Valentine GERVESPopCulture : Life as play”The Sopranos”and the renewal of the anti-hero figure “The Sopranos” is a TV series launched in 1999 (and finished in 2007), and isoften considered as one of the best, regarding the numerous GoldenGlobe Awards and Emmy Awards it won. The main plot revolves aroundthe activities of a mafiosi family in New Jersey and all of itsentourage (relatives, other mobsters or gangs.
..), but is mostlycentered on the fictional story of Tony Soprano, the mob’s leader whohas to face problems both in his business life and his private life.Indeed, the pilot introduces him seeing a therapist for the firsttime because he suffered from a panic attack. Theshow, launched by HBO, was determinant for a lot of TV series thatfollowed, along with The Wire and Oz : it popularized the genre andmade TV shows acceptable as “works of art” instead of justentertainment sitcoms. Contributor of Vanity Fair Peter Biskind saidthat the show was “perhaps thegreatest pop-culture masterpiece of its day”.Director David Chase said in an interview that the main inspirationfor the show was Scorcese’s Goodfellas(1990),and various actors from this movie are also in the series : the mostnotables being Lorraine Bracco (Dr Melfi, the psychiatrist), MichaelImperioli (Christopher, Tony’s nephew) and Tony Sirico (Paulie,member of the Soprano crew and later caporegime).
The other actors, especially James Gandolfini, who plays TonySoprano, were not that famous, but the director David Chase alsoincluded a lot of guest stars on the show, which blurred the linesbetween fiction and reality and participated to the show being reallylinked to popular culture of then and now. For example, the actorSteve Buscemi played a major role in the season 5 (introduced asTony’s cousin), but some famous stars also made a short appearance,like film director Jon Favreau, actresses Annette Bening and LaurenBacall… Along the six seasons, the plot develops itself indifferent ways, making second characters becoming more important bynarrating their stories during one or two episodes, and also mixingpop culture references with social critic, dreams with fictional”reality”, which makes TheSopranos a complex piece of art,not only another story about the mafia and its crimes. Thetime when the show takes place is really important, in a sense thatthe characters always relate to it in some way : the World TradeCenter attacks, and the general paranoia against Muslims thatresulted, the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, but also thegeneral music, fashion and youngsters’ hype mostly through thecharacters of Anthony JR and Meadow Soprano, Tony’s children. Theyare listening to Britney Spears or to nu-metal, having parties wherethey take drugs like ketamine or ecstasy, and dressing in a way thattheir parents disapprove : in an episode, the son of a mobsterbecomes a gothic and all of the crime family tries to remedy againstit.
The show contains as well modern reflexions on social subjectslike homosexuality : in the 5thand 6thseason, Vito Spatafore, a subordinate of Tony Soprano, becomes one ofthe main characters because he tries to hide his homosexuality andeventually is discovered and then killed. His murder is supported bysome parts of the mob, on the justification that it’s an infamy anddishonours the Family, but some of them want to close their eyes onit. This can remind all the questionings in a religious nuclearfamily about a gay family member, except than here the Family is witha capital F, a family linked by crime and commitment to the mafia.
There is also an issue about hypermasculinity and manlinesssupposedly embodied by the mobsters. Ifwe take the wide definition of “hero”, we have “Aperson who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, ornoble qualities.”, but also “Thebest or most important thing in a set or group” (Oxford EnglishDictionnary). The first definition is what we commonly imagine as ahero, the greatest mythological figures for example.
The second onecan be applied to any main character in an artwork, concerning TheSopranos the hero would be Tony Soprano. Nevertheless, the character can’t beconsidered as a hero in the “noble” way given his actionsthroughout the TV show. Even when not focusing on Tony, all thecharacters would be more antiheros, if we observe the definition “Acentral character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventionalheroic attributes.”(Oxford English Dictionnary).
But this definition isn’t convenientfor The Sopranos’ characters either, because the series isn’t justabout criminals doing their regular killings, drug dealings and soon. In a sense, even the supposed “good guys” of the showaren’t heroes in the common sense : the policemen or even FBI agentswho are supposed to fight against the crime families are often shownas corrupted, or having their own moral troubles. One of the onlyremotely moral characters may be the psychiatrist, Dr Melfi, but shesometimes helps Tony in his crime activities unbeknowst to herself(when she gives him Sun Tzu’s Artof Warbook in season 3 episode 8). Nobody in TheSopranos iscompletely good or bad, because at one point the show always addssomething that make them hatable or lovable, and brings us to feelempathy for them, sometimes a long time after they were firstintroduced. One of the example might be Livia Soprano, Tony’s motherwhom he has a really complicated relationship with, and who isannoying and sometimes obnoxious to all her relatives, and as wellnever really gave love to her children. In the season 5 episode 7,the viewers learn that Livia was alone when she suffered amiscarriage because her husband was cheating on her at that time,which provokes empathy and pity for the character and can explain apart of her bitterness. Themain finding is that all the characters in TheSopranosare not simplistic and can’t be just resumed as heros or villains.
