How The Sopranos Changed Television

The One Block Down editorial archive is an ever-evolving resource detailing the cultures, movements and ideas that defined contemporary stylistic discourse. From unique takes on today’s leading pop-culture topics, to off-kilter stories that might have slipped through the net, our editorial archive is as fundamental as it is abstract.

In his book "From animals to gods", the Israeli philosopher Yuval Noah Harari writes a passage that is fundamental to understanding today's issue (and society): "We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it allows us to cooperate effectively and to forge a better society". Just as people believe in Christianity or capitalism, or democracy, the Sopranos lived by the laws of their world: family and loyalty.

The revolution implemented by Chase, the screenwriter and producer of the series, had a clear intent: to clear (in part) the personalities of the Italian-American mafia as indestructible, unflappable beings, constantly immersed in the good life without a crack in their souls.

The Sopranos not only changed the way of understanding television seriality, but literally broke down the imaginary wall that divides audience and actors. The tight storytelling within The Sopranos had nothing to do with the schematic 'template' that most TV series followed. Through the narrative of a New Jersey mafia clan - the Sopranos are inspired by a real-life North Jersey family, the DeCavalcantes - David Chase has created a mirror of modern society.

Tony Soprano is the leader of his eponymous clan, surrounded by his faithful squires Silvio Dante, Pussy Bompensiero, Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie Walnuts, but from the outset he is portrayed as a weak man, burdened by maternal feelings and constantly struggling to keep his life under control. But this concept represents only 1% of the narrative around The Sopranos. Underlying it all, Chase wanted to create a cross-section of America at the beginning of the new millennium, in which Tony is just the mirror reflection of a disillusioned, depressed audience in constant personal contradiction.

Tony Soprano is one of us, or rather, we are us. The creators of the series had set their standard in a precise way: to tell through storytelling, psychology, drama, sitcom moments and philosophy Tony's complex life as a boss. At first, everyone expected a stereotypical Italian mafia series, thus based on the legacy of The Godfather and Scorsese's films, and in fact many production companies rejected Chase's idea. Only HBO, which at that time was known mainly for broadcasting sports events, gave carte blanche. That deal marked the beginning of HBO's rise as a television and film giant, bringing more subscribers to the platform than any other show on the network.

The Sopranos series began in 1999 and ran for six seasons until 2007, chronicling American society at its most difficult, the pre and post 9/11 era. The American public found themselves in a period of complete distrust towards their country, disoriented by that unforgettable event for everyone. The series became, in a very short time, one of the most ingenious shows, able to tell an entire generation without veils. Tony Soprano, like all the other memorable characters in the series, is a character plagued by sadness, difficulties in managing his "two families" and constant panic attacks.

The writing of The Sopranos was born out of the social unease David Chase felt in those years. There is an America in constant struggle and afflicted by its own ego of superiority towards the rest of the world. All signs of insecurity that leave no room for any theory, except for one obvious truth: people trying to change their past for a better future. It is an America empty in spirit, inexorably destined for ruin.

In The Sopranos scenario, we find a country nostalgic for the post-war days where the values of respect and patriotism were of the first order. In the first session with Dr Melfi, Tony says: 'I think of my father: he never reached such heights as I did, but in many ways he did better. He had his people, they had their standards. What do we have today?"

Tony's words from the outset tell the story of his imagination made up of constant cracks in his life and those around him. The Sopranos identify strongly with their sense of belonging and continually sings the praises of virality and solving problems by force. In truth, all the characters wear masks to cover up their frailties and the fact that they have to respect the 'duties' of the family. With The Sopranos, Chase has idealised the fall of masculinity with all possible facets, especially through the psychological one.

One such facet is their continued contempt for ethnic minorities. When Meadow, Tony's eldest daughter, introduces her boyfriend, her discomfort is immediately apparent. Noah is half-Jewish and half-African-American and this allows Tony to start a purely racial discourse, about how they are "Italians" and he...from an opposite "world". Or when he discovers the homosexuality of his soldier Vito Spatafore, which leads him to run away from everything and everyone, until his inevitable death for dishonouring his family. The Sopranos have only one ideal: never disfigure yourself in public and never lose respect for people.

