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The Sopranos was prescient about America: That's why young people can identify with Tony Soprano

  • In a New York Times Magazine essay, Vinny Staley notes how prescient David Chase was with The Sopranos, particularly with how "the show puts all this American social and cultural rot in front of characters wholly incapable of articulating it, if they even notice it." Staley adds that "the show’s depiction of contemporary America as relentlessly banal and hollow is plainly at the core of the current interest in the show, which coincides with an era of crisis across just about every major institution in American life. The Sopranos has a persistent focus on the spiritual and moral vacuum at the center of this country, and is oddly prescient about its coming troubles: the opioid epidemic, the crisis of meritocracy, teenage depression and suicide, fights over the meaning of American history. Even the flight of the ducks who had taken up residence in Tony’s swimming pool — not to mention all the lingering shots on the swaying flora of North Jersey — reads differently now, in an era of unprecedented environmental degradation and ruin." So what compelled David Chase to write a show so pessimistic about America in the mid-1990s, when the country seemed to be on the upswing? “I don’t think I felt like it was a good time,” the 76-year-old Chase tells Staley. “I felt that things were going downhill.” Chase says he had become convinced America was, as Neil Postman’s 1985 polemic put it, “Amusing Ourselves to Death." Chase went on: “There was nothing but crap out there. Crap in every sense. I was beginning to feel that people’s predictions about the dumbing-down of society had happened and were happening, and I started to see everything getting tawdry and cheap.” Staley says there's plenty of reasons why young people wouldn't relate to Tony Soprano -- he's a boomer who laments that American men no longer live up to the ideal of Gary Cooper. "But Tony hates himself too for failing to live up to this ideal," says Staley. "He has given in to psychiatry, to Prozac, to private schools for his kids and the rest of his comfortable exurban lifestyle, and he knows he needs it all. It is this quality of Tony’s — this combination of privilege and self-loathing — that I suspect resonates with a younger generation, whether we want to admit it or not. He’s not so different from us, after all. He has an anxiety disorder. He goes to therapy and takes S.S.R.I.s, but never really improves — not for long, anyway. He has a mild case of impostor syndrome, having skipped some key steps to becoming boss, and he knows that people who hold it against him are sort of right. He’s still proud of his accomplishments in high school. He does psychedelics in the desert, and they change his perspective on things. He often repeats stuff he half-remembers someone smarter than him saying. He’s arguably in an open marriage with Carmela, if a rather lopsided one. He liked listening to 'Don’t Stop Believin’' in 2007. He’s impulsive and selfish and does not go to church, though he does seem open to vaguer notions of spirituality. He wishes his career provided him with meaning, but once he had the career, he discovered that someone had pulled the rug out at some point, and an institution that had been a lodestar to him for his whole life was revealed to be a means of making money and nothing more. Does this sound at all familiar to you? Like many young people, Tony is a world-historically spoiled man who is nevertheless cursed, thanks to timing, to live out the end of an enterprise he knows on some level to be immoral. It gives him panic attacks, but he’s powerless to find a way out. Thus trapped — and depressed — it’s not so hard for him to allow himself a few passes, to refuse to become better because the world is so rotten anyway. Tony’s predicament was once his to suffer alone, but history has unfolded in such a way as to render his condition nearly universal. And if people still see a monster in Tony, then the monster is themselves: a twisted reflection of a generation whose awakening to the structures that control them came in tandem with a growing aversion to personal accountability in the face of these systems."


    TOPICS: The Sopranos, David Chase, Drea De Matteo, Steven Van Zandt, Generation Z, Millennials, Retro TV