However, there is also the questioning about their “anti-hero”attributes : some searchers made a thesis about the concept called”The Antihero in Popular Culture: Life History Theory and theDark Triad Personality Traits” (published in 2012). In thisresearch work, the main aspects of the antiheroesque figure areenumerated : “The Dark Triad, composed of subclinicalnarcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, has become anincreasingly popular constellation of traits” (extract). At thispoint, the mafioso (criminal, mobsters) is easily identifiable inthose personality traits.
Tony Soprano, the main character and NewJersey mafia caporegime is a striking example in that he knows how tolead his “soldiers” with some Machiavelliantechniques, he mostly works for his interests but sometimes hasrage-induced episodes where he shows his dysfunctioning mentalhealth, as when he brutally murders one of his capos because he mighthave killed Tony’s horse (Season 4 episode 9). Even his psychiatrist,Dr Melfi, in the last season, is confronted to the harsh truth : Tonymay have psychopathic and sociopathic issues, and she cannot reallychange who he is (she even drops him as a patient after an angryscene between the two). Nevertheless,the most striking and new thing about the main characters of TheSopranosmight be the fact that they are pretty normal, even maybe unoriginalpeople. TheSopranospaved the way for a renewal of the antihero figure, because itdescribes almost regular Americans, regular New Jersey rubes, theonly exception is that they are also part of the Italo-American mafia(or related to it). In an interview to Vanity Fair in 2007, thepresident of HBO Chris Albrecht said “Isaid to myself, this show is about a guy who’s turning 40. He’sinherited a business from his dad. He’s trying to bring it into themodern age.
He’s got all the responsibilities that go along withthat. (..
.) He’s anxious; he’s depressed; he starts to see atherapist because he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. Ithought: the only difference between him and everybody I know is he’sthe Don of New Jersey.” TonySoprano and his co-partners in crime aren’t above the society : thisis a huge difference with the former “mafia stories”. Theshow makes us forget TheGodfatherand its elegant gangsters : Tony, Paulie, Silvio and the others oftendress badly, they don’t speak italian (referring to the episode 4 ofthe second season where they go to Italy) therefore they appear as”too much american” for the Camorra mafia (from Naples),they lack of cultural and intellectual references… The new mobsterfigure is more regular family men who sometimes have to do business,but, as David Chase (the show’s director) said : “Theysit around eating baked ziti and betting and figuring out who oweswho money.
Occasionally, violence breaks out—more often than itdoes in the banking world, perhaps.”This humorous answer is the proof that the mafiosi in this TV seriesaren’t supposed to be those scary figures working in the darknesswith an elegant, rolling italian accent : they have a provincialaccent (they are sometimes even despised by the New York mafiamembers), they beat up themselves the embarrassing people, and theyhang out with bad-toothed strippers from the local dusty club. Thereare of course some scenes reminiscent of the traditional “mafiain popular culture” : when the new members are accepted, withthe bloodsharing and the fire, the long councils and the countlessburials where all the mobsters’s families are present and decidewho’s going to replace the one who’s in the coffin. However, TonySoprano for example spends also a lot of time in front of histelevision eating ice cream, just like Homer Simpson would do in theeponymous show. This (along with fatness and balding) isn’t the onlysimilarity between the two characters, even if they are not viewed inthe same way (though they’re both monuments of pop culture). But TonySoprano is supposed to be a bad guy, even a criminal : he’s stilldeeply relatable (at first, the show writers wanted to call it FamilyMan).This classic TV series presents the anti-hero in a new way : badpeople but who are just like us, who aren’t unattainable people fromthe high sphere of the New York mafia. They are kind of dangeroussociopaths but they are not immortal , and they have failures.
Themafia itself is however still there to build a kind of moral code(protecting the mobsters’ families and significant others) with itsstrong link to traditional catholicism. Even the loyalty (in crime)that the mafiosi have to show to each other may be regarded as a amoral compass. Still, the show’s director wanted to reinforce themobster and criminal part of those “normal” family men, bymaking him killing a “snitch” (former colleague also)during his trip with his daughter to visit some universities. Thishappens in one of the first episodes of the show (Season 1 Episode5), and really reunites both entities in Tony’s character, thevillain and the good father (godfather ?). The fact that this episodewas rated as the best of the series (“Top 10 Sopranos Episodes”,TIMES Magazine, 2007) proves that this show really changed the gamefor introducing these kind of characters in TV shows. In an articlewritten by Ree Hines published in Today, it is said that “Viewersdevelop long-term relationships with the familiar faces on weeklydramas.
Audiences were used to cheering for the good guys they knewand loved and waiting for the baddies to finally get what was comingto them”