Popular Culture

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.

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  1. 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.

    meh - the show Profit did it first - it just had the misfortune of being canceled after a few episodes.

    1. meh - Having been abruptly canceled and relegated to obscurity sort of implies that it didn't usher in an age of anything.

      1. meh - watch the show, read the critical reviews of it.

        1. mehby I will. I'm not denying or affirming the show's quality. I'm just denying that it's the bringer of protagonist villains and likable monsters.

    2. Meh. I think Richard III might beg to differ with you on that one.

  2. I was almost afraid that you were going to make it to the end of the article without so much as a mention of Puzo or The Godfather. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

    Am I the only one who thought the ending of final episode of The Sopranos was absolutely excellent? (Please do not reveal spoilers for those who have not seen the series.)

    Finally, Dr. Gillespie, is it true that Frankfurt School critics had a moralistic, pedantic view of the purpose of art? I was under the opposite impression.

    1. (Please do not reveal spoilers for those who have not seen the series.)

      Seriously? It's been over for 6 years now. I'm assuming sarcasm here.

      1. I know. I guess we shouldn't reveal spoilers for Gettysburg either.

        1. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

            1. Rhett leaves her

              1. The ship sinks.

                1. Rosebud was his sled.

          1. She's a man.

          2. o/~ And Jesus comes back three days after he's toast... o/~

  3. I've never seen it.

    1. Tony eats some onion rings at a diner. Six years later has a heart attack in Italy. The end.

  4. the show ushered in a bold new era in popular culture that features "not just morally ambiguous but morally contemptible protagonists."

    Territory already well worn by Jerry Seinfeld and the great Larry Davis long before Tony Soprano came around.

    1. Larry David you mean. Contemptible protagonists have long been a mainstay of comedy. Not so much with drama/tragedy, with some notable Shakespearean exceptions.

      1. I've been telling him for years to change it to Davis given the atmosphere of antisemiticism in upper Manhatten these days. He says, 'forget it. Sammy Davis Jr. ruined that as an out for me years ago.'

        Anyway, Not so much with drama/tragedy, with some notable Shakespearean exceptions. Not so. Sopranos came out almost a decade after Goodfellas. And Scorsese has been making stories about morally contemptible protagonist since at least Mean Streets. And he falls in the footsteps of Louis Malle and Stanley Kubrick. I say this just to for the sake of clarity. Nick saying 'ushered in an new era' is laziness in the realm of critical thinking.

        1. I took the 'ushering of eras' stuff to mean television. Television is always behind Hollywood on edginess. You could find interracial couples in movies in the 70's but it took television something on the order of another decade to cross that societal line. A business model based on ad revenue has that effect.

          1. not that HBO relies on ad revenue...

    2. Dead right! Thank you for noting this portion of reality. Undeniable, that "The Sopranos" touched something dark in American hearts, but so did "Seinfeld."

  5. "glorious mongrelizing"?

    1. Yeah. Got a problem with it, Mikey?

      1. Well, not so much the mongrelizing itself, I can accept that, but the enthusiasm for it. I find it a little freaky and bizarre. But I can see I'm probably in the minority around here so whatever.

        1. I'm just busting your balls, Mike. Personally, I find any race-based sexual fetish to be distasteful, be it "I only date people of my won race" to "I only date Asian girls/White men/Lizard People etc."

          My dick knows no limits in race, creed, or color.

          1. How can it be distasteful? People are genetically predisposed to prefer mates that look similar to them. I for one get a lot of enjoyment producing assuredly blonde hair blue-eyed offspring.

            1. How can it be distasteful?

              Again, I was talking personally. I also find peeing on someone/being peed on to be distasteful, but if that's your thing, go for it!

              People are genetically predisposed to prefer mates that look similar to them.

              You say that as if it's proven fact. Indeed, doesn't the well documented "I'm a White guy who only likes Asian girls" phenomenon prove that false?

              I for one get a lot of enjoyment producing assuredly blonde hair blue-eyed offspring.

              My daughter inhereted her mother's almond-shaped Asian eyes. I don't love her any less. *shrugs*

              1. Personally, I find any race-based sexual fetish to be distasteful

                Have you liked the feel or look of skin, hair, eyes, height, weight etc? Race is a phenotypical phenomenon, to wittingly not factor race into sexual selection means you're either lying, unaware or you're Helen Keller.

                You say that as if it's proven fact. Indeed, doesn't the well documented "I'm a White guy who only likes Asian girls" phenomenon prove that false?

                A 5 second google search (my interwebs is slow) yields these:



                You should read up on sexual selection, it's interesting stuff. Certainly feel free to do so before you spout off on the subject. Intuition doesn't qualify something as being "well documented", being well-documented actually does.

