Nolte: ‘The Sopranos’ at 20 — More Relevant Than Ever

The Sopranos
AFP/Getty Images for Disney Promotions

On January 10, 1999, a cigar-puffing Tony Soprano drove out of the Lincoln Tunnel, onto the Jersey Turnpike, over the Meadowlands, past a 97 cent(!) gas sign, and through Jersey City before pulling into the driveway of his dull, generic suburban McMansion.

In the background Alabama 3’s Woke Up This Morning throbbed on the soundtrack: “Woke up this morning, you got yourself a gun, got yourself a gun, got yourself a gun…” and with the sound of a record scratch, The Sopranos changed television forever.

The Sopranos is not the first show to tell a continuing story. There was Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks; and let’s not ignore primetime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty.

The Sopranos is not the first show to ignore the 22 to 24 episode season. For decades, the television miniseries, notably Roots (1977), The Winds of War (1980),  Holocaust (1978), and most especially Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), had been gripping the nation over a handful of nights as “novels for television.”

What Sopranos creator David Chase did accomplish, though, was nothing less than to crack the artistic code for a medium that was well into middle age.

Chase hardened the mold of the ten to thirteen episode format, and through adult storytelling, respect for the intelligence of his audience, cinema-quality production values, and pitch-perfect performances, showed the world what television was truly capable of. His mold is now the norm, what we expect. At the time, we had never seen anything like it, and therefore it is not hyperbole to argue The Sopranos is to television what Rock Around the Clock was to music.

One so-called first where I find myself in disagreement with some Sopranos fans is this idea Tony Soprano is television’s first anti-hero.

There is nothing heroic about Anthony Soprano, anti or otherwise.

Anti-heroes have a code and are willing to sacrifice to honor that code. Other than self-interest, Tony has no code. Through and through he is a gangster, adulterer, cold-blooded killer, inveterate liar, unrepentant racist, a bully, master manipulator, abuser of women, and a horrible, horrible father who made his children complicit to his crimes to devastating effect.

He is also a hypocrite, nothing like what he says he idealizes: Gary Cooper, the strong silent type. Tony is the exact opposite, a chronic complainer and serial-whiner prone to self-pity and rage.

Something else Tony is not: an old-fashioned gangster who honors the traditions of the mafia. He talks frequently about how great things once were and should be while brazenly violating those traditions through his smallness, rage, and greed.

Tony Soprano is evil.

But thanks to writing sharp enough to shave with and the late James Gandolfini’s startlingly brilliant performance, Tony Soprano is also human, complicated, layered, and above all fascinating. What draws us to Tony is what convinced Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) to treat him in therapy: charisma, melancholy, and the hope his unique qualities (in a Mafioso at least) — namely intelligence and a certain level of self-awareness – will lead to redemption.

For the first time on television we are rooting for the villain, and this makes us as complicit, and that complicity is thrilling … at least for a while. The Tony we first meet, the man struggling with depression, panic attacks, conscience, the man capable of empathy, will slowly devolve into a rank bastard. And like Melfi, we come to realize we have been conned by a sociopath. And yes, there is also something thrilling about that, about being so expertly hustled for so long by Chase and his team of genius writers.

As a fan of the gangster genre, and an even bigger fan of David Chase (Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Rockford Files), like a few million others, I caught the Sopranos premiere on HBO and  … was disappointed. It was nothing like I expected, it was not Goodfellas in Jersey. Who cares about Tony’s home life? But I hung in there and realized that throughout the week I was thinking about The Sopranos, talking about it, something I had not done since Twin Peaks, another show that took some time to fall in love with.

By the end of that first season I was hooked … and still am. Just last month, and for the fourth time since 2007, I binged the entire series, all 86 episodes in a few fevered weeks. What a pleasure it is to get lost again in that world, what a joy to revisit those magnificent characters and pick up on a million things I missed in previous viewings. Like a great novel, The Sopranos improves with each viewing, becomes richer, a wondrous buried treasure you never stop uncovering…

Nothing about The Sopranos has aged, and again, like a great novel, the most important aspect of it never will — its themes. While the show is about countless things, it is primarily concerned with two that are even more relevant today: the emptiness of American consumerism and the toxicity of identity politics.

David Chase presents to us a cast of characters who, like us, have everything, who are blessed to live in America at the turn of the 20th century, which means we are the most prosperous generation in the history of the world. Food is so cheap and plentiful that obesity (a lack of self-control) is a “disease,” and so is this god of consumerism we mindlessly worship.

