In the year and a half since I turned 40, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone informed me that I’ve made, on average, weekly references to Tony Soprano. As a middling-aged male who has recently encountered compounding upsets and turbulence in his marriage, extended family, and a few friendships; who has also staggered perplexed through a virtual minefield in his place of employment the past couple years, each turn along this wending path into midlife has seemed to hand me yet another piece for better understanding and appreciating the complicated puzzle that composed Tony Soprano’s character. In discovering or making these parallels, six years after “The Sopranos” series ended, Tony’s come to serve as a signpost for my bewildering, untidy, and frequently confusing position at midlife.
Granted, this is a risky recognition. It comes packed and riddled with difficulties. For starters, even mildly comparing one's self to Tony Soprano no doubt warrants a lot of snark, perhaps raises a few eyebrows, maybe invites concern from anyone who only ever saw in that show or in that character the unruly staging on its surface masking a deeper, more universal and epic tale spanning the ages. Perhaps you saw or have only ever seen in Tony the overweight Jersey thug, the violent mobster who too frequently lashed out in anger, or too easily wrought horrible physical agony on the men who offended or crossed him, and who only seemed to know how to psychologically torment the women in his life. I’ll do my best to try and understand that perspective, but I find it sorely lacking and inaccurate.
Meanwhile, I’m not suggesting that one of these days, after a therapy appointment or lunch date, I’m going to run off and go strangle a friend who owes me a few bucks. I’m not saying compounding events will cause me to crack a pool cue over someone’s head, or even on a nearby table. If nothing else, as a guy who's admittedly never been in a fistfight or fired a gun, I've simply become more and more convinced that James Galdofiini, who died suddenly in Rome this past week, didn't so much embody or simply portray a TV character. Rather, in Tony, Gandolfini had expertly crafted an archetype for the ages.
For instance, I frequently enough find myself making Tony Soprano references at the social service agency where I work and lead trainings, mostly in our “Managing Aggressive Behavior” course. Who – aside from the horrifying true life cases in the news that I also sometime reference – better embodied or modeled our training's working definition of aggression? "Aggression,” I inform my trainees, quoting Summer and Smith, “is said to 'differ from violence in that aggression reflects conditions (stress, frustration, anger) that if left unresolved may culminate in violence.’" (Their emphasis.)
Who better than Tony Soprano expertly revealed to us a man whose life and background -- thanks to his family of origin, more than his profession -- reflected unresolved conditions, the compounding impact of which eventually culminated in an unrelenting series of aggressive, and then also violent acts and behaviors?
It’s a testimony to the actor’s craft that, despite his glaring flaws and violent actions, we were still capable of empathizing with his day-to-day situations. In fact, I can’t say that any single character has elicited so much interwoven empathy and horror from me since Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.
And I’m not one to lob literary comparisons at TV characters liberally or carelessly either. But Tony Soprano wasn't just a TV character. He was the Odysseus of the form. And James Gandolfini was the genius who crafted him. In the same way, “The Sopranos” wasn't merely a TV show. It more closely played like a televised combination of cinema, theater, and literature. In the way that Dostoevsky penned many of his best-known novels first as serials in Russian newspapers and periodicals, week-to-week “The Sopranos” played as a televised serial of an epic film or Tolstoy novel. At this family drama’s center sat a father who, despite his profession, fought most violently himself and then all of those around him in a Leviathan effort to understand and survive the rapidly changing world eluding him. His family, who seemed to evoke for him the most emotional degree of frustration, sarcasm, and passion, were also the characters he fiercely loved and served and worked to offer a path in the world.
It was frequently enough a very difficult -- sometimes even disturbing -- hour to take in and absorb. But on more than one occasion, I had the overwhelming sense that I wasn't merely "watching television” with The Sopranos, it seemed I was instead reading the next Great American Novel.
I attended a dinner in the Lower 48 at an arts conference last summer where, in the process of piling my plate with food, I overheard a successful filmmaker (and generous donor to the conference) rattle off his top five television shows of “all time.”
