The Sopranos, Brilliant Drama or Trash TV?

Walter Rhein

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My wife and I just finished watching all 6 seasons of ‘The Sopranos’ because it was available on Amazon Prime, and because my wife likes shows where people get killed and buried in shallow graves. I’d heard a bit about ‘The Sopranos,’ but while it was big on HBO I was living in Lima full time and didn’t follow it. Still, I knew enough about the show to know that the finale was controversial, and I’d always liked James Gandolfini as an actor.

Actually let me back up for a second.

The first time I saw James Gandolfini was in ‘True Romance’. ‘True Romance’ is a Tarantino script that was directed by Tony Scott. I believe Tarantino used the money he got by selling ‘True Romance’ to make ‘Reservoir dogs’ (and the rest is history). Gandolfini has a small part in ‘True Romance’ but he steals the show as a, you guessed it, ruthless mafia hit man. I suppose now, in the context of ‘The Sopranos,’ the performance in ‘True Romance’ won’t be quite the revelation. But back then, Gandolfini’s single scene is electric. For a guy to stand out in a film that also contains Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is impressive. I remember looking forward to Gandolfini’s next project and not being surprised when ‘The Sopranos’ became a big hit.

The big question I have about the show is whether the people who are fans of ‘The Sopranos’ recognize what an absolute piece of human trash Tony Soprano is. Gandolfini does give an inspired performance, but he doesn’t even really try to make the guy appealing. Tony Soprano is a petty, lying, manipulative, assassin, sociopath, scumbag. He constantly lies to the people who are close to him, and then cowers them into silence with physicality and psychologically abusive behavior. After a season or two, I was just waiting around for something terrible to happen to Tony.

However, I don’t think that’s the common reaction to ‘The Sopranos.’ At one point in one of the last episodes, an FBI agent mistakenly lets out a cheer when he hears of a successful strike by Tony’s family. The implication is that the agent was “rooting” for Tony Soprano, which I found to be a little implausible. Who could root for a guy like that?

I think it’s impossible to bring up ‘The Sopranos’ without discussing ‘Breaking Bad’ and there are some ways the two shows are similar. Walter White spends his whole time lying and manipulating his family, but there’s the impression that there are much greater consequences for him (and therefore dramatic tension) if he is found out. Walter White is a bad individual, but he’s certainly not as sadistic as Tony Soprano. Also, there’s a pretty clear influence from ‘The Sopranos’ on ‘Breaking Bad’ which clearly takes up the torch and runs with it.

When the show finally concluded, my biggest regret was to not have any more revelation moments from Tony’s victims. It would have been nice to have a realization scene with Carmela Soprano confronting Tony about the murders he’d committed (including friends and members of his family). Similar scenes of Tony’s son and daughter coming to an understanding that they had an abusive monster as a parent would be interesting as well. Actually, I think this topic could very easily be the basis of a completely new show. As it stands, the pain of the abused parties was largely marginalized in favor of showing Tony’s perspective.

I don’t mean this as a huge criticism, because Tony’s perspective is also interesting. However, I think exploring the pain he casually inflicted would increase the overall effect of the whole series. I’m not sure if it was an intentional choice to brush over this suffering in order to make Tony more appealing…or if there is anything Tony actually could have done to alienate himself from the audience. Considering how willing so many members of the general public are to stick by Donald Trump after scandal after scandal comes to life, it’s easy to believe people will continue to admire a bully/abuser.

But that brings me back to the performance by Gandolfini. I can’t figure out how he managed to be so truly repugnant, and charismatic all at the same time. I read somewhere that Gandolfini underwent enormous stress in the role and even disappeared at one point. It really is the part perfectly tailored to the actor, and that alone makes the series worth watching.

The finale is an episode that was highly controversial and I’d like to spend a moment on that as well. If you haven’t seen it already, here’s your SPOILER ALERT.

Ok, now that you’ve had ample warning, the show ends with a very tense dinner scene with Tony and his family. Tony puts “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox and his family arrives. Several suspicious characters are lounging around the restaurant, but Tony seems in a pretty good mood as he has his typical loving/sem-hostile conversation with his family. A few moments after one of the suspicious characters heads off to the bathroom, you get a close up of Tony’s face and then the screen cuts to black and the credits roll in silence.

It was an effective ending and the implication is that Tony Soprano was shot in the head. There was tension and an emotional surge and a feeling of finality, but also I think annoyance. Personally, I would have liked to see Tony suffer and be tortured a little bit…seriously, am I in the minority here? My wife was irritated as well. I mean, a nice reaction shot of Carmela looking shocked with her face all covered with Tony’s brains would have been nice. There’s a certain lack of closure and…even the possibility for interpretation that Tony wasn’t killed. Those holding that position would be in the minority, but they could argue it.

I guess my confusion is about the statement the show is trying to make. Yet again, they take the opportunity to cut away from Tony causing true and terrible suffering to the people he loves–this time by sanitizing his moment of death. I mean, doesn’t American culture already idolize scumbag behavior too much? People like Billy the Kid or Charles Manson are iconic. Why not Jonas Saulk (you probably don’t know who that is…go look him up)? Is this inclination to celebrate criminals and sociopaths partly because of how artists are drawn to create glorified portrayals of such people for film and television?

‘The Sopranos’ is aware of suffering and it spends a fair amount of time in retirement homes and mental institutions in the wake of Tony’s destruction, but there is more of the story that could be told. I’d like to see the victims have their say, just for fun.

But yes, ‘The Sopranos’ is gripping drama. It’s one of those shows that accelerates at the end and really starts hitting a kind of magical stride. There’s a scene in, I believe it’s the second to the last episode, where Tony grills his daughter about a guy who was lewd to her in a bar. Everything that makes Tony Soprano, and James Gandolfini’s portrayal of him, is on display in that scene. Tony is charming but insistent and threatening, even as he pulls information out of his daughter with laughs and offhand gestures. At first the daughter is reluctant to tell her dad of the incident, but once she does, the table conversation moves to other things. In a brilliant move, the camera focuses on Carmela, and Tony sits blurred in the background, aimlessly looking off screen and tapping his hand on the table. While Carmela prattles on about some inconsequential subject, you know that Tony is planning to torture and murder somebody. However, such behavior is so commonplace in his life, the people closest to him don’t even recognize what is happening. For my money, that scene alone is worth watching the whole series for…but I don’t think it will work out of context of everything that came before.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI
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