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Valentine GERVES Pop Culture : 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 is often considered as one of the best, regarding the numerous Golden Globe Awards and Emmy Awards it won.
The main plot revolves around the activities of a mafiosi family in New Jersey and all of its entourage (relatives, other mobsters or gangs…), but is mostly centered on the fictional story of Tony Soprano, the mob’s leader who has to face problems both in his business life and his private life. Indeed, the pilot introduces him seeing a therapist for the first time because he suffered from a panic attack. The show, launched by HBO, was determinant for a lot of TV series that followed, along with The Wire and Oz : it popularized the genre and made TV shows acceptable as “works of art” instead of just entertainment sitcoms. Contributor of Vanity Fair Peter Biskind said that the show was “perhaps the greatest pop-culture masterpiece of its day”.
Director David Chase said in an interview that the main inspiration for the show was Scorcese’s Goodfellas (1990), and various actors from this movie are also in the series : the most notables being Lorraine Bracco (Dr Melfi, the psychiatrist), Michael Imperioli (Christopher, Tony’s nephew) and Tony Sirico (Paulie, member of the Soprano crew and later caporegime). The other actors, especially James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano, were not that famous, but the director David Chase also included a lot of guest stars on the show, which blurred the lines between fiction and reality and participated to the show being really linked to popular culture of then and now. For example, the actor Steve Buscemi played a major role in the season 5 (introduced as Tony’s cousin), but some famous stars also made a short appearance, like film director Jon Favreau, actresses Annette Bening and Lauren Bacall…
Along the six seasons, the plot develops itself in different ways, making second characters becoming more important by narrating their stories during one or two episodes, and also mixing pop culture references with social critic, dreams with fictional “reality”, which makes The Sopranos a complex piece of art, not only another story about the mafia and its crimes.
The time when the show takes place is really important, in a sense that the characters always relate to it in some way : the World Trade Center attacks, and the general paranoia against Muslims that resulted, the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, but also the general music, fashion and youngsters’ hype mostly through the characters of Anthony JR and Meadow Soprano, Tony’s children. They are listening to Britney Spears or to nu-metal, having parties where they take drugs like ketamine or ecstasy, and dressing in a way that their parents disapprove : in an episode, the son of a mobster becomes a gothic and all of the crime family tries to remedy against it.
The show contains as well modern reflexions on social subjects like homosexuality : in the 5th and 6th season, Vito Spatafore, a subordinate of Tony Soprano, becomes one of the main characters because he tries to hide his homosexuality and eventually is discovered and then killed. His murder is supported by some parts of the mob, on the justification that it’s an infamy and dishonours the Family, but some of them want to close their eyes on it. This can remind all the questionings in a religious nuclear family about a gay family member, except than here the Family is with a capital F, a family linked by crime and commitment to the mafia. There is also an issue about hypermasculinity and manliness supposedly embodied by the mobsters.
If we take the wide definition of “hero”, we have “A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. “, but also “The best or most important thing in a set or group” (Oxford English Dictionnary). The first definition is what we commonly imagine as a hero, the greatest mythological figures for example. The second one can be applied to any main character in an artwork, concerning The Sopranos the hero would be Tony Soprano.
Nevertheless, the character can’t be considered as a hero in the “noble” way given his actions throughout the TV show. Even when not focusing on Tony, all the characters would be more antiheros, if we observe the definition “A central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.” (Oxford English Dictionnary). But this definition isn’t convenient for The Sopranos’ characters either, because the series isn’t just about criminals doing their regular killings, drug dealings and so on. In a sense, even the supposed “good guys” of the show aren’t heroes in the common sense : the policemen or even FBI agents who are supposed to fight against the crime families are often shown as corrupted, or having their own moral troubles.
One of the only remotely moral characters may be the psychiatrist, Dr Melfi, but she sometimes helps Tony in his crime activities unbeknowst to herself (when she gives him Sun Tzu’s Art of War book in season 3 episode 8). Nobody in The Sopranos is completely good or bad, because at one point the show always adds something that make them hatable or lovable, and brings us to feel empathy for them, sometimes a long time after they were first introduced. One of the example might be Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother whom he has a really complicated relationship with, and who is annoying and sometimes obnoxious to all her relatives, and as well never really gave love to her children. In the season 5 episode 7, the viewers learn that Livia was alone when she suffered a miscarriage because her husband was cheating on her at that time, which provokes empathy and pity for the character and can explain a part of her bitterness. The main finding is that all the characters in The Sopranos are 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 the Dark Triad Personality Traits” (published in 2012).