Criticizing consumerism is not the same as criticizing capitalism. Consumerism is materialism, the worship of stuff, the tragic belief “having it all” will make you happy.

Look at us, look at this amazing country of ours… We have done it. We have eradicated hunger. Our so-called poor own cell phones, air conditioners, enjoy cable TV… America is an economic miracle where the working class live like pharaohs, and yet this has not delivered the fulfillment promised.

Rather than appreciating this bounty, it has made us weak, spoiled, soft, petty, greedy, entitled, and by extension, deeply unhappy and dysfunctional. The vicious circle of the psychosis works like this: if having it all doesn’t make you happy, that can only mean you don’t have enough.

Worse, this abundance has removed our sense of purpose. No longer are we needed to hunt and gather (as Melfi explains), or to protect our families, or to keep the wolf from the door. Desperate for a purpose, we now have the luxury to look inward, to work on ourselves. Melfi believes this is healthy. Through her eventual awakening and the jaw-dropping awfulness of the other therapists portrayed on the show, The Sopranos is here to tell us the opposite is true.

Set during the George W. Bush era, Chase speaks of our lost purpose by reminding us we don’t even fight our own wars anymore. Someone else’s kids go out and do that for us, while we go to the mall (just as the president ordered), to the movies, lose ourselves in online porn, in chemicals and loveless sex, embrace shallow acts of trendy activism, practice our religion when it suits us, or simply treat it like a superstition, a form of witchcraft that wards off assuming responsibility.

Pursuing the American dream gave us purpose, achieving it left us empty and lost, and now we try to fill that spiritual hole by filling our homes with useless shit, by self-medicating, by pretending our social causes and faith are not just another form of narcissism — a sword to jab others and find them lacking and a shield to cover up what selfish and self-centered people we are.

In one episode, Tony sums this up brilliantly as “a series of distractions until you die.”

Through Chase’s characters, and specifically through the prosperous and miserably unhappy Soprano family, he tells the story of an America cursed with achieving the American Dream, because … what the hell are we supposed to strive for now?

The Italian thing, the mother thing, the tradition thing, the need-to-control thing, the status thing, the alpha-male thing…  Tony’s existence is all about rationalizing as “duty” his endless pursuit of worldly pleasures — of those distractions until you die. The result is that Tony lives in a prison of his own making, a prison built on bullshit. And now he is barren and miserable and paying the price for abandoning his one true duty, that purpose which is truly fulfilling — being a decent and loving family man, being his own man.

Tony is America. No, that’s unfair. Too broad… Tony is much of America. Too much.

Children without direction and purpose run amok. What you get when adults have no purpose or direction — to paraphrase my favorite moment from the series — are ethnic pride parades, shopping malls, and “professionals” assuring everyone nothing is their fault.

Which brings me to the show’s relentless and righteous condemnation of identity politics.

Hollywood’s modern-day Production Code would never allow Chase to explore the poison of this mindless tribalism through a protected class (blacks, gays, etc.), so he gives us a wealthy Italian family (and Family) as the ultimate example of the self-destructive madness found in those who use something as hollow as race and creed to have it both ways — to wallow in the false sense of superiority that comes with seeing yourself as persecuted.

Persecuted. In America. Please.

Trying to fully explain or grasp what this show is about is like trying to empty a bathtub with a butter knife. Wrapping your arms around something this enormous, this deep, this nuanced, and loaded with theme, is an impossible task. Each episode is deserving of its own chapter, each season a doctoral dissertation.

To try and come as close as possible to delve into everything worth talking about, I’ve decided to lay out some of my favorite moments from the show, those small moments that say so much, and sometimes say everything.

A.J. Soprano Does Not Know What Gutters Are

This clip reveals one of the most enjoyable traits about The Sopranos, which is how laugh-out-loud hilarious it is. This moment from season three is also about something bigger — those spoiled sociopaths being raised in countless American homes.

A.J. Soprano (Robert Iler) will never follow in his father’s footsteps as a gangster. That would require two things he does not possess: physical courage and a work ethic. Instead, A.J. is the archetype of the utterly useless millennial, the glassy-eyed sloth whose sense of empathy has been washed away by material excess, by never facing the consequences of his actions, by never being allowed to fail or face adversity.

