It’s been over two years, now, since The Sopranos ended its run on television with one of the most cryptic endings in television history, leading to weeks of debate over whether or not Tony was dead, who killed him, and why Meadow was such a bad parallel parker.
For many people, that ending is the most iconic image from the show; for some, it may be the only thing they remember of the show’s cultural impact. Unfortunately, that black screen is blocking a very rich history.
It’s easy to forget, but when The Sopranos premiered in 1999, it instantly became the best television drama of all-time (granted, this wasn’t as difficult of a crown to earn back then, since The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, etc. had all yet to air). It also resonated culturally in a way other great shows rarely do; it was almost instantly beloved by critics and viewers alike, at least partially because HBO allowed them to show violence, profanity and nudity.
Looking back on the first season of the show, it’s odd to think how “edgy” a lot of it was. Aside from cursing and sex, the show features a character who kills someone with his bare hands in the fifth episode (which HBO thought would render Tony unsympathetic to an audience), which now seems tame (this guy doesn’t even wait five scenes). The show uses psychiatry as a key feature of the narrative, which is commonplace now. And the show offers a frank approach to sexuality and drug use, which has become par for the course now as well.
And yet, none of the shows that have pushed the envelope farther has achieved the resonance that The Sopranos had. What made the show great wasn’t shock value— though it had plenty of that— but something much more substantive.
The resonance of The Sopranos comes from the fact that it was, at heart, a modern family drama. (David Chase has stated that he really just wanted to write a story about his own dysfunctional relationship with his mother, but then gave it a mob hook to sell it to a network.) When the show is at its best, it is really just about a guy trying to be a father and husband while simultaneously holding an unconventional and morally indefensible job.
This raison d’être was never met as faithfully as it was in the show’s first season. I used to have a theory that TV dramas always peaked in their first season, because the first season always represents the purest vision of the creator’s hopes for the show (I say “used to” because this theory has been shattered by The Wire, Mad Men and Lost, among others). The first season of The Sopranos was always my primary evidence for this theory.
While later seasons would venture into tangential storylines about FBI procedure, the movie business, the parole system, gays in the mafia, and several other issues of the day, the first season is a much more focused, and forceful, story.
The ambition of The Sopranos was that it simultaneously portrayed its protagonist, Tony, as morally contemptible and an everyman. From the first episode, Tony is represented as a stand-in for many late-90s Americans, telling his therapist, Dr. Melfi: “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
As Melfi points out, this feeling was not entirely unusual in 1999. At the end of the most prosperous decade in American history, many Americans, whether they were mobsters or not, had felt as if they lacked purpose or meaning— the paper Tony picks up in the first of what would become a recurring getting-the-paper-from-the-driveway motif (see, everyman) has a story about Clinton’s impeachment trial, to really set the tone. Tony admits that by any conventional measure, he is a success—he is rich, married, his own “boss”— but he still has to worry about where his daughter is going to go to college, how to get his mother to agree to live in a “retirement community,” whether or not his son has ADD, and a plethora of small, tedious, never-ending problems. Most importantly, he is unhappy:
This scene is pretty representative of the first season of the show, not just in its thematic elements (ethnic heritage, the tension between the stoic and the effusive, depression), but in its dialogue: Rarely does a line as funny as “I have a semester and a half of college, so I understand Freud” creep its way into typical dramatic scenes.
The strength of the dialogue and writing always set The Sopranos apart. No show has ever done dialogue as well as The Sopranos; the show never descended into banter or pithy witticisms, instead developing unique, realistic voices for every character.*
*One of the things that makes the writing on The Sopranos (and to a lesser extent, The Wire) so great is that it focuses primarily on dumb, uneducated characters. It’s easy to get Don Draper or Benjamin Linus to say something profound or make an insightful literary allusion. It’s a lot more impressive to get enlightenment from someone who cannot pronounce “Hannibal Lecter.”
Discussing the broad themes and grand ambitions of The Sopranos and ignoring the minor details, like characterization and dialogue, that they get so right is to do the show a great disservice. The show is excellent at capturing how real people talk and act, down to mannerisms and accents. I’ve never seen a show handle college admissions, or ADD diagnosis, or therapy, or generational differences, or countless other traditional storylines as well and as realistically as The Sopranos did. It’s not as if the show was the first to do these stories, but it was the best at not glossing over the important details and lasting implications.
