Poor You: Misery and The Sopranos in 2020

At some point, The Sopranos became homework. Through no fault of its own, really; when something is so widely recognized as historically significant and quote-unquote “canonical,” that’s just what happens. As played by the late James Gandolfini, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano is now recognized — widely recognized — as essentially prestige TV’s patient zero. The HBO gangster drama from creator David Chase mapped out a style of television that persists to the current day: shorter seasons telling more serialized, emotionally nuanced stories compared to what were, at the time, the episodic and easier-to-digest conflicts of so much broadcast TV.

Perhaps that importance is why The Sopranos sat on the shelf, faintly yellowing like an old library book in its distant praise and its fame for so many prospective viewers, myself included — I’d have been 5 years old when the show began in early 1999, not yet fourteen when it finished mid-2007. 86 episodes across six (or seven, depending on who you ask) seasons demands a lot of time. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us had the time, stuck at home while the constant howl of New Content didn’t die out but certainly quieted down for a while. And as a result, alongside the decades-spanning detective work of Peter Falk’s Columbo, The Sopranos found an unexpected new life as the ideal quarantine watch.

Certainly the looming prospect of a (since delayed) prequel movie helped. But there’s more to the resurgence — among rewatch podcasts, among social media memes, among viewers in general—than easy availability and the fact that some of us put it off for longer than we should have. In a country ravaged not just by a virus but the decaying systems wholly unprepared to address it, The Sopranos gains an eerie and unfortunate modern resonance as, among other things, a merciless exploration of our capacity for self-delusion.

The Sopranos

Born Under a Bad Sign

If you’re like me, the most striking thing about The Sopranos, the thing that immediately melts away any preconceptions, is how funny the show is. The cast is full of colorful characters with big accents who shout a lot, their lines loaded with misunderstandings and malapropisms you might not even catch with the subtitles off (“the sacred and the propane,” or confusing Nostradamus for Quasimodo). They are petty to degrees that become darkly humorous, where a drug intervention devolves into a beating or the resident germophobe catches poison ivy while out on a hit. If The Sopranos is, big-picture, a show about America and the human condition and all that important stuff, it finds those things to be unambiguously hilarious and absurd.

In hindsight, the comedy makes sense; there is something inherently funny and absurd to the show’s central conceit, where Tony quite reluctantly enters therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). But the therapy also offers a guiding dramatic principle, in the series’s concern with psychology as it uses the mobsters as a lens to examine the absurdity of society at large. The mobsters all live in big houses full of nice things with their nuclear families, sending the kids to fancy schools on the backs of sizable donations that are funded, just as everything else in their lives is funded, by violence and corruption. None of this can even be called a double life. No regular guy is stepping into a phone booth to put on a tracksuit and an accent; this is who they are and who they are known to be even by their families, who are complicit by benefitting from ill-gotten wealth.

The conflation of mob family and immediate family does create problems here and there — how, for example, do you reasonably enforce a curfew when you’ve built your house on blood money? But there isn’t a lot of soul-searching on Tony’s part or his wife Carmela’s or even on the part of their kids, A.J. (Robert Iler) and Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). Their issues are less with the overall morality of their living situation than with what crosses over to affect them personally, like Meadow’s outrage upon realizing she’s been gifted a car that was once her friend’s, turned over to Tony Soprano to help settle gambling debts. When they protest, it tends to be an extension of their self-absorption.

All parties have long since learned to compartmentalize. Tony doesn’t even believe mobsters will be punished in the afterlife for what they’ve done, reasoning, “We’re soldiers. Soldiers don’t go to hell.” Meanwhile, his family only really has to confront what he does for a living in the abstract. They don’t have to think about it, don’t have to see the ways that mob money-making schemes target vulnerable people like immigrants sold bad phone cards when they just want to call home. 

It is easier for everyone not to look, which reflects our broader culture of not looking at the violence and oppression that underpins our lives. They do not make a point of inspecting the various Jersey mob hangouts as we do not make a point of inspecting the factories in countries where labor is outsourced to make our clothes and our phones, do not take tours of prisons to see the violence of the system and the complex feeding into more violence. They go on in willful ignorance, as we go on in willful ignorance because to look is to be confronted with the guilt of not doing something, anything at all. In its bloody foundations, the Soprano household is far from alone.

The Sopranos

The Regularness of Life

In another show, perhaps, the bill eventually comes due. Tony sees a karmic comeuppance, while the rest of the immediate family must directly witness their complicity. But part of what makes The Sopranos feel modern over a decade later, and perhaps why it continues to resonate, is how it rejects the usual trappings of TV drama. When the show aired, this meant the easy morality of broadcast TV, but it applies equally to the reams of Prestige TV that cropped up in its wake. Some of that is in the structure, where a serialized narrative is nevertheless broken up into individual stories often capable of standing alone rather than the sluggish “ten-hour movie” approach popularized by streaming services.

