It was only after hearing of the untimely death of James Gandolfini that I decided to dip into the world of The Sopranos. Having gone traveling and demolished season upon season of The Wire as well as working my way through Homeland, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead I was already well aware that America was the King of Primetime TV. When the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written TV series of all time I knew The Sopranos was going to be my next TV fix. Gandolfini’s death merely pushed me to it sooner.
Some TV series’ take a while to impress. You take in a couple of episodes and decide if it is for you or not. Some entice you in while others grab you by the balls and do not let go, The Sopranos was the latter for me. Taken at face value the dialogue is snappy and loaded with reference points that demand your attention. Then there is the acting which makes every character seem not just plausible but real. Some TV series’ can be judged by the amount of tedious episodes or even seasons, not The Sopranos.
Would the show exist if it was not for films like The Godfather and Goodfellas introducing a crash course of Mafia culture to the fore? Perhaps not but to compare the films to the TV show would be unfair. The Sopranos is so much more than those two films. From a runtime perspective there is only so much of a story you can tell in three hours on a big screen. Given tens of episodes you can truly begin to explore the world of the underworld.
There are several plot arcs in The Sopranos and the beauty of the storytelling is how they intertwine and co-exist. While the aforementioned films mainly concentrate on the power struggles of the Mafia, The Sopranos can slowly reveal the underbelly as well as the façade. The drama as well as the domestic, the spectacle as well as the sedate. While a film can showcase the violence and briefly provide explanations, The Sopranos can deal with the repercussions of every ‘whacking’. When any character meets their demise you can bet there will be the painful phone call home, the funeral and the emotional heartbreak of those left behind picking up the pieces. It shows the whole picture of the whole family.
There is always the distinct possibility that someone important may die in any episode which makes it gut wrenchingly compulsive viewing. In such a complex world lives can hinge on every difficult decision or even less. You could get ‘whacked’ for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, something questionable in your private life or simply a bad joke. Everyone is walking a tightrope.
When innocent bystanders are shot in the street as a safety precaution you can wonder about the ethics of the show. Sure, there is the law of the gun yet there is also a high system of values in operation too. Obviously there is ‘Omerta’ and the code of honour is paramount to the show. It brings into play the code of silence, vendettas, the non co-operation with authorities and non-interference in the illegal, as well as legal, actions of others. Gradually the code can be seen as the unwritten rulebook governing every single decision.
With such stringent, traditional governing it is often intriguing to see how the value system operates in a changing world. Common views on what is acceptable in anyone’s private life have changed markedly through generations yet the system remains. What may have passed as abhorrent fifty years ago is now seen as accepted yet those with a conscience can either choose to be dictated or updated.
You see this with Tony Soprano, brilliantly and brutally played by the late, great James Gandolfini. It is a role that you simply cannot see any actor performing. This is a man who truly looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders as he balances his business and family life with such delicacy. Rarely do you see him at peace, how could any Mafia boss be at peace when he has so much on his plate? The man is always on call to keep a lid on everything he holds close; the family business, his own travails at home, keeping ahead of the authorities, his goomahs and you can see the stress weigh him down.
Few could perform such forceful acting for so long and the sheer physicality of Gandolfini’s portrayal is a revelation in itself. Italians are hotheads yet Gandolfini often finds himself hurting the ones he loves simply because he cannot control himself. He is a man of conflict and one of weakness, every character has at least one.
While the films tend to show the macho side of every Mafia member, The Sopranos goes some way to show the other side. Tony as a man who regularly attends therapy, Paulie is devoted to his mother, Christopher has his drug problems and Ralphie has his creepy bedroom behaviour to name but four. Amidst the intimidation and shootings there is a strong sense of humanity too. Tony is always trying to do right by his family yet when his business and private lives combine then you see Tony at his most stretched and you often wonder how he can play the juggling act for so long.
Quite how the show’s creator, David Chase, manages to keep a strong definition of the two separate sides to the story is a wonder. To delve into The Sopranos means trying to keep up with several different battles that are playing all the time. There’s the FBI v The Mafia, the wars between each Mafia family and of course the infighting. It takes a master storyteller to keep all that together yet Chase managed it over six brilliant seasons.