We all spend more time watching TV than ever before. In just the past ten years, binge-watching has become a colloquial term that we’re all cool with despite the horrifying implications made by its language. There have never been as many scripted television shows as there are right now. Netflix has named its biggest competitor as sleep.
But how much of it truly matters? While I can make a YouTube channel out of enough shows that I think are great, it’s hard to say how many will truly make an impact on the field for years after their run ends. Much of that significance is determined after the fact, and by outside forces, but the shows that persist have more influence over the present and future than we realize, influencing your favorite showrunners and their favorites.
So what I thought might be a fun experiment would be to write about a show that is undeniably in this category of influential television shows as I watch it for the first time: The Sopranos. I know very little about the show going in, and it might be impossible to separate it from its reputation, but I’m going to try. And if you’ve never seen it (because you were in elementary school like me when the pilot aired), maybe this can peak your interest. Here are my thoughts on the first two seasons, which aired in 1999 and 2000.
Entering into the series, I wasn’t sure what to expect. When talking about The Sopranos, almost everyone brings up The Wire at the same time. It makes sense. They both showed up on HBO in the early 2000s and deal with organized crime. I’ve seen the first three seasons of The Wire, and while it impressed me with the way it weaves complicated stories and tells them from all perspectives imaginable, I’ve never really enjoyed watching it. The Wire is kind of a slog.
In trying to cover the drug trade in Baltimore from so many angles, it spends hours in the weeds, setting up storylines and introducing a truly dizzying number of characters. Watching The Wire can feel like work, like you need McNulty’s corkboard by your side at all times just to keep track of who everyone is.
The Sopranos has its fair share of characters and the politics of the mob can be difficult to remember. It even has a similar pacing to its editing and camera work. But watching The Sopranos never feels like work to me. That’s probably because the emotional weight of the show doesn’t hinge on understanding how the system is screwing large swathes of people. Instead, it’s all about psychology and the inner machinations of the mob.
This idea is introduced right off the bat in the pilot. Instead of focusing on the logistics of the mob, we start in a psychiatrist’s office, where our main character Tony Soprano laments, “Lately, I’m getting the feeling I might be in at the end. That the best is over.” While he admits that his family is enjoying success his father could have only dreamed of, it feels like the peak. RICO statutes and FBI crackdowns have the mob’s days numbered and it’s inside that feeling of impending doom that Tony has to live. While learning how those things may come to pass is interesting and important, it’s more important in The Sopranos to look at who is being affected.
Throughout the first season, we explore this idea, and try to learn just who Tony is and – by proxy – what kind of man joins the mob. While we get to know many of his colleagues, the focus always returns to Tony and how much of them lies within him. He shares a hotheadedness with his nephew Christopher and a blinding machismo with his Uncle Junior. The plot stems from there, with Tony’s leadership being questioned not because of the politics of the situation but rather because of who he is as a person. We learn about his family, but through the perspective of their impact on him.
This deep introspection underscores my favorite episode from the first season: “College.” Tony takes his daughter Meadow on a college tour, while at the same time trying to make a hit on an informant he spotted in the area. The episode hinges on the idea of responsibility and obligation to both of Tony’s families: his daughter and the mob. Ultimately, we come to understand that they are not separate equals, but in fact two parts of the same whole, a point driven home when Tony completes the hit and watches ducks fly overhead, a callback to the pilot episode, and taking on new meaning as Meadow prepares for college.
The second season looks even more deeply inside Tony, and exploring the mess of depression and anxiety within him. His journey mirrors his son’s as they both learn about the famous existentialists. While Anthony Jr.’s musing about pointlessness and impending death are largely theoretical, Tony deals with them as his everyday reality, and through it we learn not just who Tony is but why.
In “The Happy Wanderer,” we find the root of his rage. An inability to separate the happiness of others from his own crippling depression has left him defensive. He lashes out at those who seem happy with the world because they make him feel inferior, just as he lashes out at his therapist for making him feel like a victim. This resentment is what fuels him, and causes him to assert his power, to take what he wants and gain retribution.
As we delve deeper and deeper into the psyche of Tony Soprano I can’t help but imagine his conscience must pop up sooner or later. We’ve learned who he is in many regards and we’ve learned many reasons why he does what he does. But we have yet to fully explore how it affects him. The Sopranos paved the way for many of the ”difficult man” shows we’ve seen over the past decade, from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to House of Cards. Many of those shows have focused on the inner turmoil of its anti-heroes, but none with the same magnifying focus that The Sopranos wields. That inner turmoil is present and conscious, and I wonder if it went deeper than any of its descendants.
Only one way to find out.