When Tony takes his daughter to visit colleges in the fifth episode (“College,” possibly the greatest episode of the series), for example, the show explores how Tony’s family is corrupted by his line of work.* When his daughter Meadow asks him if he is in the Mafia, she is not naïve or sheltered, but trying to finally get honesty out of her father. Tony wants to have an honest relationship with her—he tells her that some of his money comes from “illegal channels”— but he knows he cannot divulge the full extent of his profession without losing any respect she has for him.
*The show, thankfully, does not center Meadow’s application process around a shockingly good SAT score or a brilliant interview like so many shows. Instead, The Sopranos depicts getting into college as the long, arduous, tedious, capricious and obsessive process that usually involves way too much thought.
This may seem like an issue that only really confronts members of the Mafia, but it isn’t. It’s only a more extreme version every parent faces: How do you deal with your children when they start to see you as people and not just as parents? Meadow is reaching the age where she knows that, as she puts it, “most dads are full of shit,” but Tony also has to deal with disciplining his younger son, AJ. If parental discipline has to come from some moral authority, then Tony is in trouble— and not just because he is a mobster. As this scene from “Down Neck” illustrates, punishing children is rarely a simple affair:
This scene also showcases the crux of the first season: Tony’s relationship with his mother. Now, a mother-son relationship is not exactly a cutting edge story, and it hasn’t been since Sophocles. Nevertheless, Tony’s scenes with his mother offer an honest and original look at the Oedipal relationship. Typically, the elderly are portrayed in movies and TV as either stoic fountains of wisdom, like Mama Lucas or Mr. Feeny, or quirky but lovable, like Edwin Hoover or Frank Costanza.
Livia Soprano, however, does not fit into any mold. She is selfish, senile, demanding, racist and self-absorbed. She doesn’t know how to use the telephone and says things like, “These blacks! You never know what they are going to take the wrong way!” She is also one of the greatest characters in TV history. Nancy Marchand plays her as brutally honest and hilarious, playing her as shrill and aloof instead of as the typical marginalized and forgotten parent. She never utters words of wisdom—except of the “life is meaningless” variety— and it is hard to imagine how she could have ever raised children. For Tony, she is never-ending source of tension and guilt:
The idea that someone could hate his mother is a taboo one (as Dr. Melfi says), but with Livia, it never seems unjustified. Nevertheless, she is Tony’s mother, and he feels a desperate need for her approval. There is a scene in the pilot in which Livia and Tony’s uncle Junior are driving to AJ’s birthday party: They reminisce about the good old days and compare Tony to his father. Junior complains that Tony does not respect him as his dad used to, and Livia complains that Tony doesn’t take care of her like her husband did.
This kind of generational contempt is not unique to Tony, or Italians, or mobsters, etc. And it’s not simply nostalgia or resistance to change at work here— there is a real question as to whether or not Tony, the 90s everyman, meets the standards set by previous generations.
This disconnect sets the backdrop for the entire season. How Tony raises his kids, treats his wife, takes care of his mother, runs his business, is all measured against the standard set by previous generations, and what his mother and uncle think of him. The power struggle between Tony and Junior for control of the family is almost a metaphor for this generational gap.
The season’s climax, a failed attempt on Tony’s life, illustrates the show’s deft blend of the sensational and the deep. On the one hand, it is a classic mob-movie showdown (it comes after Tony buys orange juice, in a nod to The Godfather). On the other, though, it comes when Tony is in the depths of his depression, and has the added quirk of being condoned (or ordered, or possibly neither, depending on your viewing) by Tony’s own mother.
Ultimately, The Sopranos was about violence and crime, but not as much as it was about being a middle-aged man in the 1990s. Tony was an everyman who dealt with many of the same moral issues that every middle class American deals with, only in more extreme forms. Most people’s parents don’t try to have them killed for putting them in a nursing home, but plenty of people probably think their parents want to. Most people don’t actually have the ability to have a teacher who has sex with a student killed (as Tony almost does in “Boca”), but plenty of people wish they did. Most people can’t write a mob movie about their own life (as Tony’s nephew Chris does in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”) but plenty of people try to turn their lives into screenplays.
The Sopranos would continue to walk the line between Tony as everyman and Tony as sociopath, but would never again achieve the perfect balance of the first season. In season finale, “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano,” Tony offers his kids a bit of philosophythat sounds like it comes from a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. In the context of the show, coming after Tony has “settled” his family business, seen his uncle arrested, and confronted his mother for trying to have him killed, the words sound like they may as well have come from Socrates: “Someday soon you’re going to have families of your own. And if you’re lucky, you’ll try and remember the little moments like this… that were good.”