Valentine now. For example, the actor Steve Buscemi played

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Pop
Culture : Life as play

“The Sopranos”
and the renewal of the anti-hero figure

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“The Sopranos
” is a TV series launched in 1999 (and finished in 2007), and is
often considered as one of the best, regarding the numerous Golden
Globe Awards and Emmy Awards it won. The main plot revolves around
the activities of a mafiosi family in New Jersey and all of its
entourage (relatives, other mobsters or gangs…), but is mostly
centered on the fictional story of Tony Soprano, the mob’s leader who
has to face problems both in his business life and his private life.
Indeed, the pilot introduces him seeing a therapist for the first
time because he suffered from a panic attack.

The
show, launched by HBO, was determinant for a lot of TV series that
followed, along with The Wire and Oz : it popularized the genre and
made TV shows acceptable as “works of art” instead of just
entertainment sitcoms. Contributor of Vanity Fair Peter Biskind said
that the show was “perhaps the
greatest pop-culture masterpiece of its day”.
Director David Chase said in an interview that the main inspiration
for the show was Scorcese’s Goodfellas
(1990),
and various actors from this movie are also in the series : the most
notables being Lorraine Bracco (Dr Melfi, the psychiatrist), Michael
Imperioli (Christopher, Tony’s nephew) and Tony Sirico (Paulie,
member of the Soprano crew and later caporegime).
The other actors, especially James Gandolfini, who plays Tony
Soprano, were not that famous, but the director David Chase also
included a lot of guest stars on the show, which blurred the lines
between fiction and reality and participated to the show being really
linked to popular culture of then and now. For example, the actor
Steve Buscemi played a major role in the season 5 (introduced as
Tony’s cousin), but some famous stars also made a short appearance,
like film director Jon Favreau, actresses Annette Bening and Lauren
Bacall… Along the six seasons, the plot develops itself in
different ways, making second characters becoming more important by
narrating their stories during one or two episodes, and also mixing
pop culture references with social critic, dreams with fictional
“reality”, which makes The
Sopranos a complex piece of art,
not only another story about the mafia and its crimes.

The
time when the show takes place is really important, in a sense that
the characters always relate to it in some way : the World Trade
Center attacks, and the general paranoia against Muslims that
resulted, the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, but also the
general music, fashion and youngsters’ hype mostly through the
characters of Anthony JR and Meadow Soprano, Tony’s children. They
are listening to Britney Spears or to nu-metal, having parties where
they take drugs like ketamine or ecstasy, and dressing in a way that
their parents disapprove : in an episode, the son of a mobster
becomes a gothic and all of the crime family tries to remedy against
it. The show contains as well modern reflexions on social subjects
like homosexuality : in the 5th
and 6th
season, Vito Spatafore, a subordinate of Tony Soprano, becomes one of
the main characters because he tries to hide his homosexuality and
eventually is discovered and then killed. His murder is supported by
some parts of the mob, on the justification that it’s an infamy and
dishonours the Family, but some of them want to close their eyes on
it. This can remind all the questionings in a religious nuclear
family about a gay family member, except than here the Family is with
a capital F, a family linked by crime and commitment to the mafia.
There is also an issue about hypermasculinity and manliness
supposedly embodied by the mobsters.

If
we take the wide definition of “hero”, we have “A
person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or
noble qualities.
“, but also “The
best or most important thing in a set or group” (Oxford English
Dictionnary). The first definition is what we commonly imagine as a
hero, the greatest mythological figures for example. The second one
can be applied to any main character in an artwork, concerning The
Sopranos
the hero would be Tony Soprano. Nevertheless, the character can’t be
considered as a hero in the “noble” way given his actions
throughout the TV show. Even when not focusing on Tony, all the
characters would be more antiheros, if we observe the definition “A
central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional
heroic attributes.”
(Oxford English Dictionnary). But this definition isn’t convenient
for The Sopranos’ characters either, because the series isn’t just
about criminals doing their regular killings, drug dealings and so
on.

In a sense, even the supposed “good guys” of the show
aren’t heroes in the common sense : the policemen or even FBI agents
who are supposed to fight against the crime families are often shown
as corrupted, or having their own moral troubles. One of the only
remotely moral characters may be the psychiatrist, Dr Melfi, but she
sometimes helps Tony in his crime activities unbeknowst to herself
(when she gives him Sun Tzu’s Art
of War
book in season 3 episode 8). Nobody in The
Sopranos is
completely good or bad, because at one point the show always adds
something that make them hatable or lovable, and brings us to feel
empathy for them, sometimes a long time after they were first
introduced. One of the example might be Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother
whom he has a really complicated relationship with, and who is
annoying and sometimes obnoxious to all her relatives, and as well
never really gave love to her children. In the season 5 episode 7,
the viewers learn that Livia was alone when she suffered a
miscarriage because her husband was cheating on her at that time,
which provokes empathy and pity for the character and can explain a
part of her bitterness.