But the events of The Sopranos hardly play out the way we expect them to, either. Characters tend to die suddenly, by hands we did not anticipate; creator David Chase heavily favors anticlimax, leaving major plot points like an FBI bug in the Soprano house to putter out while the last straws for violence tend to be petty, with murders committed or narrowly avoided based on a horse or a fat joke about somebody’s wife. The characters get picked up for jail over tangential things like an abandoned gun or some bad plane tickets, and then they tend to get out. The show’s moral universe is unfair and uncaring; it has no arc.

Shows conceived in the years since The Sopranos have tended to flatten this approach, taking the production values and commitment to a fulfilling story to places that are, dramatically speaking, more familiar with the climactic cliffhangers and the big showdowns and the loudest drama. If they’re more traditionally gratifying, with bigger stakes and more conventionally attractive actors, they remain far less bold and distinctive, which is how The Sopranos feels as much like a thing that came before these shows as a thing that still comes afterwards, a rebuttal of sorts. Here, Chase’s 2012 movie Not Fade Away is instructive, a band movie that, rather than following a 60s rock band who made it big, pointedly follows some knuckleheads who did not make it because they did things like balk at commitment and accidentally swallow joints before they have to go on.

Chase has an affection for these fuckups as he has an affection for his monstrous gangsters who still display relatable human emotions, but he remains truly merciless in ruminating on his characters’ failings. There is an undercurrent of defeat to Not Fade Away that carries over from The Sopranos and its strange relationship with the TV status quo, the idea of things eventually contorting themselves back to some familiar form, business as usual. The status quo in so many shows, particularly long-running ones, is a dreaded form of storytelling complacency. In The Sopranos, it feels more like an expression of futility, a thing to have been defeated by — Carmela tries to leave Tony at one point but finds, for various reasons, that she cannot. He has made it too difficult, too financially ruinous, and so she makes a deal.

In this, The Sopranos becomes about recursion — if not the inability to change then the sheer difficulty of the whole endeavor. Characters try to get out of the life, try to get their violently homophobic mob fraternity to accept their sexuality, try to start new business ventures. Mostly, these end in failure. Always, they end with no positive transformation of their situation or their outlook. The trappings of television begin to repeat: a problem character emerges in a season and he is eventually done away with, only to be replaced by another because there is always another and never an escape. The final episode, “Made in America,” famously just sort of stops by cutting to black, but only after spending much of the episode setting up potential future conflicts, future directions for everyone to go in as they inevitably loop right back around again.

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The Sopranos

A Big Nothing

In the opening episode of the show, Tony says in therapy that he feels he has come in at the end of things, the twilight era of the mob. The organization is now a shell of its former self, with everybody informing on everybody else to get out of jail time. There’s certainly a rosy good-old-days tint to that belief, but he’s right in a way — he lives, as we live, beneath the accumulated mistakes and misdeeds of the past, the inability and/or unwillingness of anyone to learn from the same conflicts. A minor subplot in the final season finds the mob trying to dispose of asbestos, that relic of yesteryear, but having nowhere to dump it except in the water. The past only ever accumulates. The mob justifies heinous action by clinging to outdated codes it doesn’t really believe in, and hell if that doesn’t sound familiar.

And this, perhaps, is what truly makes The Sopranos resonate with today, in its profound pessimism about humanity that only became more pointed as the Twin Towers disappeared from the opening credits. It depicts the worst things about us that have only proven truer with time: our rejection of change, now seen in who we elect to office; our widespread desire to uncritically put things back the way they were, even if the way things were is how thousands died beneath a broken healthcare system, reciting school-age programming about freedom and nationalistic exceptionalism. These were the years that made so many people finally look, to behold so many generations of damage, and we are eager to look away again while others continue to gravitate toward the easy hatred and the conspiracies that at least provide some explanation.

The Sopranos packages misery in ways that are palatable, dramatic, and often, frequently funny, where moronic mobsters get lost in the woods or throw chairs at what might be ghosts or get traumatized by Big Mouth Billy Bass. But beneath it all, it’s that exasperation that resonates and grows. Somewhere in the show’s crowd of volatile, depressed people in the mob or adjacent to it, we recognize a measure of understanding. Living in a world of compartmentalization and delusion exacts a psychic toll that leaves us alienated, unraveling the specific damage wrought by the people who raised us and the culture we grew up in, either in therapy or on our own. And maybe the therapy is no good.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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