The mobster genre made up a good chunk of movies that came out during the 70’s, the era that many say redefined Hollywood as we know it today. Crime movies have existed long before then, but movies like Mean Streets, The Godfather, and Scarface (one of my personal favorites of all time) were among the most notable because they painted the mafia crime scene as full of “glitz and glamour”. They were able to garner widespread attention and create a mobster movie explosion. So many mafia movies were being made that eventually people got jaded; they all got what they expected and were too tired seeing basically seeing the same thing over and over again. People wanted something that at least felt fresh and original, a wish that was eventually granted to them.
HBO premiered The Sopranos in 1999 and was created by American screenwriter David Chase. When he worked at his first job at Brillstein/Grey Entertainment, he was approached and given a pep talk over how he had a great idea for a television series within him. All he had inside him was the simple idea of a mob boss who went to therapy due to frequent panic attacks. This character idea evolved into the notorious TV mob boss we know as Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini.
The Sopranos was already unique from other mob dramas in that it was a television series as opposed to a two-hour movie. Pretty much every gangster movie follows the same exact formula: Someone gets attracted to the wealth and success of organized crime, so they start at the very bottom and work their way up to the top, only for them to pay for their actions and fall from grace. They all showed the typical “rise-and-fall” over a period of time. The Sopranos is by no means any special exception, but having seasons of hour-long episodes allowed for the world and its characters to be greatly expanded upon as well as for more unpredictability. Tony Soprano’s rise and fall was happening pretty much every day in his hectic life; not only did he have to worry about business as the boss of the Soprano crime family, but he also had to focus on drama with his own personal family too. This difficult balance is what sets off his panic attacks.
An important crux of the series is Tony’s meetings with his therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. What’s interesting about these meetings initially is that Tony tells her he’s in the waste management business, yet Dr. Melfi is able to see right through his cover but still talks to him anyway. These private meetings are the only times that Tony is able to (ambiguously) share his personal secrets and inner thoughts as Dr. Melfi, who keeps upholding her integrity as a psychiatrist, withholds his information. This takes a personal toll on her as well; she gets raped in Season 3 and knows that she can have Tony go after her rapist, but ultimately decides against it. By the series end, her colleagues make her realize that her meetings with him have been going nowhere and in fact may even be making him an even better criminal.
Every character in this show does their absolute best to keep their motives as vague as possible. It is expected that writers have their characters say everything that’s on their mind. That is not what David Chase and his fellow screenwriters did with The Sopranos, but instead they did the opposite. Characters didn’t know how they felt, so they illusioned themselves into thinking that they were stating what was on their mind when in reality it was more unclear. The show’s characters had a hard time truly understanding each other and it was a driving force for all the events that happened in the show. This is especially true for the show’s infamous ending.
After Tony harasses a rival family’s soldier while on a date with his daughter Meadow, the opposing mob captain Phil Leotardo orders a hit on Tony and his acquaintances. A deal gets brokered where Tony’s life is spared, which allows for Tony to successfully go after Phil. The final scene in the show has Tony meeting up with his family at Holsten’s, each member arriving individually. The viewer is made aware through Tony that he is still on the run from the rival family and he could be whacked at any given moment. Right when Meadow, the last person, finally arrives, Tony looks up at the door and the screen immediately cuts to black. To this day, no one knows what happens afterward, and numerous debates have spawned online for fans of the show to discuss.
David Chase defended the show’s ambiguous ending on the record by stating the entire show was ambiguous itself, as made clear by Tony’s therapy sessions. With television, people are left not knowing what will happen next episode; with The Sopranos, people were left not knowing what was even going to happen within an episode. It was the most unpredictable show on television, and people were craving for more. The ratings grew with each season and it would become HBO’s most successful show until Game of Thrones in 2011.
I was born and raised in northern New Jersey, and I always thought to myself how much of this area of the state is so full of character yet I never saw it in any international spotlight. While I always knew of The Sopranos, I never actually got around to watching it until two years ago. I was surprised when I learned it took place right around where I live, and seeing all of the suburbs and small urban cities gave me nostalgic familiarity and brought a smile on my face. And despite much of the show taking place 15-20 years ago, the show structure itself holds up incredibly well by today’s standards. The unpredictability factor makes it highly bingeable and can be viewed in massive sittings, which is how many showrunners make TV series today for Netflix and Hulu. It truly is a show that is going to stand the test of time.
The Sopranos is available to stream on HBO Max.