Whatever spark this kid might have once had was snuffed out by helicopter parenting and a useless school system that considers “fidgeting” a symptom of a “disease” called ADD.

Naturally, this “disease” requires medication (so lazy educators don’t have to deal with him), and above all, means the child is “disabled” and therefore a “victim” and therefore “special” and therefore never-ever responsible for his own actions.

The result is the sociopath A.J. who, by the end of the series, has no job skills, other than the ability to emotionally blackmail and manipulate everyone around him to get what he wants. A phony suicide attempt, a lot of pouting and moping, a passive-aggressive threat to join the military, and suddenly A.J. Soprano, the epitome of laziness and irresponsibility, has a job developing a movie and driving a BMW.

Oh, and he’s not a hypocrite for driving that BMW, though, because a BMW is better for the environment than the SUV his carelessness turned into a $35,000 fireball.


Carmela Soprano (and Sopranos Fans) Finally Hears the Truth

“Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament because of events that have occurred in their childhood. That’s what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade to witness the results.”

Below are my favorite four minutes in all of television:

In my mind, the true villain of The Sopranos is Tony’s wife, Carmela (Edie Falco). In the classic first season episode “College,” she straight-up confesses that her greed and avarice take precedent over the evil she allows in her home and the effect it will have on her children.

The scene above is from early in the third season, and my guess is that it was at this point Chase decided he needed to lay down the law, to come straight out and tell the audience what the series is about — “shopping malls and ethnic pride parades” — and that nothing these characters do is in any way okay.

Other than Artie Bucco’s wife Charmaine (Kathrine Narducci), who regularly pleads with both the audience and her none-too-bright husband not to get too close to the mafia flame, this is the first and only time a truly moral voice is heard in the series, someone who not only condemns “our heroes,” but pours undiluted truth over so many modern hypocrisies.

Naturally, none of this gets through to Carmela. This wise man didn’t tell her what she wants to hear, so she shops around until someone does tell her what she does want to hear — that she is “trapped” in this life (she loves) by her sacred marriage vows. Sadly, this rationalization comes from a Catholic priest.

Carmela is a monster, a monstrous mother, a Renfeld to Tony’s Vampire, an audacious hypocrite who knows exactly what she is doing, what it is doing to her kids, but who will never give up the furs and jewels. The only time Carmela pushes Tony away is when she’s feeling insecure financially or when his adultery threatens to publicly embarrass her and by extension her social status.


Junior Soprano Falls in the Bathtub

“Your sister’s cunt!”

The beginning of the end for Junior Soprano arrives early in season two when the 71-year-old boss of New Jersey falls in the shower (the first of an endless stream of coming indignities and disasters), just after a win, after successfully scheming his release from prison.

Like most of the series’ characters, Junior is an archetype — the bitterly insecure old man staring death in the face; the miserable prick all too aware that the only thing that awaits him is sickness and death. He has no family to comfort him, no faith to guide him, so all he can do is rage and complain and spread his misery.

Junior is also my favorite character in the series. Every line of dialogue is profane poetry, and usually funnier than anything you will hear in a sitcom (“I’ve been farting into the same sofa cushion for eighteen months!”)

As Junior, Dominic Chianese is a wonder to behold. How many actors could wring fear, anger, bitterness, and overall pathos out of “Your sister’s cunt.”

Brilliant performance. Brilliant character. Beyond brilliant writing.


Dr. Melfi  Fires Tony

“I’m chalking all of this up to female menopausal situations.”

Dr. Jennifer Melfi was as close as the series ever came to creating a character representing the audience.

Yes, she has ethics and found her Italian ex-husband’s obsession with identity politics absurd, but she is also attracted to Tony. She enjoys being a tourist in his world. This gives her mundane life a thrill. For this reason, she is also no hero, at least not until the penultimate episode where she finally fires him as her patient.

What prompts this firing is Mefli’s own therapist, Dr. Kupferberg (Peter Bogdanovich) who, in his own underhanded and cowardly way, forces Melfi to confront a study that says sociopaths cannot be treated in therapy. In fact, treating a sociopath only makes them a better criminal.

With the truth staring her in the face, Melfi summons the courage to do the right thing. But if you watch the above scene, it is marvelously real. She’s scared and angry, but also clumsy, and for this reason the moment is terribly unsatisfying. There is no catharsis, and this is deliberate.

For years, even though she knew better, Melfi allowed herself to act as Tony’s enabler, even his consigliore.

