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What Made The Sopranos So Great?

BY Briony Edwards

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

What Made The Sopranos So Great?

In 1999, a new television show commissioned by HBO grabbed America’s attention. At a time when TV was deemed cinema’s unfashionable younger brother, The Sopranos managed to attract viewers in their millions. The 2007 finale—television’s most divisive since Dallas’ dream sequence—played out to 11.9 million viewers in the US alone.

Tony Soprano: Mafia Boss

The focus of the show is Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mafia boss, and his families: both his domestic brood and the bunch of ragtag criminals that made up New Jersey’s imagined mob. Feeling his way through a frenetic series of marital upsets while mercilessly taking care of business the only way he knows how, Tony is both reprehensible and engaging leaving the viewers hooked.

We're soldiers. Soldiers don't go to hell. It's war. Soldiers kill other soldiers. We're in a situation where everyone involved knows the stakes and if you are going to accept those stakes, you've got to do certain things. It's business

James Gandolfini’s studied portrayal of Tony helps to reel viewers in. His Jekyll and Hyde affectations—half brutish thug, half anxious depressive—told the story of a man who couldn’t be defined as simply good or bad. Gandolfini plays Tony as a bravura tough guy, but doesn’t neglect the gentle fragility guarded within him. Not good, not bad, just human.

Tony Soprano and Dr Melfi


Coping With Millenial America 

In Tony the show’s creator David Chase was really reflecting modern America’s existential preoccupations: Tony is struggling with the very same depression and anxiety as hung over America as it approached a new millennium. The uncertainty of the future—and the global crises that followed—were weathered by Tony just as they were by the public. When the credit crunch generated very real problems for very many viewers, Tony too suffered “cash flow problems” of his own (maintaining his signature vagueness for anything to do with “business”). Episode by episode we are dragged deeper in to his world: Tony, at heart, was just like any one of us. So believed his long-suffering therapist, anyway.

You got any idea what my life would be worth if certain people found out I checked into a laughing academy?

Determined to get to the root of his issues, of which he has so very many, Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) wades through hours of mother issues, childhood traumas and Tony’s anxiety over situations he can’t control. Her own relationship with Tony also serving as a reminder that none of us can be simply defined within the concepts of good and bad. She dines out on her stories of treating a notable mob boss, and in one particularly bleak storyline, contemplates using Tony for her own vengeful ends. Her ultimate failure to soothe Tony’s anxieties helps to reinforce the idea that sometimes there are no answers, and sometimes people can’t be helped.

Critics have sometimes attacked the show’s lack of a solid story arc, but Chase’s intention was never to create a conventional story; there is no beginning, no middle, no end. Instead, we’re simply granted insight into a life that will be playing out whether we’re watching or not. It’s this approach that can really be credited for the show’s success, and why almost a decade since it finished, it’s still inspiring debate, analysis and excitement among its fans. Treated as insiders, for 50 minutes each week we were family; we were Sopranos too. 

Read more articles by Briony Edwards here

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