[On January 25th, 1947 Al Capone died at the age of 48. So for the 75th anniversary of the end of that notorious life, I’ll AmericanStudy different cultural contexts for American gangsters & organized crime!]
On the minor characters who exemplify the real strengths of the troubling Golden Age TV show.
Full disclosure first—up until a couple years ago I had only ever seen bits and pieces of David Chase’s groundbreaking turn of the 21st century HBO show The Sopranos. It was during the lockdowns of 2020 that I, like apparently so many of my fellow Americans, finally got around to streaming the show—and even then, I only got into somewhere in the middle of the second season before stopping. I fully recognized and agreed with how well the show was made on every level, starting with a truly titanic (and apparently quite taxing) central performance from James Gandolfini as the conflicted mob boss and family patriarch Tony Soprano. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t help feeling that it was the latest in a long line of cultural glorifications of such gangsters, and I simply wasn’t interested in making my way through six seasons/86 episodes of that familiar narrative (between this and my non-favorites post on Breaking Bad, maybe I need to turn in my AmericanTVStudier Card, I dunno).
I need to say a bit more about what I mean by “glorification” in this case, though. I’m not thinking of the humanization of Tony, which was probably inevitable the second that such a brilliant actor was cast and which is fine in any case (TV characters should be multi-dimensional humans!). I don’t even really mean the way that the show pushes its audience to root for Tony, although that was the case and is deeply problematic—not just because he’s a murderous mob boss, but also and especially because he’s a terrible husband and father, a racist who abuses women, etc. (and no, having a truly awful mother doesn’t make any of those things much better). No, my biggest problem with The Sopranos’ portrayal of its gangster protagonist is that one of the show’s central themes—the ways in which turn of the 21st century America is a culture in decline—directly supports Tony’s consistent nostalgia about the good old days of mob and criminal life (as well as white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and a good deal more besides). Those narratives gave us our gangster in chief, full stop.
So clearly I’m not much of a Tony fan—but in the portions of the show I watched (and of course I’m open to pushback on any of this from folks who’ve seen it all, along with anyone else as ever!), I did find its portrayal of many different layers of the criminal worlds of turn of the century New Jersey and America consistently compelling. Particularly exemplary of that element of the show was the brief season one plotline (in episode three, “Denial, Anger, Acceptance”) involved a Jewish American hotelier (Chuck Low) who was having problems with his son-in-law (Ned Eisenberg) and came to Tony and the mob for help. Eisenberg’s character in particular worked within the world of the show—he was a stubborn badass who impressed Tony and his men despite their intent of intimidating him—but also, in his brief screentime, opened up interesting themes of multi-generational familial and cultural identities, the roles of faith and tradition in modern American society, and the similarities and differences between Jewish and Italian American organizations. The Sopranos wasn’t the kind of show that would follow these multiple characters and families, but even in brief glimpses they were to my mind the best of its stories and world.
January Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other gangster stories or contexts you’d share?