This is one of the difficult things I’ve ever written. Not in the eulogy sense – I’m not getting choked up or lost in a trance of nostalgia. It’s just, how do you reflect on the debut of, in the opinion of many, the greatest television show of all time and one of the most impactful occurrences in pop culture history.
20 years ago today the first episode of “The Sopranos” aired. It starred little known actor James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, a physically imposing, violent, scheming, yet emotionally complicated and psychologically, crumbling gangster prince from New Jersey. We followed Tony through his exploits, criminal and (semi-)legal, and daily life, flanked by fellow non-A-listers (at the time) such as Edie Falco, of HBO’s most recent hit at that point “Oz” fame, as Tony’s wife Carmella; The E Street Band Guitarist Steven Van Zandt as Tony’s right-hand man Silvio Dante; and Dominic Chianese, formerly known as Johnny Ola in “The Godfather Pt II”, as Tony’s Uncle and, reluctantly for both sides, mentor Corrado “Junior” Soprano. It should be noted that this cast was largely filled out by Mafia medium veterans such as Tony Sirico (“Gotti”, “Love and Money”), Kathrine Narducci (“A Bronx Tale”), and a crew of actors from “Goodfellas” including Michael Imperioli, Lorraine Bracco, and Frank “Now get your fuckin’ shinebox” Vincent. To go off on a bit of a tangent because I missed this earlier, Sirico of course was also in “Goodfellas”. In the show, he played fan (and my) favorite, Tony’s soldier, Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri.
Audiences became infatuated with Tony’s gangster life but also, and maybe even more so, his relationships. They were sometimes loving, but mostly violent and almost always manipulative. We came to know Tony’s view of the world and people around him in just pre- to post-9/11 Metro NY not just through observing his bull-in-a-china shop pirouette to power, but also through his sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi(Bracco). Indeed this was one of the most important plots of the show, for those both behind and in front of the fourth wall, if not the genesis for the story being told: How could someone who finds success and fortune via a complete apathy towards the vicious and Machiavellian also need to seek therapy for severe panic attacks and bouts of manic depression? Could it be that just like so many out there, Tony’s flaws and undoing was simply caused by a toxic relationship with his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand)? To us, particularly at a time when mental health was not as much at the dead front of the public consciousness as it is now, this was as intriguing as it was perplexing. It was a most startling juxtaposition and one that could have only been brought to life by a brooding, smoldering James Gandolfini, who was so invested in his performance of a lifetime that he admitted to being troubled by his character’s frequent callousness and malicious indifference
I think in the end what truly drew us to the show, the plot, and the man himself, as well what not so ironically what brought the Tony to see Dr. Melfi, is how torn he was. Was he a doting albeit expectant father to his daughter and son (Jamie Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler)? Was he a larger-than-life leader to his crew, as well as sometimes mentor to his “nephew”, Christopher Moltisanti (Imperioli)? Did he see himself as a Tony Montana-esque force of nature who would be the king no matter who lost their head? Or, in the end, was he just sick of it all? Of the path he chose for himself and that his father chose before him. Of the monotony and tediousness in the packs of cigarettes and trunks of stereos that came with being a gangster. Of the killing of the aloof and just-post adolescent that sometimes came with the job description. Could he be all of that at once? Could any human being contain that much contradiction? For parts of nine years and over 6 (the sixth being a double) seasons, viewers asked themselves this. Audiences obsessed over this question as if they could put Tony at peace if they could answer it. They became so engrossed in the on goings of these North Jersey gangsters that for an hour at a time, we forgot we weren’t a part of it. Full disclosure: Sopranos came out as I finished elementary school. I saw an episode here and there but then truly binged and digested the show when I was 25. My own anecdote of immersion is that I would save this tantalizing, life-changing show for Sundays, where I would binge 6+ episodes at a time. And what would I order to accompany it? Pasta. My blood is 100% Celtic but for the majority of the day every Sunday for a financial quarter (I missed a day here and there), I was a Pisan in my own mind.
The legacy of the “The Sopranos” is, basically, the absence there of. After David Chase’s tidal wave came and then went in 2007, Mafia shows and movies were put on hold, scrapped altogether, or simply never even considered. The genre was all but a taboo. Why? Because how could you top it? One could argue that, over a decade after it went off the air, the mob genre in Hollywood still hasn’t regained traction in “The Sopranos” shadow. I mean, “The Departed”, easily the most successful gangster movie since, killed off the Italians straight off the bat. I suppose you could make an argument with “Boardwalk Empire”, but that was as much of a period piece and a tale of political corruption than it was about the mob, despite having Mafia characters. The success, popularity, and perfection of “The Sopranos” have simply been, too much for Hollywood to top, at least head on.
After the show went off the air, and even during its final days, there were rumors and whispers, maybe just glorified hopes, of a possible movie. There usually is with shows that become as omnipresent in the day’s pop culture as Sopranos was. Those dreams died with James Gandolfini, who passed away tragically and suddenly of a heart attack in 2013. He was 51 years old. With Gandolfini, who brought Tony Soprano to life as Chase could have only dreamed, went our hopes of ever finding out what happened to Tony after “Don’t Stop Believing” and the final scene ever simply and without warning cut to black. It just wasn’t meant to be. David Chase is, however, now working on a movie prequel called “The Many Saints of Newark”. This will follow the story of Tony’s father and idol, Johnny aka “Johnny Boy”, Soprano as well as Christopher’s father Dickie Moltisanti and a host of other names Tony bemoaned as being from the past hey-day of “this thing of theirs”.
As of yesterday, it was even confirmed a young Tony Soprano would make an appearance.
Don’t fuck this up kid. Salut.
-Joseph “Joey Ballgame” B.