                My daughter inhereted her mother's almond-shaped Asian eyes. I don't love her any less. *shrugs*

                So by implication someone like me wouldn't love a heterozygous child? I guess I'm the bigot because I happen to prefer certain traits in women. I sure hope I'm not coming off all Hitlery.

              2. "You say that as if it's proven fact. Indeed, doesn't the well documented "I'm a White guy who only likes Asian girls" phenomenon prove that false?"

                Not at all. Statistics is above your pay grade, isn't it?

              3. I think the reality is that we (humans) have dual, dueling, programming. There are studies which indicate that if you show someone a computer-altered picture of, essentially, themselves transgendered, they find that image sexually compelling. This may have a tribal survival basis, or something to do with humans' innate narcissism (I think we also have innate altruism). There is also truth in the compelling attraction of the "other," which, speaking as a hetero female, I think has grounding in heterosexuality itself. While intellectually I am with you, the man I fell in love with has a genetic background very similar to my own, and our upbringings, which set us at odds with our peers in youth, are similar. Humanity and sexual attraction are so complex . . .

            2. I get enjoyment watching you raise my kids!

            3. Genetically I am almost completely northern European and blonde - although my mother had black hair.

              I grew up in a neighborhood that was over 95% Mexican-American. I have lived most of my adult life in Asia. I find straight, black hair and dark skin much more attractive than any other coloration.

              How much of it is upbringing? Circumstance? Mother's influence? Possibly if I had been exposed to more girls with blonde hair and white skin that might have had more of an impact.

              In addition, I am more socially adjusted to a couple cultures and languages which are worlds apart from the standard American experience and I believe that has much to do with it as well.

              The average American woman also gives me signals which I suspect are tuned for the kind of white guy she expects me to be - which I have no idea how to read.

              So I have never had much interest in white, American women.

          2. I'm as rapaciously into all the many varied booties (there's a Donne allusion in there somewhere, I'm sure, but can't put my finger on it) as you, my friend, but we are all predisposed to a type. How else do you expect sickly pale goth white girls with long stringy and greasy hair to multiply their own kind if there are not some of us with a fetish for that?

            1. I'm not denying that some folks have a "type", but that type need not be the same ethnicity as oneself. I've argued before that it's probably a bell curve. Some people are on one end where they're only attracted to people just like themselves, others are only attracted to "exotic" girls/guys. Most people, I suspect, are somewhere in the middle, i.e. "booty is booty".

              1. 'It's all pink on the inside' is how dad explained tolerance to me as a yuengling.

                1. Yeah, I was raised in the same school of parenting.

              2. I find girls of all races attractive, and I'm open to dating a girl of any race, but there certain groups and looks that I find more attractive on average. I think I'm fairly typical in that regard, although some of my specific preferences probably differ from most people

                1. Even Australian aboriginee women? (Barring a Haley Berry type exceptions).

                  1. First off, her name is Halle Berry, and she isn't Australian Aborigine. To answer your question, I've never met one, so I can't really comment on their relative attractiveness. I think this girl is really cute, although she's half-Indonesian (though Halle Berry is half-white, so if you're counting her as black, then she counts too)


                    1. I never said she was an aborigine. But along the same logic, Haalee Bari has European features in her face and figure. For those who don't typically deviate from European conceptions of beauty, someone like her is an exceptional case of being attracted to an ethnicity you normally would not be attracted to. Hence the "Haaalee Bari type exception". I find Jessica Mauboy attractive for the same reason, I'm a europhile and she has beautiful features consistent with that.

                      Here's an Aussie aborigine for your viewing pleasure: http://i.images.cdn.fotopedia......mage-4.jpg

            2. Oh, and for Donne...it's probably a "Batter my heart, three person'd God" allusion.

        2. I'm ambivalent towards it. I know who I want to reproduce with and I don't worry about other's reproductive habits. There's no reason anyone could be concerned with it short of racism and the worship of mythical top-down "multiculturalism".

        3. I don't know, I'm conflicted about it myself. I'm American, but my ethnic heritage is pretty strongly Scottish on both sides, and that's definitely something I take pride in. I would feel like something precious was lost if those traditions and even that ethnic identity was lost in the shuffle. On the other hand, I think it's really cool that I live in a country (and a part of the country) where I have a smorgasbord of ethnic traditions that I can take part in, and I do kind of envy friends of mine who come from divergent ethnic backgrounds for the variety that they grew up with. Like getting presents on Christmas AND Hannukah, type of thing.

          I guess it's one of those things where I value ethnic and cultural variety, but I also think you can only have that variety if you preserve the ethnicities and cultures that make it up.

          1. What's the conflict? It's personal choice, if it's important to you to have a shared cultural/ethnic/religious background with a romantic partner then it's your right to seek out someone similar to you. Likewise, for those of us who don't care about such things, or even think it important to be with someone of a different background, we should have the right to be with someone like that.

