HBO Max’s big launch late May meant something for media scholars, I’m sure. What it meant to me was a reminder of a sweet little show I’ve been meaning to get back to once (a) I had the time or (b) my professors understood that I needed an inkling of free time, and that show is “The Sopranos.”
Whether it’s one of Carmela’s (Edie Falco) outfit and nails pairing, Adriana (Drea de Matteo) telling Christopher (Michael Imperioli) to fuck off or hearing Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) pronounce gabagool, there’s something about “The Sopranos” that almost every viewer will enjoy.
It’s overdone and boring now to talk about “The Sopranos’” place in the “Golden Age” of television — whichever iteration you want to call it — and how it solidified the longevity of the gangster genre because, frankly, who cares about that beyond a passing thought (the media scholars!).
At its core, “The Sopranos” doesn’t dig, in my opinion, deep enough into the issues of class and family dynamics that it raises — especially within the Italian American community — beyond how it relates to mafia life. Without taking the camera so you literally see through the eyes of each character, you see the world through their sometimes disturbing image, which makes the most integral character, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), your guide in all this mess.
Bracco puts her foot into every role, but her defying and timeless performance as Mrs. Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” brought her onto the gangster-drama map. While quite a few of “The Sopranos” actors were involved in the mob-movie business at one point, those films didn’t confront the mafia with a psychoanalytical lens like “The Sopranos” does.
Centering the highly masculine, character-driven mafia drama around themes of depression, anxiety and learning how to cope made “The Sopranos” and Bracco’s performance the first meaningful and one of the most successful attempts in television to confront mental health within the context of the show, despite that not being the intention.
I love a good man-to-man talk, don’t you? At the end of the first season, Tony (James Gandolfini) gathers Silvio, Christopher and Paulie (Tony Sirico) for a chat about the elephant in the room (spoiler! But c’mon this was in 1999), the known fact that Tony is seeing a psychiatrist because Tony doesn’t want them to hear it from “some asshole on the street.”
“It’s not the worst thing I ever heard,” Paulie says and admits to seeing a therapist himself for issues of heartbreak. Silvio is convinced that it was done with discretion and Christopher storms out of the Bada Bing! without a word but a huff.
Tony’s mental health is not an issue to be dealt with lightly. It introduces characters to him and sets him up for a hit from one of his own family members and several crises throughout six seasons. And to mention this in the man cave, where business is dealt and strippers are dancing just outside, is an amusing but really compelling confrontation with mental health issues that are inextricable from extreme masculinity. (If you want to learn more about that connection, read our wellness & outreach director’s latest column.)
This extreme is nothing new to Dr. Melfi as she learns more about Tony and his job as a waste management consultant. While she is a formidable opponent for his woes, and often the only voice of reason in his life, she takes flack from all sides because she has taken on a man like him as a patient, and is a woman.
Bracco really takes what little she is given in the role and runs with it, making our ears perk up whenever we hear her Brooklyn accent appear on screen and immediately picture the modern-wooden office that puts her on equal footing with Tony, a position many people aren’t privy to or don’t survive in for long. Being Italian American herself gives Dr. Melfi a certain rapport with Tony, a sensitive foil to the working-class struggles and aura surrounding Tony and the family’s mafia involvements.
The show and its plotlines are not immune to systemic problems in portraying women though, as it treats Dr. Melfi as it would any other woman on the show (or in media at the time), with no agency and often the men’s emotional punching bag as well as a victim to violence to show the men’s toughness.
Call it a symptom of the era, but while the show made strides to keep up with HBO compatriots like the themes of morality in “Six Feet Under” or the analysis of city and street politics in “The Wire,” it can’t be overlooked as a notable and integral moment to push the existing conversation on mental health further.
The credit for this success should be extracted from the ages-old reverence for “The Sopranos” and supplanted with Bracco’s individual performance and that with Gandolfini.
What’s great about the issues of the show is that, as viewers, we can refuse to see them going forward. We don’t have to take a narrative at its face and accept its violent masculinity or its subjugation of women because “The Sopranos” was, and should, merely be a moment that, at its time, pushed the boundaries of mental health discussion.
The show has other credits to it that I haven’t mentioned, but idolization of the show can be dangerous in the way that makes us feel like we have to return to that sort of set-up to get back to “good TV.” But we already have it in shows such as “Bojack Horseman” (in which Bracco makes a guest appearance), “One Day at a Time,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and more, and we can look forward to even better representations of mental illness while cherishing, but not emulating, those past.
Lauren Mattice is a senior writing about film culture. She is also the digital managing editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Film Schooled,” runs every other Wednesday.