Tony's sessions with Dr Melfi are a disgrace to his family and, in fact, he tries to hide it as much as possible. Talking about one's state of mind with an outsider to the clan is a complete violation of the Mafia code of honour. But the real question was: what is the reason for the sessions? To become a better man or a better criminal?

A legitimate question that will never be answered for sure, until the end of the series. For Tony, Melfi's studio seemed to be the only corner on Earth where he was free to express his cursed and immoral existence to the core. His therapy becomes the perfect context for lamenting the degraded state of things, but still wallowing in this rotten society.

Tony never really intends to change and improve as a person, but more wants to reconcile with himself.The Sopranos, from a philosophical aspect, draws on Hegel's theories of thesis and antithesis. Tony tries to be a better father (thesis) and, at the same time, a better boss (antithesis). Clearly, both cannot coexist, which brings us back to the main idea of the show: all the characters live in the constant uncertainty of their choices, contradicting themselves. Just like Carmela, Tony's wife, who knows about his mistresses and helps him hide his weapons from the feds and, at the same time, puts the Catholic religion at the centre of her life. Obviously, her attitudes represent the figure of the woman in Western culture, i.e. always devoted to the family for better or worse without really exploring her own individuality.

If the framework of the films on the Mafia was based on the story of the rise to power and the fall from the throne, The Sopranos dissects the everyday life of its characters: one day at the top and the next at the bottom, for the entire duration of the series. They are all anti-heroes who are constantly trying to find their identity and their role within a society fragmented by a thousand inconsistencies.

The greatness of The Sopranos also comes from the directing style, which allows us to intuit the turn of each situation. There are close-ups and wide cuts that allow us to analyse the context of the scene and immerse ourselves in the content described. Clearly, the main focus is on the imposing, in every sense, figure of Tony: the tight close-ups and fast tracking shots give us an immediate insight into his turbulent soul or the dangerous situation he is in, while in the wide-angle scenes we get a glimpse of a rare moment of relaxation. As already mentioned, the influences of the great filmmakers are evident at certain moments.

The cinematic inspiration had been fundamental in "educating" the big screen audience towards television seriality, keeping them constantly in tension about every detail and every scene. The audience becomes more and more related to the show and its characters, who reveal themselves, episode after episode, as fragile and with more flaws than merits.

Tony's therapy with Dr. Melfi, for all six seasons, has been one of the deus ex-machina moments that has made the show unreachable. The humiliating account of the toxic relationship with his mother, the problems at work in the "recycling" business and the failure to keep his family together allowed for a change of perspective and an emphasis on Tony's psychological side, fragile and depressed. The figure of his son AJ, the classic story of the spoilt, failed boy, is something that puts a lot of pent-up anger into Tony. He can't see in AJ what his sister Meadow represents: a bright, sunny Columbia University student with a great career on the horizon. AJ's only legacy is one of depression and a constant rejection of modern society, which leads him to attempt suicide.

AJ's character development is just the natural evolution of the whole Soprano imagery, where the anti-heroes are the real protagonists. Unlike his father and Uncle Junior, AJ Soprano has more introspection and is aware of his situation of ease. He knows that all the luxury, the giant house and all the latest consumer goods come from the violence of the mafia and the cruelty of his father. At the same time, he is the representation of the white generation that suffers from not being able to find its place in the world and from a constant sense of guilt for all the materialistic and social privileges it enjoys.

The choice to enlist in the army tells the story of AJ's disillusioned soul who cannot find acceptance even in his family. So, better to fight "for the fatherland" by finding meaning in his life.

In The Sopranos every detail was fundamental to understand the evolution of each character and, consequently, the difficult society we were facing in the new Millennium.

To receive updates on our latest editorials and documentaries, be sure to follow @oneblockdownon Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter below for more.