After years of writing for television shows like Northern Exposure and The Rockford Files, David Chase began to toy with the idea of a series about a gangster who went to a therapist. He took elements of his Italian-American upbringing in New Jersey and incorporated it into the script. FOX rejected the idea, but Chase found a home for his TV series, The Sopranos, with HBO. Chase ended up with a security blanket of financial backing and creative freedom he wouldn’t have had if he had signed with a major broadcasting network. Unlike other representations of the mob in the media, his was not one-dimensional. The show has many layers, and it offers something for every viewer. According to Allen Rucker’s The Sopranos: A Family History, “When you talk about the Sopranos, you are talking about a group of people where family lines, business lines and generational lines constantly merge.”
In the first episode we meet Tony Soprano, a man who on the surface seems no different then someone you would encounter at a local gas station or a ballgame. He deals with the trials and tribulations of everyday life. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Carmela. His daughter is under pressure to keep her grades up while participating in extracurricular activities. He has disputes with his mother about putting her in a nursing home. It is nothing that the average American man doesn’t have to deal with. The audience is sympathetic toward this character and embraces him as their own.
Then we meet Tony’s other family, a slew of thugs he’s known since childhood. Among them is Silvio Dante, who owns a gentlemen’s club and acts as Tony’s right-hand man in “business affairs.” Paulie Walnuts was a juvenile delinquent who began his career in the mob as a hit man for Tony’s father and eventually moved through the ranks as Tony came into power. As the head of a crime-family organization, Tony’s role as the representative for commonplace Americans comes to a halt.
The series mixes normalcy along with romanticism, two elements that are seemingly contradictory. There’s one scene in which one of the characters, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, complains about New Jersey’s smoking laws and how they should be more restrictive of public smoking. It’s something that I would hear my mother complain about while eating out with the family. However, the line between reality and fantasy is crossed over when Melfi curses at a smoker who is sitting at the table next to her and accuses her of blowing smoke in her son’s face. The argument is heated and escalates to the point where two waiters have to hold the two women back. It’s a passionate dispute over a common nuisance that most of us simply put up with in order to avoid confrontation.
Every Sunday night, eight million viewers enter a world in which a concerned parent is able to take justice into his own hands when it is discovered that his daughter’s soccer coach is a pedophile. A woman kills a lover who is physically abusive to her. It’s a dramatic study of human nature and flawed impulses.
According to Jeffery Wernick in The Sopranos, Tony “is a second-generation Italian-American. He lives in the greater Newark, New Jersey, area, only a few miles from Bloomfield Avenue, a major crime corridor, and only a few more miles from where his grandfather first landed as an immigrant in 1911. Tony has never lived anywhere else. His life is rooted here.” People who watch The Sopranos and happen to be from New Jersey have the distinct advantage of sharing the same community as the characters. The show’s dialogue consists of casual talk mentioning shortcuts through the town of Belleville and even the peculiar weather that the area has been experiencing lately. These are mundane things yet help personalize a television show. It warms up the viewers by acknowledging the hassles of their everyday lives. It’s a form of flattery from the glamorous world of Hollywood by saying that we as a community are interesting enough to be portrayed by a major cable station for the rest of the world to see.
Tony speaks in a stereotypical Jersey accent. In his office, he has a poster of Hoboken native Frank Sinatra’s mug shot. During the opening scene he drives on the New Jersey Turnpike and listens to Q 104.3, the same radio station that I listen to. Yet with all these similarities, I’ve never felt unfairly represented, as many critics of the show have suggested. The show integrated this criticism into an episode in a scene where Dr. Melfi’s family “debates whether wise-guy movies defame Italians. The Sopranos, of course, has provoked the same argument, and its continual reflection of its characters in their media mirrors is also a running commentary on the show itself,” as Ellen Willis observed in The Nation.
Many viewers are able to appreciate the show and clearly do not see any of the flawed aspects of the show’s characters as a tainting of their own images. Actor Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) grew up in Brooklyn under what was more or less the same circumstance, as a mafioso he plays on the show.
The Sopranos does a fairly decent job of showing the ruthlessness of mobsters. Just as the characters are charming with their sharp sense of humor and deep regard for their loved ones, they are capable of taking the lives of members of their own family as well as innocent civilians, such as when Joe Pantoliano’s character, Ralph, beats his pregnant girlfriend to death over a dispute of what’s to become of the baby.
The show is much too messy and complicated to validate the argument that it glorifies violence. The characters’ worlds aren’t fun and carefree. They’re compelling and interesting but never glamorous. The characters experience inner turmoil and guilt. Tony, who is the leader of the DiMeo crime family, experiences anxiety attacks and is not by any means immune to feeling the tremendous weight of the horrible things that he has done. Even Ralph, the DiMeo family’s most sinister member to date, sees his son’s nearly fatal accident as a punishment from God for all of the wrongs he has committed. Along with their decisions to live outside of the law and take the matter of “the pursuit of Happiness” into their own hands, the factors of shallowness and self-loathing are apparent in these men.
Besides the fact that the show is filmed in the community that I live in, the content of the show is what has had the deepest impact on me. The show tackles the complexity of human nature. The most fascinating thing about it is that, despite all its extremes, it portrays nothing that a human being isn’t capable of doing.
In the past I’ve heard of many shows and movies that have inspired violence. In the case of The Sopranos I feel that the show is inspired by the seediness of life and the imperfection of civilized society. The show has helped me realize how flawed and complex we are as human beings. It’s not adding to the chaos that is the crime world but mirroring it. According to Rolling Stone, one scene that caught the attention of major media outlets for being particularly gruesome and derogatory toward women was inspired by a collection of true accounts, called Mafia Women. Chase also draws inspiration from sources presented to him by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
The show has caused a backlash of sorts. “HBO’s Godfather,” by Marc Peyser in Newsweek, noted that “officials in Essex County, New Jersey, refused to allow filming because they say, ‘The Sopranos perpetuates stereotypes about Italians.’” Cast members were also forbidden to take part in an Italian-American parade for the same reasons. Ironically, as Willis observes, Tony’s view is that what he does for a living is the “Sicilian’s opportunity to get in on the American Dream. Gangsters are soldiers, whose killing, far from being immoral, is impelled by positive virtues—loyalty, respect, friendship, willingness to put one’s own life on the line.”
Yet The Sopranos has validated a certain New Jersey look. During a school trip to Washington, kids from other states scurried around us to see if we really do talk with that accent. The show has made New Jersey seem fascinating to the rest of the world. According to Newsweek, home buyers have started asking real estate agents for “Soprano houses.”
Eva M. Pena is a Rutgers-Newark student.