In the list appeared the usual suspects. Of course, he named "The Wire," its slot on every such list a virtual “given” till the end of time. He also named "Mad Men," which seemed arguable, in my opinion, and he included "Breaking Bad." That "The Sopranos" appeared in his list didn’t surprise me in the least. I don’t remember his fifth choice, but after I was done piling food on my plate I semi-awkwardly turned from the serving table and invited myself into the conversation. I questioned the "Mad Men" selection (a series that I now think has turned a pretty good corner). By way of disclaimer, however, I admitted that while I have always had the weakest of weak guts when it comes to gore, film violence, or onscreen acts of aggression, episode-for-episode "Mad Men" proved undeniably harder, more difficult, and stomach-churning for me to sit through and endure than any single violent, aggression-packed episode of The Sopranos.
In "Mad Men" we are given a bevy of characters regularly and individually wreaking an unimaginable degree of psychological violence and aggression on each other. Yes, a lot of it is passive, but moment-to-moment, scene-for-scene "Mad Men" bleeds in spurts pure, dark aggression in nearly every interaction. "The Sopranos," by contrast – and with variations, of course – featured at its center one troubled soul whose influence and action extended through his fellow mafiosos and family members. Meanwhile, the violence time and again seemed to serve as "staging," or theatrical props for revealing or relaying to viewers the story wending underneath the show’s surface story. Violence on "The Sopranos" many times resembled, for me, in fact, The Bada Bing -- the strip club front masking Tony’s mafia machine. Admittedly, the surface of any episode of The Sopranos revealed depths and details more entertaining and jaw dropping than the sad, sorry state of the Bada Bing club at any given hour. Whether "Mad Men" actually proves on some elusive scale a more truly violent show than "The Sopranos" I really have no authority to say, but I do know that Don Draper and company continue to terrify me and churn my stomach in ways "The Sopranos" never did.
Of course, you may prefer "Six Feet Under," "Mad Men," "Deadwood," or "Breaking Bad" to "The Sopranos". We boast our preferences for personal reasons, after all. However, it’s no long shot to question whether any of the hottest, or most critically acclaimed shows would have seen the light of day if HBO had never offered to viewers the troubled, depressed and anxious Jersey mobster, doomed to flail madly and wildly at the tail-end of the 20th century, and into the beginning of the 21st.
Not an episode of "Breaking Bad" passes that I'm not reminded of Dostoevsky or feel like I’m “seeing” a present day novel of his in process. At its absolute best, "Mad Men" conjures Cheever, Updike, Yates, Chekov, among others, and it makes me wonder what our forebears make or would make of this "net" the "Mad Men" of yesteryear wove us into, made out of the sticky and treacherous materials of advertising, television, and selling us stuff we don't need. "The Wire" remains far and away the best social commentary ever put to television drama -- it's journalism, sociology, and literature all rolled into one and it has stayed incomparable, in a class all its own. "Battlestar Galactica" re-imagined and crafted a myth that, for my money, rivals "Star Wars" in scope and story -- thanks especially to the clunky-to-disastrous prequels and "The Clone Wars" animated series. (I was five when "A New Hope" was released, so I’m fully aware of the blasphemy I’ve just uttered.)
However, "The Sopranos" -- and by virtue of its lead character, Tony, and so then the actor who crafted him, James Gandolfini -- remains, for me, at the top of the heap. It still “reads” like the American spin on a Homeric-sized masterpiece. It rolls out as if David Chase, the show’s creator, had a "sit-down" with everyone from Walker Percy, Steinbeck, and Hemingway to Tolstoy, Richard Ford, and Raymond Carver, then, after passing conversations with Coppola and Scorsese, inspired Gandolfini to craft for us a new, altered Everyman. One who could believably puzzle over the lay of the land in which a troubled or unsettled man can, with staggering frequency, nowadays find himself.
Rest in peace, Mr. Gandolfini. You wrought the stuff of legend. You gave us Tony, who continues to live on, in and with me -- as I imagine he does for many displaced and bewildered males of our era. And there’s little doubt this will continue to prove the case for a long time to come. I, for one, am sure glad he’s with us.
Jonathan Bower lives, works, and writes in Anchorage, Alaska. He is currently recording a new album of original music, following the release of last year's "But So Beautiful," which is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.