The
main finding is that all the characters in The
Sopranos
are not simplistic and can’t be just resumed as heros or villains.
However, there is also the questioning about their “anti-hero”
attributes : some searchers made a thesis about the concept called
“The Antihero in Popular Culture: Life History Theory and the
Dark Triad Personality Traits” (published in 2012). In this
research work, the main aspects of the antiheroesque figure are
enumerated : “The Dark Triad, composed of subclinical
narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, has become an
increasingly popular constellation of traits” (extract). At this
point, the mafioso (criminal, mobsters) is easily identifiable in
those personality traits. Tony Soprano, the main character and New
Jersey mafia caporegime is a striking example in that he knows how to
lead his “soldiers” with some Machiavellian
techniques, he mostly works for his interests but sometimes has
rage-induced episodes where he shows his dysfunctioning mental
health, as when he brutally murders one of his capos because he might
have killed Tony’s horse (Season 4 episode 9). Even his psychiatrist,
Dr Melfi, in the last season, is confronted to the harsh truth : Tony
may have psychopathic and sociopathic issues, and she cannot really
change who he is (she even drops him as a patient after an angry
scene between the two).

Nevertheless,
the most striking and new thing about the main characters of The
Sopranos
might be the fact that they are pretty normal, even maybe unoriginal
people. The
Sopranos
paved the way for a renewal of the antihero figure, because it
describes almost regular Americans, regular New Jersey rubes, the
only exception is that they are also part of the Italo-American mafia
(or related to it). In an interview to Vanity Fair in 2007, the
president of HBO Chris Albrecht said “I
said to myself, this show is about a guy who’s turning 40. He’s
inherited a business from his dad. He’s trying to bring it into the
modern age. He’s got all the responsibilities that go along with
that. (…) He’s anxious; he’s depressed; he starts to see a
therapist because he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. I
thought: the only difference between him and everybody I know is he’s
the Don of New Jersey.”

Tony
Soprano and his co-partners in crime aren’t above the society : this
is a huge difference with the former “mafia stories”. The
show makes us forget The
Godfather
and its elegant gangsters : Tony, Paulie, Silvio and the others often
dress badly, they don’t speak italian (referring to the episode 4 of
the second season where they go to Italy) therefore they appear as
“too much american” for the Camorra mafia (from Naples),
they lack of cultural and intellectual references… The new mobster
figure is more regular family men who sometimes have to do business,
but, as David Chase (the show’s director) said : “They
sit around eating baked ziti and betting and figuring out who owes
who money. Occasionally, violence breaks out—more often than it
does in the banking world, perhaps.”
This humorous answer is the proof that the mafiosi in this TV series
aren’t supposed to be those scary figures working in the darkness
with an elegant, rolling italian accent : they have a provincial
accent (they are sometimes even despised by the New York mafia
members), they beat up themselves the embarrassing people, and they
hang out with bad-toothed strippers from the local dusty club. There
are of course some scenes reminiscent of the traditional “mafia
in popular culture” : when the new members are accepted, with
the bloodsharing and the fire, the long councils and the countless
burials where all the mobsters’s families are present and decide
who’s going to replace the one who’s in the coffin. However, Tony
Soprano for example spends also a lot of time in front of his
television eating ice cream, just like Homer Simpson would do in the
eponymous show. This (along with fatness and balding) isn’t the only
similarity between the two characters, even if they are not viewed in
the same way (though they’re both monuments of pop culture). But Tony
Soprano is supposed to be a bad guy, even a criminal : he’s still
deeply relatable (at first, the show writers wanted to call it Family
Man).
This classic TV series presents the anti-hero in a new way : bad
people but who are just like us, who aren’t unattainable people from
the high sphere of the New York mafia. They are kind of dangerous
sociopaths but they are not immortal , and they have failures. The
mafia itself is however still there to build a kind of moral code
(protecting the mobsters’ families and significant others) with its
strong link to traditional catholicism. Even the loyalty (in crime)
that the mafiosi have to show to each other may be regarded as a a
moral compass. Still, the show’s director wanted to reinforce the
mobster and criminal part of those “normal” family men, by
making him killing a “snitch” (former colleague also)
during his trip with his daughter to visit some universities. This
happens in one of the first episodes of the show (Season 1 Episode
5), and really reunites both entities in Tony’s character, the
villain and the good father (godfather ?). The fact that this episode
was rated as the best of the series (“Top 10 Sopranos Episodes”,
TIMES Magazine, 2007) proves that this show really changed the game
for introducing these kind of characters in TV shows. In an article
written by Ree Hines published in Today, it is said that “Viewers
develop long-term relationships with the familiar faces on weekly
dramas. Audiences were used to cheering for the good guys they knew
and loved and waiting for the baddies to finally get what was coming
to them” 

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