The Sopranos originally aired when I was deep in my four-year stint as my son’s primary caregiver. (I’m not fond of the term “stay-at-home dad/mom.”) We didn’t have cable in our city tenement. So until the pandemic, I’d never seen one episode.
It is even better than I thought it would be.
Since March, my family has been working our way through the six seasons. (Currently midway through season three. No spoilers, please.) My wife and I had discussed doing this for years, but, y’know, we never had the time. At long last, we’re in it, now with a filmmaker son who marvels with us at the consistent high quality. This semi-regular family activity, which always includes dinner on TV trays, is a godsend, and I daresay something we will remember in decades to come.
The Sopranos expertly transports us from the difficulties of the day as only a good piece of art can, and way more efficiently than any other show we’ve watched together. The seeds of the “Platinum Age of Television” – in which we, as a culture, now reside – are all here. The successes of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, the Wire, the Walking Dead, Homeland, Friday Night Lights, et al? You can – and should – lay them at the feet of the Sopranos, specifically creator David Chase, who forged the template.
Why so great? First and foremost: the stellar writing. Longform, uninterrupted (no commercials) storytelling, circuitous, always surprising, yet believable character development. Impossible to go so deep with a movie or a TV series. Apparently no one before David Chase thought to give it a try on subscription cable. Crucially, an antihero for the ages in genius James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, the outsider who commits reprehensible acts but somehow (because of the writing and acting) elicits sympathy. Someone who does and says what we’ve all wanted to do and say but fear holds us back (thank God … most of the time). The cast is, in fact, thick with antiheroes, men and women (mostly men) fully engaged with their ids, denying themselves nothing, all gifted with superhuman powers of compartmentalization.
Especially in such a cloistered time, rife with tension, it’s quite cathartic. Yes, it’s about a New Jersey mob family at the turn of the millennium, quite far away from our life experiences. But the specificity, paradoxically, somehow makes it as relatable to us as to, say, the millions of folks the world over in myriad situations equally or even more divergent from Tony Soprano and Co.
It is this aspect that I find the most fascinating, and inspiring: apparently, we citizens of planet Earth are not so different as we think. We respond as one to the relationships: fraternal, marital, familial, neighbors, folks within and outside one’s class, friends, enemies, frenemies. And finally: the struggles between one’s inner and outer lives. That is the secret sauce of The Sopranos. What we do and say versus what we think, and what the space between looks and feels like.
The time travel to my New York City makes me smile: the desktop Macs, flip phones, Twin Towers looming, clothes and cars, passing references to Bill Clinton, clubs crushed with strangers, men still young enough to wrestle with power, but connected to a dying, doomed, animalistic legacy.
I remember seeing these guys. Serving them at bars. Brushing close a couple times, but for the most part staying the hell away. Perhaps I was responding to my one-quarter Sicilian DNA, legit ancestral ties to this tribe. Or perhaps actually responding to the strands of DNA that very consciously left all that behind.
Well, I am not staying the hell away now. On the contrary. Fuhgeddaboudit!