At this year’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey remarked on the pronounced shift of creativity and creative energy from film to television production. The road upon which quality drama, based on characters, was driven from Hollywood was paved by the creators of the television series The Sopranos.
The American television drama The Sopranos which premiered 14 years ago on HBO is still a strong example of the presentation of contemporary lifestyle through the cinematic lens of understanding the phenomenon of Italian organized crime. The story establishes clichés, but it also ruthlessly demolishes them: the Italian nuclear family is in actuality dysfunctional, even the mafia boss needs a psychotherapist, the FBI agent secretly cheers for “his” mafia family, even guys in the mafia are gay … The author of this television drama, David Chase, was joined by other lucid and ambitious writers such as Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Robin Green (Northern Exposure) and directors such as Tim Van Patten (The Wire, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Rome, The Pacific, Game of Thrones, Sex and the City …).
Tony Soprano – portrayed by the brilliant actor James Gandolfini, who passed away earlier this year – doesn’t have very much luck with his close ones.
His spoilt, whiney Generation Y son Anthony “A.J.” Soprano Jr. (Robert Iler) is driving him to the edge of despair and shame (Tony: “I’m supposed to get a vasectomy when this is my male heir? Look at him.” From Where to Eternity; S02E09).
Likewise the alleged next-in-line at the head of the DiMeo family, protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperoli), is a drug-addict and an alcoholic, with completely misplaced ambitions (Tony: “There have been some hard moments. But a weak, lyin’ drug addict who fantasized about my downfall, who showed people his filthy thoughts on a movie screen? …” Kennedy and Heidi; S06E18).
The never-married and still single uncle Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Dominic Chianese) is actually a lone wolf, who isn’t capable of subordinating his own interests to his relatives and is constantly in a dangerous conflict with Tony.
And, of course, there’s Tony’s possessive and emotionally demanding mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), the source of all of Tony’s phobias and problems.
To Tony’s horror it becomes clear soon enough that all of the mistresses with whom he’s been cheating on his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) are the projection of the toxic nature of his mother. Carmela is the only stable mooring in his life (says Tony’s psychotherapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi: “…Despite your mothering you made one good decision in your life vis-à-viswomen. You’re not going to throw that away. Your own selfishness is too strong to let that happen.” Amour Fou; S03E12). Even though she’s dissatisfied with Tony’s infidelity, platonically cheating on her husband with a priest, and contemplating divorce, she is the image of a classic Italian housewife, who finds happiness in the unwavering loyalty of her family, a love of expensive jewellery and gifts, and the absolution of her guilty conscience in the Holy Book.
Despite the archetypal mafioso character, which we’re already used to from popular film culture (The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino … ), Tony is a man at the end of the millennium: for a relatively normal life he needs a therapist, he gives pleasure priority over everything else, he enjoys food, women, popular music and historical documentaries. He’d like to see his own family as a normal American family, upper-middle class, living in a big house with a swimming pool, in a well-off wealthy suburban neighbourhood, he himself is nothing more than a business-man (in the waste-disposal business), who would like to play golf with the doctor next door, who bloody well knows who’s to fear in the neighbourhood.
However, confronted with his own acts he’s unrelenting, just like similar mafia characters in films: “…We’re soldiers. Soldiers don’t go to hell. It’s war. Soldiers they kill other soldiers. We’re in a situation where everyone involved knows the stakes and if you’re gonna accept those stakes you gotta do certain things. It’s business. Soldiers. We follow codes, orders.” (From Where to Eternity; S02E09)
The show’s teleplay is full of humour, which is often tied to an understanding of the wider historical context of individual events in the USA or even lurks on the edge of political correctness. The characters in the series are constructed in such a way that their actions are often a parody of their own cultural-ethnic affiliation and the writers don’t even stop with caricature.
For us as Slovenes, particularly apparent is the proverbial ignorance of the inhabitants of a large country, when it comes to their knowledge of the rest of the world: when Tony sends Christopher and Paulie to do some business with a Russian criminal and when, because of Paulie’s nature, the situation gets somewhat complicated and the Italians are forced to liquidate the Russian, Tony warns Paulie on the phone: “The guy you’re looking for is some kind of ex-commando or some shit. He was with the interior ministry.” Aghast, Paulie repeats to Christopher: “You’re not gonna believe this. He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.” (Pine Barrens; S03E11)
Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirco) is a paranoid and neurotic psychopath, the caricature of an Italian mobster from the 1970s, who makes the viewer laugh with his amusingly-dumb dialogues.
Here’s an example from the episode The Telltale Moozadell (S03E09):
Paulie: “Amazing thing about snakes is that they reproduce spontaneously.”
Tony: “What do you mean?”
Paulie: “They have both male and female sex organs. That’s why somebody you don’t trust you call a snake. How can you trust a guy who can literally go fuck themselves?”
Humour which references historical events is again present in the scene when New York mob boss Phil Leotardo complains to Tony that the missing and considerably heavy member of his group Fat Dom Gamiello was last seen in New Jersey, and Tony retorts: “So was the Hindenburg. Maybe you wanna look into that too.” (Kaisha; S06E12)
The Sopranos is a tense, entertaining and dynamic story, which – at least in the times in which it was made – hovers on the edge of the possible. The multilayered narrative, built around events from popular culture, music, politics and history presents an almost literary summary of a particular time and place.
And since this blog is about product placement, no doubt, there’s a good deal of that as well in the series:
Jernej Stritar is an award-winning graphic designer from Slovenia. He’s a founder and creative director at design studio IlovarStritar, which received numerous awards: Gold Medal from Graphis, the New York based graphic design publisher, three Red Dots, bronze Cube at 89th Art Directors Club and many more. Jernej’s favourite TV show is The Sopranos.