How Tony Soprano Whacked Our Expectations of a Mob Series
By Allison Cohen
To celebrate its 45th birthday, HBO is spotlighting on the iconic series at the heart of its history. Dive into HBO’s storied past by discovering (or revisiting) these game-changing shows: The Wire, Six Feet Under, Big Little Lies, The Sopranos, True Blood, Westworld and Game of Thrones. The first episode of each is available for free on watch.HBO.com.
A mob boss walks into a psychiatrist’s office… and the quintessential antihero is born. For all intents and purposes Tony Soprano is a monster. As the head of a crime family he’s involved in illegal and morally questionable behavior on a daily basis, but with The Sopranos, nothing is ever just black or white. Played by the incomparable James Gandolfini, Tony is many things. Sure, he’s a violent, murderous mobster, but more than that, he’s an imperfect man. A man who cannot always connect with his family, has difficulties with his co-workers, and misgivings about his life choices. Sound familiar?
Tony and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) live an idyllic life in New Jersey. They have money, friends in high places, and two (reasonably) lovely children. Yet, when we first meet him, he is fresh off of a recent panic attack, reflecting on this crisis of confidence. In the pilot we see the first clues to the how Tony may have gotten to this point: His attempts to make his ornery mother happy with gifts and words of encouragement go completely unappreciated and rebuffed. We see what a good son he tries to be and how hurt he is by her ambivalence. As heartbreaking as this is, his mother, played so marvelously by Nancy Marchand, is such a neurotic mess that we can’t help but laugh. “Somebody called here last night. After dark!” she explains to Tony upon his arrival at her house. When he asks who called she responds, “You’d think I’d answer? It was dark out.”
The internal struggle that brought Tony to Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in the first place is exactly why we sympathize with a man we’d otherwise despise. If his relationship with his mother wasn’t complicated enough, he describes his profession as something that makes him “the sad clown: laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” He’s not a great antihero because we love to hate him, he’s a great antihero because we get him.
Without Tony, we might not have our Walter Whites, Don Drapers, or Omar Littles; the despicable-yet-delightful personalities that have become a cornerstone in modern television. He is one of the many ways The Sopranos goes beyond what one may expect. Without question, this is a show about the mafia; the body count is high and the wise guys are crass, but it’s also hilarious and emotional. As Season 1’s tagline goes, “If one family doesn’t kill him… the other family will.”