The Sopranos was a critical darling and a cultural phenomenon of the early to mid 2000’s, considered by many to be one of the best television shows ever made. This prestige crime drama evolved from an homage to films like The Godfather and Goodfellas into something else entirely throughout its run. The Sopranos became a commentary on the ruthlessness of American culture and society.
When asked about his thought process for writing the series, Sopranos showrunner David Chase said, “Life in America had gotten so savage, selfish, that even a mob guy couldn’t take it anymore.” In the pilot, the audience is introduced to New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (played by the late, great James Gandolfini), who has to start seeing a psychiatrist after experiencing anxiety attacks. Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco), gets the mobster to open up on a variety of topics including his depression and his relationship with his family, parents, and mafia associates.
While Tony and other characters in the series were vile and vindictive people, they still had very human emotions and life experiences. Tony, for example, was a narrow minded adulterer and murderer, but struggled with depression and the lack of affection and approval from parental figures in his life. When many of Tony’s family members and mafia associates find out he’s been going to therapy, they call him weak and talk about him behind his back instead of offering to help. This idea of seeking help for your mental health being seen as “weak” among males is a form of toxic masculinity that is perpetuated in American society to this day. Social stigmas around mental health prevents many people, especially men, from getting the help that they need for their mental health.
Another theme covered in The Sopranos was addiction, in particular drug addiction. Tony’s embattled cousin and protege Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli) struggles with heroin and alcohol addiction throughout the series. The Soprano crew and family initially try to get Christopher help when they find out about his addiction, which led to an unhelpful and confrontational intervention at his apartment. Eventually, Christopher is forced by Tony to go to rehab as his last chance to stay in the “family.” However, when Christopher starts to recover from his addiction, he gets ridiculed by Tony and the other mobsters for refusing to drink with them. Christopher soon realized that he didn’t have any real friends, as Tony and his crew would relentlessly mock and make fun of him. This led Christopher down the path to relapse back into drugs and alcohol to a much more excessive degree.
Drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease are three diseases of despair that have greatly affected American citizens throughout the 21st century. These medical conditions increase in groups of people who experience despair due to the sense that their social or economic outlook is bleak. In the case of Tony, he had plenty of money, a family, and a huge mansion but was still absolutely miserable. Many characters in the show had plenty of money, success, and comfort but were never truly happy. Each character in The Sopranos had glaring insecurities or past trauma which made it impossible for them to ever be happy, which made the show feel so realistic within the context of modern American society.
The characters in The Sopranos and the way they interact with each other can reasonably be interpreted as a microcosm of American culture and society. Most characters in the series are massive hypocrites, constantly telling lies to themselves and each other. They are always trying to find a way to gain an upper hand over their colleagues and family members. There’s no loyalty among most of the mobsters and their family members in the show. Every character has an agenda, whether it be criminals, politicians, business owners, lawyers, or priests. Any person experiencing moments of weakness or vulnerability are treated as an outcast, looked down upon, or taken advantage of. Characters are constantly stabbing each other in the back and throwing each other under the bus out of spite and greed. They don’t care how their words or actions impact those around them as long as they end up on top.
In this hyper individualistic American culture, citizens are pitted against each other and expected to compete in the name of gaining more money or power. This culture makes Americans feel lonely and without passion or purpose, as spaces for togetherness and community have all but been stamped out in the nation. Labor unions and spaces for community (besides places of worship) have mostly been eliminated in favor of rugged individualism and hyper consumerism. This loneliness and lack of community can be best seen in the suburbs of America. Millions of Americans live in cookie cutter suburban neighborhoods where distrust among neighbors is high and togetherness is discouraged. While living fairly close to each other, the design of suburban homes makes it very easy to avoid interacting with people that live around you. Middle class suburban neighborhoods help spur anti social behavior and isolationist sentiment among Americans. America’s consumerist and individualistic culture encourages loneliness, and then politicians and civic leaders turn around and wonder why so many citizens are suffering from diseases of despair. The Sopranos is a piece of media that exemplifies this ruthless and selfish American culture so perfectly. In the words of Christopher Moltisanti, “It’s like just the fucking regularness of life is too fucking hard for me or something.” It’s become apparent that many modern Americans share this sentiment.