            1. If it's not Scottish it's crrrap!

              1. ^this guy

  6. A show that glamorized gang activity and people wonder why gangs are out of control in so many cities. I know there is more to the gangs since they were around long before the show but it doesn't help to continually glamorize such things.

    1. And Ron proves that he has never seen even one microsecond of the Sopranos.

      1. Seriously - everyone in the series who embraces the mafia lifestyle ends up dead or in jail, or having their lives destroyed in other ways due to their association with the mob.

        1. Gangs are not "out of control". Violent crime, to include gang related violent crime is at multi-decade lows for fuck's sake.

          This aint the mid 80's, when gangs were truly out of control.

          1. Gangs and the mob - while criminal - are two different things. Anyway, about this out of control and kids want to join the mob because of the Sopranos crap. I remember in the 1980s when Ozzy and Judas Priest were being blamed for some suicides that got some attention back in the 1980s. Do lyrics induce suicide and all that.

            But that's not what I want to comment about. I'm Italian and was always exposed or around mobsters in my youth. I played cards with them at the bar, we played soccer and hockey, and generally sat around talking about shit. We wouldn't call each other to do things officially but if we'd meet in a club they'd always invite me and my buddies to hang with them. I'm sure the RCMP have a few picks of us with them in their records.

            We were fun guys to be around. The contrast between us and them was stark. They were in a dark world while my gang all ended with degrees and living the upstanding professional life.

            My father, in addition, cornered the Sicilian mafia market as a tailor. He's Calabrese but for some reason the Sicilians went to him and few others.

            My point is NO ONE in my circle of friends was ever tempted to get into that racket. My father too. In fact, he and my crazy uncle beat up two collectors looking for protection money back in the 60s.

            Maybe because we were so close to it we were privy to their stories which was a tough way to go through life.

            1. That and the fact we weren't violent and couldn't scare a kitty-cat or the girl scouts dodgeball team in Dodgeball.

    2. "The reason kids join gangs, is because of The Sopranos." I bet you'd also say:

      "Kids will practice safe sex if we force all the porn actors use condoms. Fuck you that's why."

    3. Also, video games, D&D, heavy metal and rap music.

  7. A show that glamorized gang activity

    Are we talking about The West Wing, now?

    I haven't ever seen that one, either.

    1. C-Span glamorizes them all day long

  8. I just watched Zero Dark Thirty for the first time a couple of nights ago - Gandolfini played a part in that GREAT movie. Seriously, Zero Dark Thirty was a damn fine piece of moviemaking. I heartily recommend it. As for Gandolfini, great actor and of course the obesity speculation will run rampant - as it should - he was truly "a man with a belly" (euphemism for powerful man)

  9. Hold on there. Larry David is not a monster. He's almost always right. Just because he's occasionally an asshole about it doesn't make him morally compromised or not a traditional protagonist.

    1. Question though 'is he morally contemptible' and the day he crosses that bar is called a Tuesday.

  10. "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..."
    I'm wondering where exactly it was that Shakespeare's Richard III turned into a "lovable font of wisdom".

  11. He died in Italy - maybe the put a hit out on him believing that he WAS Tony Soprano - he was that good.

    1. Or maybe the put the hit on him because he insulted the wrong people - or revealed too much. Dun-dun!

  12. Obama is a monster we should all be cheering for. No hope!

  13. My favorite Gandolfini role was the prison commandant in The Last Castle

  14. I'm getting the feeling there are no Sopranos fans here.

  15. The first three seasons were great. Went downhill after that.

  16. I will say this much, Hollywood does not do justice to what it's like to be confronted with the mob. It's not romantic, funny, or "transactional". It's intimidation with deadly consequences.

    I liked the show, but it always makes me wonder how much of our GDP has been stolen by organized crime.

  17. In other words, pop television is now catching up with pop books. What one might consider a spiritual successor to The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, is evidence of that.

  18. There's more than one way to be Italian-American without living in the urban East and using Mob lingo. There are plenty of farmers in northwestern Mississippi with vowels at the ends of their surnames who raise soybeans and corn.

  19. I'm not smart enough to know if this is part of what this article is getting to or not, but I feel like 'The Sopranos' was one of the first, if not the first, major TV show where 'Karma' was not a factor. People did bad stuff and got away with it. People did good stuff and died. Many other shows since then have done this to some degree or another, though probably no show has done it better than 'Game of Thrones'.
    Why does this matter? Well, Marx said religion was the opiate of the masses and that's one of the few things he got right, and Karma is a form of religion. If you believe in Karma in real life and not just in art then I would posit you are much less likely to take action when you see injustice being done because 'Karma will take care of it'.
    No, it won't.

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