This isn’t the first time I’ve written about “The Sopranos”. Prior to the show coming into my life in Jnauary, 1999, there wasn’t a particular television show that impacted me as greatly as it has. Well, maybe “All In the Family”, since my parents didn’t prevent me from watching it. To be honest, I think I learned a great deal about life from Archie Bunker; it certainly saved my mother from having to sit me down for more than a few awkward conversations.
January, 1999 was a somewhat difficult year for me. When I look back at it now, those difficulties pale in comparison to what followed about a decade later. That was the year I was unceremoniously fired from my job because the misogynistic idiot running the show felt I was too fat to sell fudge (more on that some other time). January 1999 marked three years since my father’s death, and my mother was doing her best impression of Livia Soprano – although I didn’t know it at the time.
I’ll never forget the first time I became aware of “The Sopranos”. My brother, my ex-husband and I were in my parents’ house in Brooklyn, attempting to clean out some of the accumulated relics in preparation for our mother’s move to a condo in New Jersey. As we were stuffing items into garbage bags, my brother inquired as to whether or not my ex and I had watched “the new Sunday night show on HBO”. We said we hadn’t, and my brother responded, “Watch it, and let me know who the mother reminds you of.” The answer was obvious. From there, I never missed an episode.
It turns out “The Sopranos” was much more than the sum of its parts. It was, and in many ways still is, a cultural phenomenon. It was a revelation for those of us who were raised on insipid American television that was limited by draconian sexual and language taboos, but would serve up a hefty portion of violence at every opportunity. The fact that HBO isn’t beholden to advertisers and censors gave David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos”, the freedom to explore subject matter major networks either wouldn’t touch, or could only scratch the surface because of traditional limitations.
Perhaps the most compelling feature of the series is its authenticity. Having grown up in Brooklyn and experienced the “goombah” Italian culture firsthand, it was glorious. Chase mined all the brilliant New York actors who played bit parts in “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” and made them household names. Dominic Chianese, Uncle Junior in “The Sopranos”, played the role of Johnny Ola in “The Godfather, Part II”. Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) and Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy) each had bit parts with no dialogue in “Goodfellas”. They were so small, in fact, that if you blinked, you missed them.
There are dozens more examples, but the ultimate casting gem was giving the role of Christopher (Chris-ta-fuh!) Moltisanti to Michael Imperioli, who played Spider in “Goodfellas”. Who didn’t feel cinematic vindication when Christopher shot the bakery kid in the foot during the first season, when he felt slighted because he had to “wait in line for buns”? In the end, Christopher’s arc was just as tragic as Spider’s, but the six seasons we spent with him made the ride worth it.
There is so much more to explore that I could be here for weeks. Books have been written by scholars in the attempt to unpack everything from the major theme of the psychic damage inflicted by an unfit parent, to the Shakespearean influences, and so on.
Personally, the one thing that blows me away is the impact a New York life has had on me, and how it influences everything I do and say. I’ve lived in several different places since “The Sopranos” debuted, and if the show ever comes up in conversation, I’ve had to strenuously explain it to people who have no idea what it’s like to know individuals who are exactly like those characters. Some have been amused; others can’t fathom those characters having any basis in reality.
I will go to my grave with “The Sopranos”. I literally want to be buried with my DVD copies of the series because I have no idea how much time I’ll have to do in purgatory before I get to heaven. I haven’t had the chance to add up all my venial and mortal sins. I sure as hell don’t want to end up playing cards with Roman soldiers every day, and get whacked every night like I did in real life. If you’ve watched the series more than once, you know exactly what I’m talking about.