The enduring cultural legacy of The Sopranos


It's been 23 years since the hit HBO show hit television screens and it continues to resonate today. 

by Andrew Laughlin in TV & Movies

A family affair.
A family affair.

In 2019, the cast of The Sopranos joined together to celebrate the debut of the acclaimed HBO drama 20 previously. Over the two decades in between, the reputation of the series has grown among both critics and fans, and it remains today as one of modern television's great dramas.

Before 1999 few international television viewers might have heard of New Jersey, a modest American State squeezed between New York and the Atlantic Ocean. That was until Tony Soprano emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel and entered the New Jersey Turnpike to the punchy soundtrack of Alabama 3's Woke Up This Morning.

A melee of murder, panic attacks and lashings of pasta would follow, as The Sopranos not only put New Jersey on the map but also established one of the great television series of recent times.

For those not in the know, The Sopranos concentrates on Anthony (Tony) Soprano, played by James Gandolfini in the series, who becomes the boss of the New Jersey-based DiMeo family, which is itself at the centre of a ruthless network of mafia vice, sex, power and murder.

As a television drama, The Sopranos excels, however, not as a brutally frank mafia thriller - Scorsese and Ford Coppola had already been there and done that - but as a sharp dissection of interpersonal relationships and depression, during which anti-hero Tony constantly grapples with his life as a father, husband and human being alongside the taxing requirements of his chosen calling.

The richness of The Sopranos characters was the cornerstone of its critical and audience success from the outset (and as it remains today with the series now a boxset mainstay).

At Tony's side in the series is his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) who struggles with Tony's chaotic character and emotional abuse. She uneasily balances the reality of the mafia world and the luxurious life it has enabled her and her children, Meadow and AJ. 

Tony's relationship with his sisters is telling; he adores the meek and "normal" Barbara (Nicole Burdette) but has a rocky relationship with the Machiavellian Janice (Aida Turturro), who possibly reminds him too much of himself. His Uncle Corrado "Junior" Soprano (played by Dominic Chianese) attempts to have him killed more than once and his caustic mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) pushes him over the emotional edge.

Being a mob boss isn't easy

Then there are the DiMeo cronies - including Tony's trusted consigliere Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), Paul "Paulie Walnuts" Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and the brutal Furio Giunta (Federico Castelluccio). All these characters are richly drawn by Chase and plugged into different holes of the mafia order. The show also frequently interfaces with New York mobsters, particularly John "Johnny Sack" Sacrimoni (Vince Curatola), as relations drift in and out of cross-city mob war.

In the first episode, Tony blacks out due to a panic attack, and then decides to attend therapy with the complex yet alluring Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Here, Tony's psyche reluctantly unravels, dragging Melfi down into his destructive, spiralling life.

"We all talked a lot about Melfi's scenes," according to Alik Sakharov, The Sopranos original director of photography, "and about how her office would be defined. Ed Pisoni, who was our Production Designer, came up with the idea of a circular space. An office with no corners has psychological value. Originally, we were going to do a lot of moving with the camera, but we realised it would distract the viewer. The words of the therapy sessions are very important and precise. We realised that we had to park the camera and let the actors do their thing."

Renowned actor, writer and director, Peter Bogdanovich, plays Melfi's therapist in the series as she seeks to balance the demands of her troublesome client. Bogdanovich knew Chase from his time at Northern Exposure and was keen to become involved in this new project.

"Before I did the interview with Chase, I looked at all of (The Sopranos) first season's work in order. They sent me all thirteen episodes," Bogdanovich explains. "It was extraordinary to watch it like that. Thirteen in a row, I didn't want it to end. It was so riveting, and so much better than most movies. It's an extraordinary piece of work - as a concept and the way they've carried it out. It's no coincidence that it's so popular."

The Sopranos succeeded in mixing cold-blooded, dramatic violence with humility, and even a dose of humour. For example, in the episode Pine Barrens, Christopher and Paulie are sent out into the woods to perform an execution. Tony calls Paulie to urge caution as the target was once part of the Russian Interior Ministry and had apparently killed 16 Chechen Rebels. Paulie - being neither well-travelled nor educated - translates this as an interior decorator that had killed 16 Czechoslovakians. The subjects and violence may be ruthless and shocking, but The Sopranos retains a humanist angle that proved accessible to a wider audience.

It's all about the scripts

Sakharov had been part of the team since the pilot episode and had helped to ensure Chase's complex scripts and ideas were transferred successfully onto the screen.

"David wanted a look that would have its own two feet," in Sakharov's opinion. "When I first read the pilot, it felt like a lot of the style of the show was already partially built into it. David's writing is very tight; if you open the pilot script on any page, the scene direction is poetry. We would sit down with the whole script and break the scenes into shots. That's what you do with feature films. But the approach was very different for television. We discussed every single shot in the show. That's the level of detail David likes."

Sakharov argues that the gritty texture of New Jersey plays an important role in aesthetic choices, differing immensely from the warm, bright tones of the West Coast of America. For him, it was always important to reflect the location in the way the show is presented.

"We created the mood not by lighting the character, but by lighting the environment. Sometimes, minimalism is important. It's about retaining the discipline, that visually, less is more. David likes very dramatic lighting, so a lot of the scenes are really illustrative. Darkness intensifies the drama and gives much more texture. Sometimes you intentionally make something theatrical, but at the same time, it's real. It's very dynamic. You could go nuts trying to light their faces."

The final season of The Sopranos brought to a head all the rumbling conflicts that have dogged the Soprano family since its beginning. Within the family unit and in his mafia operation, Tony found himself challenged constantly as the series drew to a close.

In the first half of The Sopranos final Season Six, for example, an increasingly deranged Uncle Junior mistakenly shoots Tony, placing him into a coma. In this, Tony travels through his psyche, learning lessons but generally coming out with more confusing questions. When he awakens, with troubles inside the DiMeo family and from New York, Tony faces a battle to save his life and his family too.

"It's not really a mob show, even though it's about a guy who's in the Mafia," reflects Bogdanovich on the show. "I don't think it's really a mob film in the way that The Godfather or Goodfellas was. I think it's more about America. It's a dysfunctional family that I think represents a cross-section of a certain kind of American public that isn't involved with the Mafia. That's why I think it resonates with people. It's more down to earth. It's about you and me and your neighbours. It's not about some people that you read about in the newspapers.

"I think The Sopranos has enormous cultural relevance to American life at the end of the 20th Century and the start of the 21st."

As it continues to do so today.

Watch The Sopranos in the UK on Amazon Prime, Sky and YouTube.

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