Therefore, the series doesn’t believe that she, or us, deserve to feel righteous after being complicit (there’s that word again) for so long.


Guns Hidden Inside Roman Columns, TVs Sitting on Roman Columns

One abiding Sopranos theme is how Chase subtly uses the fall of Rome as a metaphor for the fall of America and the Italian Mafia.

The fact that Tony and Carmela use a hollowed out Roman column, the same column that once signified Rome’s strength and power, to hide firearms and as a bedroom television stand, is the perfect symbolism for everything Chase wants to say.


Tony’s Heart-Wrenching Dream-Coma 

The Sopranos spent much of season five showing us just what a miserable bastard Tony Soprano really is. Honestly, by the end of that season I always hate the guy. Then, at the beginning of season six, Tony is not only shot, he is in a coma dying from sepsis.

In two remarkable episodes we experience what the comatose Tony Soprano experiences — a version of hell or purgatory, and here is how the first of those two episodes ends…

…with the very real possibility Tony could die and the horror of the loneliness of his death dream  …  and our heart breaks.

Through masterful storytelling, character building, Gandolfini’s second-to-none artistry, and Chase’s ear for the perfect song (which elevates every Sopranos episode), this moment never fails to wreck me.

That last lonely shot of Tony before the credits … I fall in love with the guy all over again.


Shaking Down Starbucks

“It’s over for the little guy.”

Another theme Chase often touches on is how America is becoming Generica, a country where no matter where you go, every place looks like every other place by way of the cancerous spread of corporate chains and box stores. The visual character of this country has literally been bulldozed by hotels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, strip malls, and coffee shops that all look alike.

In this scene from the middle of season six,  so much is said about this in the most entertaining fashion imaginable:

You can laugh at the predicament of a couple of mobsters trying to shake down a national coffee chain, but the real lesson here comes from the store manager — a corporate eunuch, a company drone who doesn’t care because he hasn’t built anything and has no stake in the place — which again adds to our sense of having no purpose.


Carmine Lupertazzi Jr. Gets It

“That dream with my father, the empty box; that wasn’t about being boss, it was about being happy.”

For two seasons we’ve been laughing at Little Carmine, his weakness, his vanity, his hilarious malapropisms. And then, in this wonderfully surprising and touching scene (starts at 1:35), we discover the dimwit is the wisest character of them all, Tony’s Happy Wanderer, the one who figured out that the bullshit is bullshit and the only thing that matters in life, the only thing that fulfills, is family, is in the honoring of those seemingly humdrum rituals shared with the woman you  love.


Meadow Soprano Becomes a Mafia Princess

Other than enjoying the benefits of being smart and beautiful, Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynne Sigler) is no different from her brother A.J.

If you look close enough, if you look past the sophistication and her progressive platitudes about race and poverty, you will find the same unfeeling sociopath. Meadow is basically her mother, a woman desperate for status, respectability, and STUFF. During Carmela’s era, those things came from being a housewife and Catholic. Meadow’s era requires symbolic acts of activism and a profession.

By the show’s final episode, “Made In America,” Meadow is a full-blown mafia princess, is Carmela. She will marry into the mob, Patsy Parisi’s son, a lawyer who defends the corrupt, and she will pretend that becoming a mob lawyer is rooted in social justice.

Tony Soprano:  You said you wanted to be a lawyer for black people.

Meadow Soprano: Oh, that’s all I said? Really? What I said was “The state can crush the individual.”

Tony Soprano: New Jersey?

Meadow Soprano: The government. Specifically, the federal government.

Tony Soprano: And what about little babies? They face, uh, meningitis.

Meadow Soprano: You know what really turned me? Seeing the way Italians are treated. It’s like Mom says. And if we can have our rights trampled like that, imagine what it’s like for recent arrivals.

Tony Soprano: Well…

Meadow Soprano: If I hadn’t seen you dragged away all those times by the FBI, then I’d probably be a boring suburban doctor.

The scourge of identity politics strikes again.

Speaking of identity politics, here is another fabulous example…


The Soprano Crew Defend Christopher Columbus

In this wonderful episode, where every possible “group” claims to be the most oppressed (Italians, Indians, blacks, women, even Italians who live in the north compared to those who live in the south), Tony is finally allowed to explode for all the right reasons:

Tony is usually pretty obtuse about these things, but here he is a voice of maturity and reason.

Left-wing pop culture writers frequently single this episode out as the series’ worst.

