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The Sopranos vs. the end of history

A new prequel movie. A spike in new viewership. What explains the iconic TV show’s enduring appeal?

A scene from the Sopranos with James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano sitting at a table flanked by two men.
The Sopranos is big again — and the new prequel movie isn’t the only reason.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Since the summer of 2020 — for well over a year now — entertainment reporters have been probing what seems like the great question of our time: Why is everyone watching The Sopranos? And more specifically, why are most of those people so young?

In May 2020, WarnerMedia, which owns HBO, the cable network on which The Sopranos premiered in 1999, announced that since the start of the pandemic a few months earlier, viewership of the show on its streaming service had risen by 179 percent, outpaced only by the considerably more recent Westworld and Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, many of those viewers, at least anecdotally, seemed to be on the younger side; after all, even the oldest millennials were Meadow Soprano’s age, just finishing high school when the show premiered.

The reasons for that surge are, on their face, kind of obvious. One lies in simple economics. In April 2020, presumably as an attempt to direct eyeballs toward its streaming services (at the time called HBO Go and HBO Now), HBO announced that it would make a few of its greatest hits — including The Sopranos — free to everyone, subscriber or not, for a limited time.

Simultaneously, a whole lot of people suddenly found themselves stuck at home. Faced with lockdowns of varying severity and unknown length, it was natural to take up a TV-watching project as a coping mechanism, to escape the feeling that time itself had ground to a halt. The Sopranos, widely recognized as one of the seminal works of TV’s so-called modern “golden age,” was a natural fit. The series is an 86-episode hour-long drama about mobsters, everyone has heard of it, and if you hadn’t already watched it, you probably intended to at some point. It is, in this regard, a bit like Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia.

An image of Tony Soprano and his captains standing in a graveyard.
Even if you never watched The Sopranos, you know about it.

I asked around a little, and that desire to “catch up” certainly matched people’s experiences. Yonah and his girlfriend Maya, both of whom are around 30, started to watch The Sopranos because there was “much more time to get into long-form television that we just never got around to watching before the creation of HBO Max,” Yonah told me, echoing the sentiments of many peers who responded via Twitter. “When people talk about the best TV shows, there are a few that are always mentioned — Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The Americans. We’ve had so much more time to ourselves these last 18 months that we managed to get through all of those incredible series.”

And despite their often dark themes and pessimistic view of the world — or perhaps because of them? — these shows amounted, in a sense, to “comfort” watches for many. “Watching these ‘classic’ shows has been a welcome escape from the chaos in the world,” Yonah said.

Adam, a recent college graduate, described a similar experience. “I was a server at the time, so I now didn’t have a job, due to the pandemic. My classes were all writing intensive so I found myself with a lot of free time,” he said. “There was never a better time to finally give The Sopranos the attention it deserved. I made my way through the series, and finished in about a month.”

This all makes perfect sense. But why, specifically, did young people seem to gravitate toward The Sopranos as a place to start? Why not binge other recent classics, like Breaking Bad or Mad Men or even The Wire, which is also on HBO?

Various critics have offered their opinions on why Tony Soprano and his buddies (and enemies) were so attractive to viewers during a tough time. Some have speculated the reason was thwarted desire: It’s a “hands-on” show, with big Italian families constantly hugging and eating baked ziti together — something that might appeal in a time of social distancing.

Others have pointed to a spate of new media being produced around the show. The podcast Talking Sopranos, hosted by cast members Michael Imperioli (who played Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Schirripa (who played Bobby Baccalieri), launched in April 2020, joining a bevy of other Sopranos fan podcasts and racking up 9 million listeners by early 2021. Memes from the show started popping up on Instagram and TikTok; the “Sopranos Out of Context” Twitter account, which posts captioned screenshots from the show, saw a jump in followers during summer 2020, and currently has more than 125,000 followers. However, it seems more likely that the newfound popularity of memes and podcasts about The Sopranos are more a result of the show’s spiking viewership than a cause for it.

A teenager in a tie and his uncle stand in a doorway.
Michael Gandolfini — son of the late James Gandolfini — as young Tony Soprano, and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in The Many Saints of Newark.
Warner Bros.

Another clear possibility could be the looming release of The Many Saints of Newark, which after a long pandemic delay finally hit theaters and HBO Max simultaneously on October 1. The film follows in the footsteps of movies that revisit characters from golden age TV shows, like El Camino, a sequel to Breaking Bad, and Deadwood: The Movie, both of which came out in 2019.

Given that James Gandolfini, the star of The Sopranos, passed away in 2013, the film isn’t a sequel; it’s a prequel. And in truth, it leaves a lot to be desired. The Many Saints of Newark is unwieldy and marred by a number of performances that feel more like impressions of Sopranos’ characters than actual acting. Series creator David Chase wrote the story, which centers on Dickie Moltisanti (played by an excellent Alessandro Nivola), who will one day be the father of The Sopranos’ Christopher. The film follows Dickie as he navigates the twisty connections of his many relatives and mentors his nephew, young Tony Soprano (played by Michael Gandolfini, son of James).

And for Sopranos fans yearning for more, it will undoubtedly hit the spot in spite of its flaws.

Furthermore, as Chase noted in an interview in 2020, the series had already started to gain new traction around the 20th anniversary of its debut, before anyone knew the pandemic was coming. “From last summer, fall of 2019, I kept hearing this — that young people were discovering the show and these podcasts started,” he told Variety. “And that was sort of puzzling and wonderful to me.”

