In the past, television and movies were in black and white, and so were the morals they preached. Good guys were handsome and bad guys shot first. However, as technology advanced and social mores changed, complexity developed. Black and white took on a moral grey zone as plots took twists. Good guys still couldn’t be ugly, but they were allowed darker sides, and by the end of the 20th century, the bad guys could become the heroes.
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Tony Soprano was one of the worst guys everybody loved.
“Jews with better food” is how the conflicted mob boss – brilliantly played by the late James Gandolfini – describes his Italian heritage when his wife, Carmella, tells him that the money-grubbing dean of their daughter’s college had shortened his surname from "Rossetti" to "Ross" at Ellis Island. Such cultural nuances appear throughout the Emmy-winning, groundbreaking television series,The Sopranos.
One of the show’s hooks is Tony’s psychotherapy, triggered by panic attacks and nightmares. The mobster suffers from rather Jewish guilt over some of the ‘hits’ that he ordered. He suffers from Oedipal issues with his dominating mother, whom - he learns - tried to have him ‘rubbed out’ because he put her in a retirement community. In some episodes we even find Tony remorseful about his unstable, inappropriate behavior towards his therapist, Dr. Melfi.
Gandolfini made Tony the crime kingpin to whom everybody could relate. He was a glutton, complied with tradition - when convenient, and went to church - when he had to. At times Tony doubted his effectiveness as a leader, but whatever his difficulties, he tried to do right by his dysfunctional families for whom he showed much love, warmth, and affection.
But the stresses of his work, while trying to keep up with the flashy life that his two spoiled children and headstrong wife expected, were straining him at the seams.
The Sopranos depicts a multicultural America, often in non-P.C. language. The Italian-American mobsters do business with, and somewhat befriend, blacks and Jews, Koreans and Hispanics, Middle Easterners and Native Americans. But in one episode, Tony rejects his daughter’s dating a Columbia University student whom he calls a “charcoal briquette” because he is half-Jewish, half-black (although he doesn’t seem to mind the Jewish part as much). Tony prefers to ‘stick to his own kind’ (he sees an Italian-American therapist and family physician), yet develops a close, trusting relationship with his father’s Jewish friend, Hesh.
In another episode, Tony sees a business opportunity with a Hasidic family. He sends his crew to convince their unwanted son-in-law, Ariel, to grant his wife a “get,” (Jewish divorce). When Ariel refuses, even after his life is on the line, Tony is awed by the man’s devout faith. An interesting argument ensues:
Ariel: You ever heard of the Masada? For two years, 900 Jews held their own against 15,000 Roman soldiers. They chose death before enslavement. The Romans? Where are they now?
Tony: You’re looking at them, a**hole.
Notwithstanding, Tony Soprano’s universe was deeper than proving that manicotti is better than bagels, and people from all walks of life enjoyed going along with him for the ride to self-discovery. With the culmination of The Sopranos, the world wondered what on earth this actor, James Gandolfini, would do next. Had he become eternally typecast? Perhaps Sopranos creator David Chase’s Not Fade Away (2012) starring Gandolfini proved otherwise. But with his untimely death at age 51, our ride to discover the man who made Tony Soprano so real is sadly over.