BY the time academics started to publish essays like “Stripper Iconography and Sex Worker Feminism on The Sopranos,” it was apparent HBO’s drama about an anxious, brutal, suburban mob boss might be more than just a TV show.
Since the show launched eight years ago, the cable network’s upscale audience bought up “Sopranos” bowling shirts and cookbooks, joined in conspiracy-filled “Sopranos” Internet sites, took pole dancing lessons and started speaking in Sopranoisms (“whacked,” “all due respect”). At its peak in 2004, “The Sopranos” had 14.4 million viewers per episode. And HBO sold the show in 2005 in a record syndication deal to A&E that earlier this year started introducing “The Sopranos” to millions of new viewers.
In their many anthologies, the academics tried to explain the phenomenon: “The Sopranos” represented shifts in masculine identity. It was about the American family in the 21st century, American consumption, class in America. It diminished Italian Americans, it honored Italian Americans. It overflowed with psychotherapeutic and philosophical insights.
The show, created by David Chase, in part to exorcise the formidable maternal presence in his own life, “had a seismic effect on the whole culture,” said director Peter Bogdanovich, reflecting the tone of commentators who reached for superlatives to lavish on the series. On a smaller scale, Bogdanovich, who plays a therapist’s therapist on the series, said the show renewed a professional identity for him as an actor.
Even producer and well-known industry cynic Gavin Polone admitted sheepishly that he had only praise for the show. “It’s the only show on television that I’ve seen every episode,” he said.
However, the more enduring legacy of “The Sopranos” is surely on TV itself. “It has been in many ways a creative game changer for television,” said television historian and author Tim Brooks. “That had never happened before with a program seen by less than a third of the country.” Though initially turned down by several broadcast networks, “The Sopranos” became “a shining example of how a show that has that kind of violence, sexuality and language wins Emmys and gets enormous acclaim can allow commercial broadcasters to go much further,” he said. “The Sopranos” roughened the tonality of much of television. Advertisers remained leery, but extreme violence and more explicit sexuality became increasingly common in broadcast and basic cable “chalk line” shows — crime procedurals such as the “CSI” franchise, “Criminal Minds” and “Without a Trace.” For broadcasters, the appeal of “The Sopranos” was less about its viewership, though considerable, and more about “what you could get away with,” Brooks said.
As the epic series starts its final final season tonight — its first final season aired last year after a 21-month hiatus — some viewers have tired of the long goodbye. But for die-hards, how the show ends — who gets whacked, who sings, what happens to Tony Soprano — will, it is hoped, tell what it was all about and, in the sense of a good novel, who we are.
All Chase would say in an interview is that from the start he wanted to avoid the “rise and fall,” crime-doesn’t-pay paradigm of traditional Mafia stories. “Tony and Carmela are aware, intelligent adults,” he said. “They know what they’ve done, and they’ll have to live — or die — with the decisions they’ve made.”
Tony Soprano: “I came in at the end. The best is over.”
Dr. Jennifer Melfi: “Many Americans, I think, feel that way.”
THE genius of “The Sopranos,” analysts agree, is its everyday ordinariness. Viewers identify with Tony, a brooding second-generation Mafioso leader who tries to live a normal suburban family life while managing a corrupt and violent “waste management” business from offices at the Bada Bing! strip club. He is rich, successful, self-indulgent and miserable.
When Tony can’t live up to the gravitas of the mythical Corleones, he suffers panic attacks and winds up in a new relationship — with a therapist. He yearns to be a self-made man and live a life based on codes of conduct, but those days have long gone. “He wants to be Don Corleone but keeps finding himself Homer Simpson,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University.
Soprano’s mob family continued “the Martin Scorsese world view” but raised questions about its masculinity, said Toby Miller, director of the program in film and visual culture at UC Riverside. Tony is “in a sense laughable, pitiable. He’s hyper-violent, but prone to sadness and remorse….It’s that emptiness at the core that comes out in Tony no matter how much he races around with his friends, has relationships with women, returns to his family or undergoes therapy,” he said. “The psychoanalytic segments, as well as the inability to be straightforward with his wife, bring out that vulnerability that is the flip side of the violence and power.”
Male bonding and familial hierarchy help palliate his “terrible cosmic doubts” about his masculinity, Miller said.
And that proscribed way of life held an appeal beyond the screen. At a particular restaurant in Paterson, N.J., he said, “Sopranos” cast members would gather and “people would go there to see them eat. They would be treated by people in their characters and they would operate in their characters.”
Week after week, fans could enter that world to catch up with the characters in what amounted to an 80-hour movie. More than with film characters, viewers became familiar with the intimate details of the characters’ lives, feelings and moral conflicts.
Despite the violence, “the core of the program is about a dysfunctional family and a guy who has a lot of emotional baggage, as does his wife,” Brooks said. “There are whole scenes with Tony and Carmela just eating spaghetti, no dialogue, just looking at each other. The whole thing with Christopher and Tony — he’s loyal, then maybe he isn’t, yet he’s family, so you gotta love him, or trust him. For an upscale, thoughtful and intellectual audience, that can be heady stuff.”
“Soprano” references sprang up — in crime reports, therapy sessions and tough talk across the country. In 2003, a 20-year-old Riverside student claimed to have copied an idea he saw on “The Sopranos” after he killed his abusive mother, cut off her head and hands and dumped her body alongside an Orange County roadway.
Milder effects of the show have surfaced among therapists’ clients. Beverly Hills psychologist Cara Gardenswartz said some of her patients have identified Tony’s anxiety symptoms in themselves. Others, noticing that the fictional Dr. Melfi talked about Tony in her personal therapy sessions, asked Gardenswartz whether she had a therapist.
The American Psychoanalytic Assn. took the show seriously enough to honor Lorraine Bracco, the actress who plays Dr. Melfi and who published an autobiography about her own battle with clinical depression. A few years ago, Gardenswartz was able to earn credits through a Dr. Melfi-based workshop in which the psychologists watched episodes of “The Sopranos” and analyzed them. To her mind, Dr. Melfi hasn’t always been firm enough with her boundaries, but she has interpreted Tony’s actions well.
“This is someone who is severely disturbed,” she said. “He doesn’t really have the motivation to change.”
By Lynn Smith, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer