James Gandolfini, RIP: How Tony Soprano Changed American Culture


James Gandolfini, the actor who played the lead character in the HBO series The Sopranos, is dead at the age of 51, of an apparent heart attack.

For virtually all of its celebrated run between 1999 and 2006, The Sopranos was what was called "appointment television," the sort of show that viewers built their schedules around so they could catch each new episode as it debuted. That's a vanishing species of TV, and not simply because of massive increases in recording technology and time-shifting devices. You wanted to watch The Sopranos whenever there was a new episode because it was that good and you wanted to be able to talk about it with other viewers the next day. The Sopranos was the first premium-cable show to win its time slot on a regular basis, beating out both "free" shows offered by broadcast networks and fare that aired on basic cable. Along with HBO's Sex in the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos helped to redefine what people were willing to pay for.

The Sopranos is profitably read as a meditation on the end of ethnic America, at least as ethnicity was defined in the 20th century. For decades, people believed in ethnic essentialism, the idea that character traits, intelligence, work habits, you name it, were essentially fixed based on country of origin. That belief is essential to racism and explains why for much of the 20th century, immigration quotas were based on where you came from. It helped explain why ruling elites with ties to Britain or northern European countries rigged the scale in favor of their ancestral homelands and why so many people are freaked out today by mostly Mexican immigrants. Despite constantly rising rates of inter-marriage and a glorious mongrelizing of Americans, too many people believed that ethnicity was, in the profoundly mistaken parlance of Michael Novak, "unmeltable." This belief in essentialism was not only a negative thing, not only a way of building walls; it also allowed for the creation of ethnic-based community and cultural power, of course.

Tony in particular represents a character who draws immense power from his ethnic heritage – not just a cultural identity in terms of tastes in clothing and food, but a line of work that is inextricably linked to his being Italian American. Yet even as that identity confers great power on Tony, it paralyzes him and his family from actually moving into anything like a sustainable future. Despite being able to squeeze out a living by using brute force, the show makes clear that in the long run, it's over for the Mob – in one telling incident, two of Tony's goombahs try to shake down a new Starbucks franchise for protection money. They're told that since all decisions are made by corporate bean-counters in Seattle, there's no way the manager can give them anything. Even the straws and coffee stirrers are accounted for, the manager explains. The disappointed gangsters walk out of the franchise muttering that the small independent guy can no longer make a living. At the series' start, Tony had hoped that his children would not follow him into organized crime. By the ambiguous end of the series, that seems unlikely, even as it consigns his kids – with the non-ethnic names Meadow and A.J. – to a dark life.

On a more basic level, Tony's inability to move beyond a tightly limited cultural identity is the cause of his panic attacks and need to see a shrink (who is another Italian American who has managed to transition more successfully into an America that is more accepting of wops, dagos, and every other type of ethnic). Given its weekly comment on the persistence and pathology of attempts to maintain fixed ethnic identity in a post-ethnic America, it's no accident that The Sopranos dominated pop culture just as the Census allowed respondents to categorize themselves as "multiracial." As such, The Sopranos both reflected and informed conversations well underway in a decade that would see the first African American elected as president of the United States.

There's another way that The Sopranos influenced American pop culture: It ushered in an age of not just morally ambiguous but morally contemptible protagonists. Tony Soprano is the unquestioned hero of the show and the viewer's main rooting interest. Yet he is a truly horrible human being. One of the achievements of David Chase and the other creative forces of the series is that they made Tony compelling and someone you might identify with without ever shorting the violence and brutality of the character. Since The Sopranos, it's almost commonplace to find TV shows that are set in truly dark universes in which all of the characters are completely morally compromised. Series such Netflix's House of Cards are like this, as is the network hit Scandal, the FX series Damages (2007-2012), and HBO's Boardwalk Empire. There's a comic variation on this too, most notably in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Veep, where there are simply no traditional protagonists to speak of. All the characters are monsters in one way or another. In the past, that sort of dynamic was either never tried or quickly conformed to tedious old formulas in which gruff, nasty characters become lovable fonts of wisdom (as any viewer of the truly awful post-All in the Family show Archie Bunker's Place could tell you).

That's something new in American TV and it's the sort of turn that bothers right-wing and left-wing cultural critics who see mass entertainment first and foremost as a means of instructing people on how to act morally or become better citizens. Cultural critics ranging from Frankfurt School types to conservatives of the world argue that consuming "moral art" (however defined) makes you more moral and consuming immoral works makes you and society worse off.

The Sopranos put the lie to all that by entertaining and challenging viewers not by forcing Tony Soprano to "grow" or by romanticizing and mythologizing him (as happens to Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather) but by forcing us all to live for a while in a world without justice, pity, or even tidy endings. What took place on The Sopranos each week had no direct connection to our daily lives, but it enriched us by taking us to dark places that the best art illuminates.