New Jersey mobster faces difficulties trying to balance the conflicting requirements of his home life and the criminal organization he heads.
86 episodes of 60 minute duration. HBO 1999-2007.
'The Sopranos' could only take place in New Jersey. Its locale is a vehicle for one of the underlying themes of the series, which is the inferiority complex experienced both by the lead character, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), as well as many of the supporting cast. The Soprano family, which dominates organized crime in their little corner of the world, "has ties to New York" but when all is said and done, the implication is that they are subject to direction from the larger and more powerful New York crime families. This lays the ground for many of the themes in the series, most of which reflect contemporary issues of life in the greater metropolitan area: stereotyping, racism, violence against women, violence in general, gender wars, generational misunderstanding and general neuroses -- both the neurosis generated by the stresses of middle-class life, and that which comes of the added pressure of beating up and killing people with great frequency.
It often seems as if the show uses its story line of gangland drama to speak to these issues..or does it use these ideas to get deeper into the psyche of organized crime? Does this begin to sound like a session on the couch of Tony's therapist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco)? After all, where else but in the greater New York area (or in an outright comedy like "Analyze This") would we accept the idea of a mob boss in need of psychiatric treatment? Not only that -- the series is so embedded in the conventions of New York culture that even when Tony's associates learn that he is in therapy, they accept this rather than use it against him. At least this is true of his contemporaries. The older generation, Tony's mother (Nancy Marchand) and his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) are horrified enough by the idea of a psychiatrist to assume that Tony is unfit to lead the family.
Tony Soprano is on some level the Archie Bunker of our time, which makes him the bigot you love to hate...or hate to love. He is, however, a much richer and more deeply layered character than Archie Bunker, just as The Sopranos is a much more complex series than All in the Family. Archie Bunker was also an urban fringe kinda guy, close to but never really inside the bright lights, big city environment of Manhattan. His fictitious character lived with his family in a small lower-middle-class neighborhood in Queens. The feminist, antiwar and diversity movements of the 60s and early 70s provided a catalyst for the show. It used the juxtaposition of Archie's old school racism and sexism to play off the radicalism of the time. The changes in Archie's neighborhood, and his proximity to neighbors and coworkers of different ethnicities and races gave rise to his surface bigotry. Generally, however, you could rely on the story line to resolve itself by Archie eventually "doing the right thing" despite his professed bigotry.
Tony's inner conflict with his own bigoted values is also often apparent -- but fortunately Tony cannot be counted upon to be politically correct, which saves the show from the formulaic boredom of so many other series. Tony, too is confronted with a changing world, not so much in his luxe suburban neighborhood, where his doctor and lawyer neighbors treat him with kid gloves, but in the larger world where he and members of his family must ultimately enact their lives. Daughter Meadow (played by actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler), goes off to Columbia University and almost immediately becomes involved with a biracial student. Tony's "not for my daughter" attitude is fixed, and he follows through with his outright campaign against the young man until the relationship ends, despite Meadow's efforts to defy her father. Tony may think that the break-up has resolved his problem. His trouble with this issue has just begun, however. His attitude and remarks have created tremendous damage to his relationship with his daughter.
Tony is not the only character who finds his values at odds with his changing urban/suburban world. His wife Carmela, masterfully portrayed by actress Edie Falco, is periodically tormented by the contradiction of her Catholic values and her avid use of the "blood money" earned by Tony (in the "waste management industry") to support their lavish lifestyle. She tries to broker peace between Tony and Meadow, with limited success. Wanting to relate to Meadow, she frequently goes into "the city" to visit her daughter at her Columbia dorm. She negotiates the relationship between Tony and Meadow by trying to explain the father to the daughter, but becomes hopelessly entangled in the dichotomies between worlds. She tries telling Meadow about books she's reading, i.e. "Barbara Kingsolver's latest" (Kingsolver is an activist and extremely progressive writer of novels and essays). Meadow responds with college freshman insouciance and superiority, "God, I so wish I had time for fiction."
The contrasts and contradictions of the show lie most deeply with Tony, however. We watch him brutally murder former friends and allies on several occasions, yet he becomes enraged at the mistreatment of animals. He argues constantly with his wife, and leaves evidence of his affairs with his current "goomah" (which is a mistress, for the uninitiated), but is appalled by violence against women. Emotional abuse doesn't seem to be a part of that rubric for him, perhaps because he perceives Carmela as powerful. His strongest emotions always seem to be evoked when acts of violence are perpetrated against the weak and defenseless. Seemingly, Tony's moral code dictates that it's okay to whack a worthy opponent, just not someone who can't defend themselves.
Unlike most other "mob-themed" TV or movie viewing, this series actually represents characters who struggle and are often at odds with with a range of urban/suburban issues, as well as with their own cultural mores. The viewer gets a window into the internal life of the characters, and sees more clearly the motivations of their sometimes contradictory behavior. Perhaps this is what makes a show so compelling that some of us are always known to be at home on Sunday night, come what may.
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