The Sopranos and genre conventions

The Sopranos premiered on HBO in January 1999. The significance of the show is not only its undoubted commercial success, re-inspiring HBO’s drama production, but that it illustrates how everyday problems like depression, health, anxiety and friendship can really affect anyone and everyone. The show revolves around meetings Tony Soprano has with a counsellor, Dr Jennifer Melfi. In therapy he describes what has happened in his day-to-day life, but holding back some detail, and it is through a series of flashbacks that the audience sees what really happened. Yet it is the fact that he is seeing a counsellor in the first place, which is significant. He does so, because doctors suspect him to be having stress related blackouts. This re-defines, and adapts the typical view of the lead Mobster, who is traditionally seen to have no personal weakness. In the past, gangster weakness would be because of physical pain, inflicted upon them because of the bad/rebellious things they have done. Yet in this case it is mentally painful for Tony, as he struggles to balance the different aspects of his own life that appear to be pulling in opposite directions. It is also Tony’s self-pity and his sense of responsibility for his family, two qualities that contradict his ugly mob business persona that make him more endearing. Because of his weaknesses, we sympathize with Tony, putting the audience in a morally difficult position when he is violent or abusive. It could also be inferred that Tony’s depression is a political statement, as many Americans still view depression and stress related mental illnesses as ‘cowardly’. For a mafia boss to suffer from depression illustrates that depression is real, and can hit any of us. Whilst being a political statement, it shows that Tony is perhaps not as cold-hearted as he may first seem, and thus does not fit into the stereotypical mafia boss.

Members of the mob are also used for humorous affect. They are depicted as tough, quick witted and savvy, as reflected in generic conventions. Yet they are heavily lacking in formal education and a deeper understanding of themselves and their world. The mobster’s educational shortcomings, particularly those of Paulie walnuts and Christoper are often a source of humor, due to their misunderstandings, lack of basic common knowledge and their incompetence of which we see in almost every episode of the series.

As well as being fixated on fast cars and women, the typical gangster is usually highly immoral. Often, “the ends justify the means”. Yet, whilst members of Tony’s gang appear to have no regard for consequence, Tony himself whilst being ruthless at times, appears to be aware of his conscience and his action’s consequences. We as the audience recognize this is a good attribute to Tony’s personality on the whole, yet does this not make the bad things he does even worse? Surely there can be no excuse for his actions if he is fully aware of what he is doing? Once again the audience is put in a compromised position – we want to sympathize with Tony, as we see the show from his point of view, but we cannot ignore the morally bad things he does.


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