of the audience, leading the viewer to shrug and repeat the oft uttered sentiment by Tony: “Whaddaya gonna do?” Often, the most compelling scenes were the ones where characters were dealing with the mundane and the various indignities of life. It’s this realism that I’d argue that we watched. We saw them as real people, not fictional creations; in some cases, real people we may have grown up with (especially if you’re a kid from Queens like me). What is often hinted at but never outwardly discussed is that all of Tony’s issues are self-inflicted as he lives the life he has chosen, a life that so many Italian American mothers warned their sons about.
Michael Franzese, former Caporegime in the Colombo Family turned Born Again Christian and motivational speaker left “The Life” over twenty years ago and maintains that La Cosa Nostra is an “Evil Life.” He says that he knows of no one in that life whose personal life was not ruined and whose family was not totally destroyed, himself included. Perhaps that is the ultimate message of The Sopranos. To paraphrase from Livia Soprano, Tony’s harpy of a mother: “It’s all a big nothing.” And maybe that’s the ultimate message of the show; no one winds up in a good place when you’re mixed up in that life.