In this research work, the main aspects of the antiheroesque figure are enumerated : “The Dark Triad, composed of subclinical narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, has become an increasingly popular constellation of traits” (extract). At this point, the mafioso (criminal, mobsters) is easily identifiable in those personality traits. Tony Soprano, the main character and New Jersey mafia caporegime is a striking example in that he knows how to lead his “soldiers” with some Machiavellian techniques, he mostly works for his interests but sometimes has rage-induced episodes where he shows his dysfunctioning mental health, as when he brutally murders one of his capos because he might have killed Tony’s horse (Season 4 episode 9). Even his psychiatrist, Dr Melfi, in the last season, is confronted to the harsh truth : Tony may have psychopathic and sociopathic issues, and she cannot really change who he is (she even drops him as a patient after an angry scene between the two).
Nevertheless, the most striking and new thing about the main characters of The Sopranos might be the fact that they are pretty normal, even maybe unoriginal people. The Sopranos paved the way for a renewal of the antihero figure, because it describes almost regular Americans, regular New Jersey rubes, the only exception is that they are also part of the Italo-American mafia (or related to it). In an interview to Vanity Fair in 2007, the president of HBO Chris Albrecht said “I said to myself, this show is about a guy who’s turning 40. He’s inherited a business from his dad. He’s trying to bring it into the modern age. He’s got all the responsibilities that go along with that. (…) He’s anxious; he’s depressed; he starts to see a therapist because he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought: the only difference between him and everybody I know is he’s the Don of New Jersey.”
Tony Soprano and his co-partners in crime aren’t above the society : this is a huge difference with the former “mafia stories”. The show makes us forget The Godfather and its elegant gangsters : Tony, Paulie, Silvio and the others often dress badly, they don’t speak italian (referring to the episode 4 of the 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 mobster figure is more regular family men who sometimes have to do business, but, as David Chase (the show’s director) said : “They sit around eating baked ziti and betting and figuring out who owes who money. Occasionally, violence breaks out—more often than it does in the banking world, perhaps.” This humorous answer is the proof that the mafiosi in this TV series aren’t supposed to be those scary figures working in the darkness with an elegant, rolling italian accent : they have a provincial accent (they are sometimes even despised by the New York mafia members), they beat up themselves the embarrassing people, and they hang out with bad-toothed strippers from the local dusty club.
There are of course some scenes reminiscent of the traditional “mafia in popular culture” : when the new members are accepted, with the bloodsharing and the fire, the long councils and the countless burials where all the mobsters’s families are present and decide who’s going to replace the one who’s in the coffin. However, Tony Soprano for example spends also a lot of time in front of his television eating ice cream, just like Homer Simpson would do in the eponymous show. This (along with fatness and balding) isn’t the only similarity between the two characters, even if they are not viewed in the same way (though they’re both monuments of pop culture). But Tony Soprano is supposed to be a bad guy, even a criminal : he’s still deeply relatable (at first, the show writers wanted to call it Family Man).
This classic TV series presents the anti-hero in a new way : bad people but who are just like us, who aren’t unattainable people from the high sphere of the New York mafia. They are kind of dangerous sociopaths but they are not immortal , and they have failures. The mafia itself is however still there to build a kind of moral code (protecting the mobsters’ families and significant others) with its strong link to traditional catholicism. Even the loyalty (in crime) that the mafiosi have to show to each other may be regarded as a a moral compass. Still, the show’s director wanted to reinforce the mobster and criminal part of those “normal” family men, by making him killing a “snitch” (former colleague also) during his trip with his daughter to visit some universities. This happens in one of the first episodes of the show (Season 1 Episode 5), and really reunites both entities in Tony’s character, the villain and the good father (godfather ?).
The fact that this episode was rated as the best of the series (“Top 10 Sopranos Episodes”, TIMES Magazine, 2007) proves that this show really changed the game for introducing these kind of characters in TV shows. In an article written by Ree Hines published in Today, it is said that “Viewers develop long-term relationships with the familiar faces on weekly dramas. Audiences were used to cheering for the good guys they knew and loved and waiting for the baddies to finally get what was coming to them.”
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