By Matt Hanson
I find it a little disturbing how The Sopranos’ themes seem to have culminated in the election of our current President.
Now that it’s been twenty years since The Sopranos first aired on HBO, there is the requisite new book explaining all of the show’s whys and wherefores, including the notorious and apparently still-controversial ending. Interviews with the author have popped up everywhere, along with think-pieces galore. For me at least, it feels a little strange to be rewatching the show all these years later. I’ve seen every episode at least once, some several times, and studied a few of them pretty closely. Some works of art become a kind of personal scrapbook (TV shows do this especially well for some reason) since they can remind you of where and how you were when you first saw them. Odd as it may sound, rewatching Tony gobbling his gabbagool, Christopher hoovering up lines of blow, and Paulie Walnuts clipping wise guys who got out of line offers a kind of Proustian experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure if it’s a totally positive one.
I remember when the show first received some critical buzz, back when I was in college, though I didn’t start really watching it consistently until later. What struck me was how the culture seemed to go unaccountably gaga over Tony Soprano’s dark charisma, based on James Gandolfini’s masterful portrayal of the character’s complex negotiation between being a suburban dad and a lethal mob boss. The contrast didn’t seem that strange to me at first glance — my friends and I, all nerdy teenage suburbanites, had grown up greedily imbibing the tropes of the mob movies that The Sopranos so self-consciously invoked and played with.
What surprised me back then was how many magazines touted Tony as an unlikely sex symbol. Gandolfini was named one of People Magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive” one year. I distinctly remember an academic journal dedicated to popular culture offering a detailed, almost breathless description of how Tony’s physicality made him accessible in unexpectedly seductive ways. It was mighty interesting to discover that Tony’s raw power turned otherwise critical and disinterested academics on so much. Tossing all that postmodern criticism about gender and race aside with a flick of his meaty, bejeweled paw; Tony’s alpha hedonism jolted the blushing sophomore that lives in all of us brainy types. That added an extra prurient kick to watching the exploits of the Soprano crew week after week, especially when I was just starting to encounter the textual labyrinth of academia.
Whether or not we want to admit it, Americans have always had an ambiguous relationship to our Puritanical cultural inheritance — we want to condemn the devil within, but we secretly love him at the same time. This applies to sexuality, certainly (just look at our hypocritical movie rating system), but this contradiction really manifests itself in our attitudes toward the pursuit of wealth and success. We tell ourselves pretty stories about the value of stoicism and the Protestant ethic, but admire (sometimes tacitly, sometimes less so) the rugged independence of the wild man, the outlaw, the gangster. Americans dig the hustler and thrill to the panache of those who make bank, flout the law with impunity, and don’t have to wait in line to get the best tables at classy restaurants where they can eat for free.
In a Darwinian economic system becoming more brutally zero-sum, we may pretend to disapprove of the well-heeled crooks parading through our public life, but many people (usually on the right) still admire their glamour and want to emulate how they beat the system. The fact that it’s often the very same people cheerleading this behavior who end up paying the price for all that rule-breaking is one of the most mind-boggling facts of American political life. It’s another disheartening example of how Americans love self-proclaimed winners and treat losing less like a temporary setback and more like a fall from grace.
This moral tension between Tony’s palpable charisma and his possible criminal psychosis became more pronounced in the show’s later seasons, which I watched ever more avidly amid the post-graduation confusion about joining the so-called real world. Every few episodes one of the members of the Soprano crew would do something that tested the boundaries of the traditional mafia codes of conduct, such as Ralphie impulsively killing the pregnant stripper outside the Bada Bing or the discovery of Vito Spatafore’s outré sexual tastes. But in the end, what tended to keep these wise guys alive was being able to earn and then kick that money up to the boss. The more lucre somebody could bring in, regardless of the way it was gotten, the greater the chance that their more questionable actions were overlooked. Tony’s angst over his actions was often soothed by the fact that, ultimately, it was just business. The Sopranos became a cultural phenomenon partly because the show was engagingly blunt about its vision of how the world really worked.
During the moral schizophrenia of the Bush years, official White House discourse perpetually prevaricated, shrugged, or said “aw shucks” about the uglier realities of torture, war, environmental disaster, and economic exploitation. The Sopranos came off as refreshingly unsentimental about the world’s corruption and the existential questioning it caused. It didn’t pussyfoot around the uglier aspects of grabbing and keeping power, which is really another way to say money, and lots of it. And our heroes were up to a little bit of everything in order to fill that weekly envelope: selling junk stocks, embezzling via shell companies, ripping off unions and contractors, becoming involved with political corruption, shady real estate deals, problems with the Feds, etc. Sound like anybody you know of?
Considering how emotionally invested viewers became in these characters, it is more than a little disturbing how the show’s themes seem to have culminated in the election of our current President. It’s not hard to picture Donald Trump ambling into the back of the Bada Bing strip club for a discreet sit-down with the captains from Tony’s crew. He might well have helped himself to one of the working girls afterwards. The show never shied away from poking fun at the characters’ crudeness and amusing malapropisms (“he might be trying to spread dysentery in the ranks”) but that was clearly a way for showrunner David Chase to show what dumbasses these guys really were. It reminded us that we were in on the joke, even if his characters weren’t.
Tragically, some people don’t realize how the joke they think they are playing on the mainstream elites has been on them all along. Now, in certain circles at least, being crude and functionally illiterate (not to mention corrupt and venal) is the very mark of authenticity, especially for a President. For some it’s evidence of his ballsiness (what the Soprano crew would call stugots) and a way of gleefully pissing off the libtards, to boot. Trump offers an entirely different way of being politically incorrect—not just because he uses inappropriateness to jeer at the powers that be, but because his boorishness helped get him elected in the first place. Many in the media have fretted over how the bar is set extra low for Trump because he isn’t your average politician. True enough, but it goes even deeper than that — Trump gets away with more overt crassness than anyone in his position should because we’ve been conditioned not to expect anything more from people like him. It’s just the way his type is supposed to act. After all, good manners are for losers and wimps.
Of course, there are many distinctions to be made between David Chase’s fictional creation and the President of the United States. But the fact is, Tony’s family troubles are still interesting to us all these years later, and not just because the show was so well-written and well-acted, which it certainly was. Evidently, we are living in a reality that has been distorted by television so profoundly that a reality TV star can ascend to the highest office in the land with little more than brashness, attitude, and a charisma that may not appeal to everyone, but is a big hit with his demographic. Whether or not people can tell the difference between reality and fiction is disturbingly up for debate. Trump offers a worldview even less nuanced than that of the mob movies which helped to pave the way for a public that accepts him as more legitimate than he actually is. Hopefully, rewatching The Sopranos will remind us of the real-life price we pay for endlessly watching TV and rooting for the bad guys to win.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.