Can’t imagine why.


Paulie Talks to His Priest

The real con man here is the Catholic priest, the spiritual grifter who has taken all that money from Paulie (Tony Sirico) without ever telling him he cannot buy his way out of his sins.

As a practicing Catholic, this is something I see way too often: a morally crippled institution more concerned with keeping the customers happy than reminding them hell exists.

Both Paulie and the man betraying his sacred duty to save Paulie’s soul treat the Christian faith as a transactional business, a superstition, witchcraft…

For those of us who believe, there is nothing more consequential or tragic.


Janice Shoots Richie

Tony’s older sister Janice (Aida Turturro) is another wonderful archetype, the malevolent hippie — the parasite and welfare cheat who hides behind her precious “causes” and disabilities, the phony who is all about peace, love, feminism, so cool and easygoing, when she is really a black hole of need, malice, and hypocrisy.

This scene from the end of the second season not only showed us who Janice really is, it is a wonderful piece of storytelling.

Throughout season two, Richie Aprile (David Proval) and Tony have been headed towards a collision. Further complicating things is Richie’s engagement to Tony’s sister, Janice. At this point we assume Tony will either cave to Richie’s demands for more authority or whack him. And then this happens, and it is not only a wonderful surprise, it makes perfect sense.

At first, the show’s surprises were thrilling. But as we came to expect them, the anticipation of those surprises made viewing an even richer pleasure.


Johnny Sack Loses His Backyard to a Herd of McMansions

In season three, chain-smoking New York mobster Johnny Sacrimoni (an amazing Vincent Curatola creating another of my all-time favorite characters) moves to an idyllic part of New Jersey to escape a crass and crowded New York.

The tractor plowing the field behind Johnny Sack’s new home is a beautiful touch:

Over time, though, we watch as that idyllic field is sold off for lots, and before long Johnny Sack’s pastoral getaway is just another crowded suburb overflowing with McMansions.


The Point of No Return

“Good Morning, Rat”

Early in the first season, Chase has his protagonist cross a line the audience never recovers from — Tony strangling a man to death in cold blood.

This was the most important moment in the series. From here, there was no going back. Until now, we could rationalize our sympathy for Tony. Through four episodes, he had not yet killed or even ordered a killing. In fact, he was the one calling for calm, for order, a charismatic knockaround guy guilty of nothing more than giving consenting adults access to vices criminalized by the government.

No more.


Jackie Jr.’s Sit Down

“Normally, I would never get involved with a stranger.”

You cannot discuss The Sopranos without acknowledging everything that came before or how our knowledge of the gangster genre adds so much to the show without becoming cheap fan service.

Chase also didn’t shy away from how gangster movies affect gangsters, affect his own characters — the way they talk, dress, see the world and themselves.

There are all kinds of wonderful moments like this, but dim-witted and doomed Jackie Jr. doing his Godfather bit manages to be both touching and hilarious.

Another favorite pop culture reference is when the movie-obsessed Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) assumes the role of Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas by shooting a mouthy smartass in the foot. If you recall, in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, the character shot in the foot is Spider, who is played by Imperioli.

And yes, that’s Joseph R. Gannascoli playing a bakery bystander, who will later return as Vito Spatafore (Gay Vito) in season two.


Janice Literally Sucking the Marrow Out of Something

Need I explain?


In Conclusion:

I am not a fan of Tony’s death at the end of the series (for the record, I believe Patsy ordered the hit fearing Tony would hit him first). I understand and appreciate Chase not wanting to offer us a final catharsis. That would go against everything he wanted to say about crime, life, and even the medium of television. But this… Man.

Ending a seven year journey using Tony’s literal point of view after death, leaving us hanging with the fate of all these other characters, is a rip-off. And try as I might, I cannot see the artistic rationale, how this serves everything that came before.

Nevertheless, for as long as I live, every few years, I will continue to return to the Pine Barrens and to the Bada Bing and to Satriale’s… Continue to dig into that buried treasure that, like all magnificent art, is timeless in its beauty and forever relevant to the human condition.

And, oh, how I wish those guys were still with us, still living in our world. What they would have to say about iPhone addictions, social media, the mess that is cable news, Pope Francis, self-checkout lanes, Trump, Hillary, the Woke era…

Well, unfortunately, we cannot even begin to imagine what they would say, because we do not hold the power to bottle lightning.

This piece was updated to correct a factual error. 

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.


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