At the center of 'The Sopranos' was its genuine humanity

by Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

7 June 2007


There was a moment a few weeks back, when Tony Soprano was talking with his psychiatrist, complaining that bad things keep happening around him.

“I’m a good guy,” he said. “Basically.” Actually, Tony, no. Not even close.

cover art

The Sopranos

Cast: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro, Steven R. Schirripa
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET

US: 8 Apr 2007

Review [24.Apr.2007]
Review [16.Mar.2006]
Review [12.Apr.2004]
Review [23.Sep.2002]
Review [1.Jan.1995]

But aside from his general—and sometimes epic—lack of a moral compass, he is a regular guy. Like everyone else, he struggles with work, family and life.

Tony Soprano is a suburbanite with ambitions and doubts. He’s in a marriage that’s evolved into a bargain of convenience and habit. He’s a parent with kids who are turning out like nothing he’s expected. He’s got job stress, nightmares, weight problems, panic attacks, anger issues, depression and a worrying sense that he was meant for something else.

Above all else, above the intricate plotting, the fully drawn characters and the electric acting, above the stellar ironies, the wit, depth and the utter, mesmerizing entertainment values, what has made HBO’s “The Sopranos” one of the great, great shows of television is that Tony (the magnificent James Gandolfini), and everyone else in it, feels so compellingly, distressingly real.

It all ends on Sunday (at 9 p.m. EDT), six seasons spread over eight years, as one of the touchstones of American pop culture and the living definition of appointment television.

It began on Jan. 10, 1999, hardly noticed and when HBO was barely television, let alone a cut above. In less than a decade, it has transformed that network and the entire medium. Now “The Sopranos”—layered, funny, powerful and unforgettable—stands as a singular achievement, a true blend of art and entertainment, and maybe TV’s best show ever.

There is so much to say about this show, how it allowed other producers and networks to do ever-more densely structured drama, lured more great writers and actors to HBO and all of TV, made us root for an anti-hero. How it simply raised the bar.

Creator David Chase’s vision of a complicated, shifting world was nothing less than brilliant, but equally brilliant was the way he never forgot he was in the entertainment business. “The Sopranos” was always great entertainment, stuffed full of music, revelation, tension, farce, satire, violence, sex, irony and moments that resonated for days.

Has there been a serious TV series with more moments to talk about the next day? There are the “Godfather” references, the malapropisms—my favorite was the guy who said Christopher’s movie mixed “the sacred and the propane”—the gleeful pettiness, the universal selfishness, and, of course, the mob hits. Sometimes the moments involved just a look from Tony, sometimes they were the texture of a scene, lately there have been great moments surrounding A.J. (Robert Iler) and his weasely self-pity.

The tone and pacing have shifted from episode to episode, and Chase has stubbornly and skillfully resisted conventional approaches. He’s left stories dangling, like the Russian still wandering the pine barrows. He’s killed beloved characters, rest in peace Adriana. He’s ignored every feel-good possibility and replaced them with coarse jokes or unsatisfyingly neutral outcomes.

The continuing cast is one of the largest ever on TV, and surely one of the best. They play characters who are complete humans, not just qualities that get trotted out to highlight a point. And they evolve—some grow, some get bitter, some wobble in lots of directions. But no one walks onto “The Sopranos” stage without depth and fullness, even that Russian in the woods.

Still, at the heart of it all, is the rich sense of genuine humanity woven throughout this show. Not necessarily good humanity, but these people resonate with real, believable fears, hurts, hopes and denials.

All of this is more resonant because Tony is a mob boss. The fascination that our culture has with the mob comes, in part, because those guys seem to have no fear. We assume they get a pass on life’s small worries.

The rest of us live a little nervously, agonizing over bills and jobs and those two scary-looking dudes hanging around the parking lot. But mob guys, like Tony and his crew, they should be fearless. The world fears them, and they get to live carefree and large. Or so we imagine.

The brilliance of creator Chase is that he twisted all that. Tony and all his boys still have their anxieties like regular guys. Some of them are too attached to their mothers, or married to petty women, or harboring ambitions to produce movies. Some feel neglected or hunger for the old days, others go home to eat frozen dinners. And they all have job stress.

Most of all, their boss is a guy who wheezes when he walks around the house, often in an open, ratty bathrobe. He’s a guy who squabbles with his wife. And he’s been seeing a psychiatrist.

The foundation of the “The Sopranos” is the triangle of mob, Tony’s family and the psychiatrist’s office. The heart of the show is Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco). So much of the series flows from their domestic lives, and they appear as regular as any neighbor—with the exception of the caches of bills buried around the backyard.

Tony is bothered that he came in to his world too late, that life got out of control, that maybe he could have been a good guy, selling insurance on the road and calling home every night. He’s haunted by “what if,” like so many millions who watch the show.

Carmela mostly ignores Tony’s wanderings and his profession, and it tears her up. She struggles to forge an identity separate from her husband and his job. Together, they get excited over finding a good sushi restaurant, and they’re slowly being battered by the knowledge their marriage is a mess.

And they are like so many millions of couples. One of the show’s best and most painful scenes came a few seasons back. Tony was having a rough day—maybe he had to whack a friend; I forget the details—and he came home mid-afternoon.

Carmela knew something was wrong, but instead of talking about it, she heated up some food. Tony was sitting at one end of the dining room table, and Carmela came from behind him and put the plate in front of Tony, lightly brushing her hand across his shoulder. That was the only gesture of concern she could muster.

Tony started eating, head down. Carmela went to the far end of that long, expensive table and sat to finish paying bills. She looked up at Tony as he ate, hoping he’d say something. Then she went back to the bills.

Tony paused as he ate, and looked up at her. For a passing moment, his face looked plaintive and a little pleading. He hoped Carmela would ask about him. Then he continued eating, each of them back in their own lonely spheres.

If there has ever been a better mini-essay on the all-American marriage on television, I haven’t seen it.

And if there has been a better show about families and American culture and the complex, devilish thing that is human nature, I can’t imagine what it was.

If there is any standout message from this multi-faceted show, or at least any message rising above the rest, it’s that we’re all human and humans are a mess.

Tony started therapy because he was a mess. Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) ended it because she’s become a mess. A.J., Meadow, Carmela and Tony: all messes. The East Coast mob establishment is one giant, tangled, unruly mess. Just like everything in life.

So as this remarkable, towering series ends - and Tony appears headed for disaster—the question of the details are almost irrelevant. Does Tony somehow go on with life, does he die, does he run and land in witness protection? Those are almost minutiae. Does he grow or change? That’s more to the point, and not likely. Change is hard for regular guys.

“The Sopranos” ends as landmark television, with a permanent place in our culture’s hall of fame for its influence, for its quality and for how it entertained. And when it’s over, David Chase, Tony Soprano and the rest of the gang will have left us with the forceful and enduring declaration that both television and life can be complicated, bewildering and surprising, and that, sometimes, they can be great.

//Mixed media