In 2019, the first-ever SopranosCon — a fan convention — was held at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, not too far from the North Jersey locations where much of the show is set. It was an unofficial event that proceeded with blessings from HBO, attracting thousands of fans (some in costume) and featuring replicas of Dr. Melfi’s office (where Tony had therapy sessions) and the Bada Bing! strip club as well as memorials to the late Gandolfini and other cast members who have died since the show’s 2007 finale.

Fans’ enduring love for the series is predictable. The Sopranos has, on the whole, aged quite well. The notion of an antihero as the protagonist of a TV drama is no longer remarkable, and the notion of a mob boss going to therapy, while still inherently comical, isn’t quite as startling or weird. But the show’s explorations of dangerous masculinity (and, often, the kind of “femininity” that enables it) were ahead of their time, especially compared with sitcoms or many traditional dramas from the same era. Even though many great shows that have followed it, The Sopranos still stands out, with acting and writing that rival most anything you can watch on a screen.

Tony, Carmela, and AJ Soprano at a table in a diner.
It’s still hard to beat The Sopranos.

So it stands to reason that the show’s recent popularity isn’t really linked, or at least not solely, to pandemic-prompted binge-watching and malaise. Many commentators have suggested that The Sopranos’ newest fans — many of whom are millennials or Gen Z, people under 40 who were mostly too young to watch the show when it was first airing — probably also relate to one of its main themes, which might be termed “the end of history.”

You have to read that phrase with a little bit of self-conscious pretension in mind, because every generation kind of thinks it’s the last one. Apocalyptic thinking is by no means new. (It’s not like Gen X, who would have been just the right age for the show when it was on, is some fount of optimism.)

But there’s something to the idea that the Soprano family provides a proxy for viewers who feel like they were born too late to have experienced the “good life.” One of Tony’s most-quoted lines comes in Dr. Melfi’s office during a therapy session. “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” he says. “I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” He’s basically stating one of the show’s great recurring motifs, in which the mobsters lament the passing of their fathers’ generation, when things were better and the men, in their memory, were “saints.”

They’re remembering the past through Vaseline-rubbed lenses, something The Many Saints of Newark makes clear. Times weren’t better back then; they were different, and for many, far more dangerous. The men weren’t saints, and they certainly didn’t treat their families any better. But the sentiment and its attendant ironies appealed to viewers at the turn of the millennium, and it rings true decades later too. The kind of overt nostalgia that’s surfaced in our political and cultural discourse — from yearning for a formerly “great” America to mythologizing the kinds of movies they don’t make anymore — is exactly what the characters on the show often pine for.

Yet I still find this explanation for The Sopranos’ resurgence unsatisfying. I was midway through high school when the show premiered, and I never watched it. And though I’ve watched, and loved, virtually every other prestige show that aired during the early 2000s “golden age,” I kept putting off The Sopranos. I thought it would be a tough sit, as dense and dark as its cousins.

The impending launch of The Many Saints of Newark finally got me to start. To my delight, I quickly realized that The Sopranos is extremely funny, frequently feeling more like a family sitcom than a straightforward drama. I definitely noticed all the same things critics had pointed out about the show — its terrific characters, its innovative storytelling, its ability to tap into a pessimistic zeitgeist that hasn’t abated in the years since it aired.

A scene from “The Many Saints of Newark” showing a large family around a dinner table.
It’s about family.

But there was something else, too — something I couldn’t put my finger on until recently. Several people, including some of my friends, told me that watching The Sopranos made them feel connected to their own families and hometowns. It was like coming home. Annabel, who’s 22, told me via Twitter that she’d started watching the show with her partner this year. “I really miss my heavily New York and New Jersey family, who I don’t get to see much because of the pandemic and distance,” she said. “I get a kick out of seeing them eat stuff like the sfogliatelle that we had at holidays, and making jokes about the college that my mom went to.”

“As the first person in my family who was born not in New Jersey or New York, it also felt like a little bit of a glimpse — not the mobsters, but the set dressing! — of a huge chapter of my family’s life before I was born that I’ve always heard about,” she said. “Our lore.”

I get that. My family isn’t Italian at all, but I did grow up in New York state, and somehow northeastern foodways mean that Italian-American food was what we were always eating at family gatherings. The baked ziti and manicotti and huge piles of bread and charcuterie — excuse me, gabagool — were and still are fixtures on my family’s holiday tables. Watching the Soprano family’s holidays or the men eating in Artie Bucco’s restaurant, I felt a little homesick in a way TV never makes me feel.

For me and many people like Annabel, The Sopranos provides a way to feel connected to history, whether or not we’re at the end of it. Actually, I suspect that’s true for most millennials and Gen Z viewers of the series, Italian-American or New Jersey natives or not. After all, The Sopranos represents, for us, the mythic starting point of something that has ruled our adult lives: an explosively crowded TV landscape telling stories that frequently focus on bad men wrestling with their demons. Even shows that do just the opposite often seem to be operating near the antiheroes’ spotlight, trying to innovate on or entirely subvert these larger-than-life figures.

Watching The Sopranos inducts us into that history, which represents for many our grander cultural history, for better or worse. As the entertainment world grows more niche and diverse, and fewer and fewer shows are capable of capturing mass attention and driving cultural dialogue, watching The Sopranos is a trip into another part of our past — one where a show like this could cause breathless next-day discussions and become a bona fide cultural event.

While I think the death of the monoculture has been greatly exaggerated, it’s easy to feel like we’re at the end of something, an age of mass art that we’ll never return to. The guys on The Sopranos, forever quoting The Godfather and reminiscing about the good old days, felt just the same. The more things change, the more they stay, ever and always, the same.

The Many Saints of Newark is playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. The Sopranos is streaming on HBO Max.

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