The Sopranos: Cultural Phenomenon

Coming onto prime time on a cable channel and under the radar, The Sopranos became not only a cultural phenomenon but easily one of the best shows on television, both from a writing and acting perspective. It took the mob mythos into the modern era and added new riffs and spins to old themes. But more than any portrayal of the Mafia before, it delved into the inner workings of the mob family, domestic life, and a mob boss who was becoming unhinged.

Sopranos actors Tony Sirico and James Gandolfini

Courtesy of AP Images/Mike Derer

Actors Tony Sirico, left, who plays Paulie Walnuts and James Gandolfini, right, who plays Tony Soprano, shoot a scene from the mafia drama, The Sopranos, outside the fictional Satriale's pork store in Kearny, N.J., in this Wednesday, March 21, 2007 file photo.


The Sopranos chronicles the life of Tony Soprano, a Mafia don beset by modern problems that Al Capone and Lucky Luciano did not have to deal with. The story provides a sly counterpoint between the ordinary and the violent. Soprano, who lives in the dangerous underworld, goes home to the pedestrian problems that beset any American family. He has marital problems. He has strained relationships with his kids. And he sees a psychiatrist. Yet when he goes to the office, his daily workload most often involves criminal conduct and occasionally murder. This is what separates him from the other family men living in suburban New Jersey.

The Jersey setting gives the story an authenticity often lacking in other mob projects. From the grimy industrial backdrop of the Newark skyline to the McMansion-filled suburbs, it shows how far the Mafia has come, and how they are now more of a suburban phenomenon than an urban one.

Actors in The Sopranos have run afoul of the law. Michael Squicciarini, who played an enforcer in a couple episodes, was charged with a gangland hit before his death from natural causes. Robert Iler, who played AJ Soprano, got into a couple minor squabbles with the law. Lilo Brancato, who played Matt Bevalaqua, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for robbery in January 2009.

Mafia for the New Millennium

The Sopranos is a new Mafia image. The old Warner Brothers gangster movies presented hoodlums that suited the allegedly simpler times. Perhaps the times were not so simple in real life, but the movies portrayed them as such, and a conversation with your grandparents is likely to have them waxing nostalgic about the “good old days.”

The show was filmed on location throughout New Jersey, but the interior scenes were filmed at a sound stage in Queens, New York, located at Sil-vercup Studios. Some cities refused to allow the show to be filmed there, but others, like Kearny, Caldwell, and Lodi, embraced the notoriety and gave the show the authenticity it needed.

The Untouchables television show continued that classic tradition with archetypal good guys and bad guys. Often there was more complexity given to the gangsters, but basically things were black and white with the occasional shades of gray.

In The Sopranos you do not see bigger than life. You see a representation of a Mafia in decline that mirrors the culture as a whole on the decline. Tony Soprano laments the loss of the “good old days” of the Mafia. He presides over a Mafia family whose glory days are long gone and are never going to return. But at the same time it shows a vibrant, rich tapestry of ethnicity, family, and success — from Lorraine Bracco's psychiatrist to the Italian FBI agents pursuing Tony.

There is much culture shock comedy as old mobsters have difficulty adapting to the changing world. One aging Mafioso laments that the mob did not get in on the Starbucks bandwagon, because that is where the real money is these days. Tony Soprano reads self-help books to deal with his many problems. You see a Mafioso picking up tips, tools, and techniques from current trends like pop psychology and applying them to the often grisly business of the Mafia.

The Sopranos generated much ancillary merchandise, including the books The Psychology of the Sopranos and The Sopranos Family Cookbook. There are Sopranos bus tours through New Jersey and a multitude of pop culture references in other TV shows, magazine articles, songs, and movies. It's safe to say that the show has become as much a part of the culture as The Godfather.

Hero Worship

The Sopranos constantly referred to the Mafia epic of all time, The Godfather. In a humorous recurring theme, all the members of the Soprano crime family grew up on the Godfather movies and regularly quote them. The fictional Corleones are the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus for these less epic, less empathetic, and less inspired hoodlums.

One area where the Sopranos differ from the Corleones is in the desire for legitimacy. While the Corleones suffered great angst over their lifestyle and career choices, and always claimed that they sought to emerge from the shadows and into the light of respectability, Tony Soprano expresses no such beliefs. He likes his job, and probably would not mind seeing his son go into the “family business.” Don Corleone wept when he learned that his son Michael killed two men and thus entered the Mafia life. Tony Soprano did not sweat such things.

Just as The Untouchables made many people angry, The Sopranos was no stranger to controversy. Italian-American groups have complained that it presented negative stereotypes. One New Jersey congressman wanted to pass legislation to have it banned. There was concern that it would create controversy when it first aired on Italian television, but it was a ratings hit in the birthplace of the Mafia.

But the most controversy was reserved for the shows' final episode. Fans were bitterly divided over the shows' quick cut to black. Some felt that show copped out at the end, while other thought it was brilliant, encompassing everything unpredictable about the show.

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