Looking back at “The Sopranos”: a seminal TV classic


Courtesy of HBO

“The Sopranos” is legendary for a reason, with its entire cast of characters each adding depth and complexity to the show.

TJ Disabato, Staff Writer

Anyone who knows me will tell you I love “The Sopranos.” It is my consistent recommendation when I am with friends, and I usually use the show as a conversation starter. I love it. Right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., I watched “The Sopranos” for the first time after constantly being told it was one of the greatest shows of all time since its run-through from 1999 into the mid-2000s. Little did I know I was ahead of the curve. Soon after everyone was ordered to stay home, “The Sopranos” reemerged as a top show, once again giving everyone something to talk about. With new modern lenses, the show is now being reexamined for its messages on culture, fashion, gender and sexuality during the new millenium. The show handles these themes in such a fascinating way that there is actually a First Seminar SAGES course offered by Dr. James Newlin in the Department of English to analyze how the show portrays these issues. Also, fans of the series now have more content to look forward to as the prequel film, “The Many Saints of Newark,” is set to come out this October. This sudden resurgence of the series is not just a revival of its popularity but a rediscovery by a new generation. In six seasons, “The Sopranos” accumulated 21 Emmy Awards and 111 nominations, five Golden Globe Awards and 23 nominations, as well as numerous guild awards won by actors, producers, directors and writers of the show, making it one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time. 

“The Sopranos,” which first aired on January 10th, 1999, focuses on the life of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), as he navigates his way through a demanding work life and an even more demanding home life. Tony’s immediate family consists of his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), son, A.J. (Robert Iler), and daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). 

Beginning in the first episode, viewers are invited into the peculiar setting of the office of Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), whom he visits after experiencing a panic attack and collapsing at an outdoor barbecue. In organized crime, visiting a psychiatrist—or opening up to anyone about any problems—is considered a faux pas, but series creator David Chase uses this setting to uncover a type of story never told before. From “The Godfather” to “Goodfellas,” gangsters are often portrayed as hardened men, typically focused solely on a life of crime. However, by using intimate settings like a psychiatrist’s office, “The Sopranos” provides us with an uncommon lens: the profound intersection between the life of a mob boss and the problems faced by any father, husband or son.

Many of Tony’s problems stem from his family, with his sociopathic personality likely coming from his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand). Livia and Tony’s uncle, Junior (Dominic Chianese), present numerous problems to Tony as he is forced to take over as boss of the DiMeo crime family following the death of acting boss Jackie Aprile Sr. (Michael Rispoli). Uncle Junior often consults Livia on how to best handle her son, whether it be through business dealings or the maintenance of appearance in the DiMeo family. Tony must also face pressure from his sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), who dates several of Tony’s workers, including Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), Richie Aprile (David Proval), and her eventual husband Bobby Baccalieri (Steve Schirripa). Tony’s distant cousin, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who Tony hopes will be his successor, presents constant headaches for Tony through his drug addiction and need for approval. Christopher’s drug addiction and alcoholism also contributes to his abusive behavior toward his girlfriend, Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo). 

However, Tony also brings many of his problems upon himself. Having several “goomahs,” or “side pieces” in Italian slang, Tony is far from a faithful husband, which Carmela knows and lives with to an extent. At the beginning of the series, Carmela often takes solace in Father Phil Intintola (Paul Schulze), who she claims is a spiritual mentor guiding her through her husband’s sins. By connecting the desperation of a wife being cheated on and a religious figure who is taking advantage of the women that seek him, “The Sopranos” treads fun waters—among many others—seldom touched by other television series. Carmela and Father Phil have a weird relationship, at times sexual, but most often sexualized through Carmela letting Phil eat last night’s leftover pasta. 

Tony’s interactions with his children also form a core plank of the series. Meadow is in high school trying to get into a top college with hopes of going to medical school, but she reevaluates her career choices, much to the chagrin of her parents. In addition, the boys she brings home give rise to tension and conflict, exposing the constant theme of racism in the show. After bringing home Noah Tannenbaum (Patrick Tully), a half-Black, half-Jewish friend from school, Tony uses choice words to express that he never wants to see Meadow again. A.J., on the other hand, is a middle schooler with severe self-esteem issues when the show starts, bearing no prospect of a promising future. Throughout the series, Tony forces him to join a military school, allows him to party in New York City and gets him a job as a movie studio personnel member. By the end of the series, A.J.—just like his father—turns to a psychiatrist; as Tony claims, “My rotten, fuckin’ putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul.” This juxtaposition of access to plentiful resources with parents who often ruin those opportunities shows how Tony’s character flaws hold back those closest to him, including his children.

The show features a variety of other characters who all build the series into the legendary show that it is today. The cool-headed consigliere of the family, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), makes for some of the best scenes in the show—along with capo (captain) Paulie Gualtieri, who is played by Tony Sirico, an actual former gangster. Other interesting parts of the show deal with the power plays between the DiMeo and Lupertazzi crime families and the internal struggles of the latter family, bringing modern themes into the typically atemporal gangster genre. In one plot, the head of the Lupertazzi family discovers that his second cousin and Tony’s captain, Vito Spatafore (Joseph R. Gannascoli), is a closeted gay man, and has him tracked down and dealt with. This turn of events leads Tony to confront his prior beliefs and the negative consensus on homosexuality shared by many Italians, especially at the time.

Since the series ended 14 years ago, “The Sopranos” has gained a mythical following. Through the relatable characters and dialogue, viewers are able to feel a connection to the life that Tony lives. Despite his racist, homophobic and misogynistic rants, we see him evolve throughout the show. This is shown not just in the characters but in the setting as well. The pilot episode revolves around A.J.’s birthday party, which takes place on a bright summer day. In stark contrast, the very last episode takes place in the dead of winter, symbolizing the end of not only the show but the cores of the characters themselves. Similar to a Greek tragedy, the series uses dark background colors towards the end to show that everything is falling apart around the protagonist, and that his best years were ones he didn’t appreciate enough. 

The series is about love, loss, redemption and everything in between, and it stops at nothing to make the viewers feel like they are part of the action. The three things that make this show stand above everything else are the acting, the writing and the soundtrack. James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano ushered in the 21st-century obsession with the antihero in TV series, as seen in “Boardwalk Empire,” “Mad Men,” “Dexter” and “Breaking Bad.” Bryan Cranston has even admitted that without Tony Soprano, his portrayal of Walter White in “Breaking Bad” would not have been able to exist in the first place. Despite the oftentimes problematic material it presents, the show still does so in a way that speaks to new generations and remains relevant. James Gandolfini’s son Michael is playing a young Tony Soprano in “The Many Saints of Newark,” and if talented acting is genetic, then we are in for a superb backstory of the dynamic lives of these New Jersey residents. Hopefully it lives up to the legacy of the original show. It has a large shadow to overcome.


“The Sopranos” is streaming on HBO Max.