How ‘The Sopranos’ Changed America

SopranosLast week, on the eve of James Gandolfini’s untimely death, the Writers Guild of America chose The Sopranos as the best written show in television history. Other shows (LOST) reached higher highs; other shows were consistently better (Breaking Bad). But it would be fair to call The Sopranos one of the most culture-changing shows of all time.

The Sopranos follows Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob leader with anxiety. Killing people isn’t his only source of anxiety; his family is out to get him, his wife is unhappy, his children are unmanageable, and his mistress is demanding. To cure that anxiety, he visits a psychiatrist. This is a look inside the life of an evil man – a man who is surprisingly human. But this show is a step beyond The Godfather which similarly shows evil with a human face.

The Godfather, while it glorified the Corleone family, eventually made clear the consequences of a life of evil. Michael Corleone began as a clean-cut former soldier dragged kicking and screaming into the family business to protect his family. By the end of The Godfather III, the choices he has made have destroyed his family utterly and completely and left him an empty shell. The consequences of sin are obvious.

Breaking Bad (AMC) would be the best modern example of The Godfather’s moral code. Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, enters into a life of crime only after being diagnosed with cancer and realizing he has no money to leave his family. Eventually, his life of crime digs him a hole so deep he can no longer get out – and he becomes a calculating and empty man who can no longer even justify to himself why he’s in the drug business.

The Sopranos is different. Tony has virtually no character arc. He begins as a self-absorbed mobster with characteristics of personal decency, and he ends the same way. The cryptic ending of the show, a smash cut to black just as it appeared Tony might be assassinated, frustrated audiences, but it was an excellent example of the show’s nihilism. It began nowhere, and it ended nowhere. It didn’t have the guts to make a moral call.

In fact, that was the point of the show – that nobody could make a moral call. Tony’s wife, Carmela, is confronted at one point by her psychiatrist, Dr. Krakower, who tells her that she must leave Tony if she hopes to maintain a semblance of personal morality. They have this exchange:

CARMELA: He’s a good man. He’s a good father.

DR. KRAKOWER: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal, prone to anger, serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man? You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about, so long as you’re his accomplice …. I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money, and you can’t, either. One thing you can never say is that you haven’t been told.

She’s been told, and eventually she separates from Tony, but can’t cut the cord.

The Sopranos set a new standard for nihilism on television. Now we have Game of Thrones, a vision of nihilism set in the romantic splendor of a magical medieval kingdom. It’s a place where incest goes unpunished, honor is treated with disdain, and treachery is the order of the day. Cruelty wins; mercy loses. That may be a realer world than the one we’re used to seeing on television, but it is also a more empty world. In a world without God – and there is no god in the world of Tony Soprano or the Lannisters – might makes right. Or at least it doesn’t make wrong.

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  • dizzyizzy

    I agree with Ben Shapiro, unlike many who puffed The Sopranos. I wrote about the show here, and what it shows about our culture: http://clarespark.com/2013/06/20/james-gandolfini-as-tony-soprano/. “James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.” Thank you, Ben for taking a consistent moral position on the movies.

  • Seek

    Ben is a philistine fool who somehow can’t grasp that depiction and advocacy in the performing arts aren’t the same thing. Audiences enjoy stories, not spoon-fed didacticism. Most people know good from evil. And they don’t need a TV show to keep them on the straight and narrow path every step of the way.

    • bluffcreek1967

      Nonsense! The show was filth, and the fact that it appealed to so many only showed how far our nation had morally fallen. Yes, people do know between good and evil, but what people prefer to watch is itself quite revealing about where their minds and hearts are at. And yes, the acting was quite good. But none of that took away from its essential immoral content. I’m sure some actors could quite convincingly portray a group of pedophiles and perhaps even win a Golden Globe now and then. But why would anyone thinking straight want to view such garbage?

      Which reminds me . . . . .

      “The Coming Widespread Acceptance of Pedophilia,” http://www.ambrosekane.com

      • Brian

        But the show constantly condemned the characters. IE: the show itself took a moral stand against itself which lifts it above mere “filth”. Every depiction of violence on the show was stomach turning, the treatment of women was abhorrent and that’s the point. These are dumb spiritually bankrupt violent people and they go through life accumulating garbage in their wake until they end up in prison or dead. Most of them lack the capacity to change and the ones that do lack the moral conviction to follow through.

