The Sopranos, the Show that Knew Too Much
It’s kind of weird saying that a show, a TV show, has had such a powerful impact on the way I think, perceive and, subsequently, live. I’d be the first to admit that sounds borderline stupid. A show changed your life? Are you Truman? What‘s the deal? After all, it’s a TV program, how layered and deep can it be? Well, it turns out a series revolving around a depressed middle aged mobster and his family can be as layered as any 19th century Russian novel. I won’t focus on how The Sopranos changed television, that’s in itself true and fine, but rather try and briefly present how intelligently conceived and depicted this six-season story is.
4 Italian Americans and 1 Italian. Photo: HBO
I’d like to start by stating that Tony Soprano is, in essence, when you break it down, a uniquely despicable guy leading a truly horrible life. He is extremely talented at being an all around asshole, with or without premeditation. Nobody can be bad the way Tony is, nobody else can breathe as heavily while devouring pasta, nobody beats the shit out of bartenders and still gets served. Nobody else belt whips politicians like Tony, destroys a wall-mounted phone like Tony, nobody kills extended family like big T. Taking all this and more (more would be spoilers) into account, it’s pretty remarkable how much I relate to him considering I am not a sociopathic crime boss. I would attribute this to David Chase’s (the creator of the show) ability to write true to life. Tony and his family, despite their atypical lives which not many can or would ever lead, seem so approachable, so familiar, every facial expression and emotional gesture is something you’ve seen before if you are part of a family. For instance, I for one completely understand the rage Tony felt on the occasion when he discovered the food he specifically put away for himself and dreamed about all day was gone when he came home after an exhausting day of racketeering and managing a strip club. He felt betrayed, the world is unfair, I get that. But I don’t break the fridge door. Not that I wouldn’t wish to do that; it sounds awfully satisfying to simply destroy something after realizing nobody cares or understands how much better you’d feel if one thing, just one thing, went as you planned it to go that day. Or the show’s depiction of the phenomenon of how significant the art of barbecuing is to men, how it’s never a good call to give advice to another grown man on how to grill his meat unless your true intention is to establish dominance through this simple act. If you were in this situation, you would know your masculinity is being called into question, and it is not because you’re an insecure man-baby, it’s because you’re being talked to by a Tony and he will find a way to send his message and ruin your day.
These subtle situations are all common knowledge in a way, because they are easily understandable when verbalized to anyone who is an adult human and interacts with other adult humans. Except, in the world of the Sopranos, these little slice-of-life gestures can often be foreshadowing of a brutal beating and even murder. Which leads me to another odd thing this show can do to you – rationalizing brutality and homicide. After getting hooked, you find yourself thinking things like ‘Yeah, that hit was definitely the right move taking into account the dynamics and hierarchy of the New York crew at the moment. I know murder can get pretty ugly, but at some point it’s a necessary business decision, can’t be avoided’. You get kind of weirdly comfortable with all the crime, but then they hit you with an act of brutality so raw and real that it leaves you with absolutely no doubt in your mind that Tony is as evil and manipulative as they get. But he’s still a dad. Still a husband. Still gets the papers every morning. So you forget what you know about him, but rest assured, Tony never forgets. He is always aware of what he is and keeping this fact in mind is the key to watching this show and grasping how carefully constructed it is. I would also add that, in my opinion, this fact is crucial to understanding the famous, controversial ending where for the first time in the history of television you get to see the point of view of … something.
The classic ‘I’m feeling provoked by your quasi intellectualism at the dinner table’ face. Photo: HBO
Despite being an oddly proud fan, I am also aware that the show can at times be hard to watch, especially towards the later seasons. The overall tone of the show gets darker as the story moves along, ultimately culminating in pitch black darkness (anyone who knows the end can appreciate the irony of this sentence). As the series progresses, the atmosphere shifts. Tony gets fatter and more evil with every season. It seems ridiculous to even write this because you can’t be ‘a bit evil’ no more than you can be ‘a little free’ or ‘kind of happy’, but this is what religiously watching The Sopranos does to the brain, it makes you question everything you know about the human condition and what it means.
On that note, I will raise another issue some viewers may have with the show. At times (also progressively towards the end) it tends to be so packed with symbolism and meaning that some may become frustrated in trying to figure out whether there truly is a deeper meaning hidden in a particular scene or you’re starting to read into it too much. I mean, sex, dreams, sex dreams, every animal under the sun, water in all its forms, the seasons, homosexuality, every religion there is, time, mirrors,… everything is in there. It’s not that difficult to get lost in the occasional obscure reference and feel that you’re missing out on something. The thing is, these ‘high brow’ elements are not a test, I feel that they should be perceived as a result of the creative freedom which is unfolding before us. Not just of the writers but of the audience as well. These elements are there for us all to use as we please, and we can trust them to be tools for exploring our own subconsciousness or not. If that’s your thing, analyze and discuss till you pass out. If not, the storytelling is undeniably solid and it’s hard for me to imagine anybody not being entertained. I feel that this show should be studied, but anybody who disagrees can still have fun and appreciate the ability of The Sopranos to gently shove this fact in your face - everybody is an anti-hero and determining whether that’s ok is all up to you.