  • The Dead Critic

    American TV and Hollywood has no morals……..look at the overall garbage we are reproducing and entering into this country and world. Enough said.

  • alericKong

    The Sopranos should the consequences of evil. It was subtle, but it was evident. At the very end of the show, Tony was a functional psychotic complete with delusions and hallucinations about to go to prison. Any sense of empathy portrayed was shown as a fraud. He children were setup to live the same awful life, and all his gains were materialistic without value.

  • iritegud

    Seek…your ad hominem causes you to lose the argument. For me, the show was a mirror to the godless, amoral world in which we live. The contrast–or paradox– of a family man, who happens to be a vicious thug, exposed the hypocrisy of our culture. I didn’t find it the least morally ambiguous. In fact, I saw it as an honest depiction of society’s moral ignorance/dementia.

    • alericKong

      I found too often viewers confused statements on the characters with statements on society as a whole. It’s the cowardly criminal mind which was portrayed as nihilistic, not the world.

      Should we be surprised that people who involve themselves in organized crime be shown as lacking morals? I thought the show could have been much worse. In real life criminals and drug addicts look more like rotting meat than movie stars and they are not witty or comical.

      • bluffcreek1967

        Good point. In that sense, the show was quite unrealistic. Most thugs – even Mafia members – aren’t that witty or emotionally complex. This was Hollywood’s pretty version of Mafia life, but it was far removed from the much uglier and sinister version found in real life. There was nothing glorifying or redeeming about it – just more human depravity on display.

        • Brian

          I don’t think any of the characters were especially “witty”. They were impulsively violent morons (including Tony) and most of the humor on the show came from their impossibly limited world view.

  • Edward smith

    And don’t forget the running theme of this website. It’s all islams fault. islam is evil blah blah blah.

  • JackWisdom

    There should be more articles like this one by Mr. Shapiro. In my opinion, he perceives the moral disintegration represented by this show. It’s so clear to him and to me. Yet, sadly, it’s not so clear to much of the public.

  • trickyblain

    There was nothing cryptic about the way the show ended. The guy in the Members Only Jacket came out of the bathroom and shot Tony in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The way the scene was set up (Tony’s POV shots with the bell on the door as a que) makes that abundantly clear. The cut to black silence was death.

  • Infidel4Ever

    The Sopranos did not change America. I think it reflected the change that already was well underway. Ultimately though, it’s just an over rated TV show.

  • dude

    Browsing the list of current TV shows …

    Drinking human blood & sex orgies (True Blood )
    Siblings sex, wine and orgies set against a fictional medieval backdrop. (Game of Thrones)
    Animated rotting human carcasses (Walking Dead)
    Aliens (Falling Skies)
    Aliens having sex (Continuum)
    An atheist comedian gets laughs while blaming society’s woes on religion (Real Time with Bill Maher)
    Mom Banged my Girlfriend — says it all in the title
    Girl with big titties massage men in a brothel disguised as a massage parlour (Client List)
    Drinking human blood and sex games with pretty girl (Vampire Diaries)
    A psychopath gets righteous or is it? (Dexter)
    Anti-christian anti-Roman Catholic propaganda about a fictional clergy’s rise to Pope status (The Borgias)
    Wannabe singer/entertainers compete (The Voice)
    The Killing — the title says it all.

    I think that shows a lot about society and where it’s headed. Society can go backwards or it can go forwards. If the majority of the art is showing a lack of morality then it will influence society and in turn that’s what society will want. BUT, if art strives to uplift people’s consciousness and inspires them to better themselves and strive for values that move society forward, then society will improve and people will be happier.

    What is the use of art/entertainment that leads to destruction?

  • WW4

    Art is art; moralizing is not. Good art NEVER gives us the answer–it hold a mirror to our culture and makes us ask questions. That said, the Sopranos went one or two seasons too long and thus it did wind up glamorizing immorality and goombah culture to some extent. But while Shapiro, as usual, is way, way off, at least he demonstrates why is he is way off with an appropriate example from the Sopranos–one of many which does, indeed, lay the amorality and immorality of Tony Soprano bare (…so why the kvetching?) While I agree HBO is excessive, it also puts out better product than most film studios. Game of Thrones is a fantastic political yarn. Breaking Bad contains masterful performances and writing. Whereas Lost was a bit of fantastic silliness that jumped the shark right after it’s first season when it became clear that the writers were making it up as they went along.