I do not endorse or recommend The Sopranos to anyone. Kids should not watch it, teens should not watch it and adults probably should not watch it. That being said, I confess that I have watched every episode thus far and will follow this story through to the end.
On Easter Sunday, April 8, HBO’s hit show The Sopranos launched the second half of its sixth and final season. After seven years, more than a dozen Emmys and many accolades, millions of viewers are tuning in again to see what will happen next with Tony and the family. Perhaps it is because The Sopranos offers therapy for a culture that doesn’t acknowledge sin.
One of the most stunning features of The Sopranos as cultural phenomena has been its ability to draw average, law abiding North Americans from all walks of life to sympathize and identify with a crime family grossly mixed up in greed, sexual immorality, murder, violence, bigotry and more. But this is the key to The Sopranos success.
In our culture, in pop culture, consciousness of sin and human falleness is all but completely suppressed. Everyone is a good person with the exception of wildly irresponsible politicians (if they get caught), corporate book cookers, foreign dictators, their henchman, and, of course, terrorists.
But no one knows any of these people personally. They are distant caricatures removed from our reality. The people we know are like us—a little flawed, capable of error but more or less “good people.” When we behave like anything less, it is because we’re victims of circumstance, corrupt systems or forces beyond our control … Right?
Deep in our human hearts, we know better. We pretend we haven’t, but every one of us has at least glimpsed a terrible darkness in our own souls. Deny it extensively, but as humans we know that something within is bent and twisted. We’re square pegs in round holes, believers in goodness continually met with our inability to live it out.
We know that putting on a great face is expected of us, but we long to drop it and get real. We long to come clean and announce, “I’m not OK!” If only (as James put it) we could “confess our sins and be healed.”
And with so few viable avenues to assuage our guilt, The Sopranos appeals to us on a profound level. We watch characters that are likable, if not lovable. They want the best for their kids; they have deep feelings of love and camaraderie; they appreciate nature’s beauty; they mourn, lament and are angry about actual events like 9/11 just like we are.
And just like us, they live with an elephant in the room that is never addressed or spoken openly about.
The closing scene in the final “premier” features Bobby (the gentle-hearted mobster?) on vacation with his wife and young children at a beautiful lake house.
He must leave temporarily. “It’s business.” Janice, his wife, is disappointed but it is silently understood that “business” is both never disclosed and an obligation that must be fulfilled.
Bobby completes his assignment, “a hit,” which is gruesome and violent. Returning to the lake, we see him greeted by his loved ones enthusiastically. He picks up his young daughter who is carefree and bubbling with laughter. He holds her there, amidst the gorgeous scenery, and we see his face—troubled, complex, sad, uncertain and pitiable.
The elephant is sin. The show allows us to see what the characters may see but cannot address. And as viewers, we identify, because we live with that elephant too. It may not be as extreme or grotesque, but it is there.
In The Sopranos the elephant is ignored while lives, marriages, births, vacations and all the rest of it go on as usual. And in our lives, we carry on in pursuit of our own entertainment, getting promotions, taking long weekends, consuming goods, losing patience with our spouse, giving to charity and whatever else we do while ignoring the hole that has formed the core of human identity ever since we walked out of the Garden.
Tony and his family are desperately unhappy. They need redemption. But we need redemption!
We tune in week after week to see if maybe, at last, it might be brought about. Maybe, just maybe, something that works will be discovered. We wait to see if a hope that lasts will emerge from some yet hidden source.
It is that hunger for redemption sublimated deep in our own consciousness that gives shape to our cultures attraction to The Sopranos and shows like it. The Sopranos clarifies the very cry of our culture, “Save us!”
“The drugs no longer work. Illicit sex allures us and intoxicates us for a moment, but ultimately we are left frustrated. The big bankrolls give us a rush of excitement like nothing else, but it doesn’t last. The power over men and institutions swell us with pride, but in the dark cavities of our souls, all alone, we feel helpless and in deep need. We need redemption.”
The last episodes are underway. Who knows where the writers and producers will lead the Sopranos. Will redemption come? Possibly, but selling a redemption that audiences will believe is difficult in film and television.
Will it end in judgment? Will the death that claimed so many characters throughout the series put an end to the main character? Possibly, but I would bet the show will end as it began—in the middle somewhere. Tony will be left to live on in our imaginations as he did in his therapy sessions on the show—auspiciously improving, progressing and evolving but going nowhere.
But a show is a show. Syndication will happen; new shows will emerge. So what about our culture? Pop culture? Its quest for redemption is not guided by screenwriters bouncing ideas off of each other to develop a winning story. Meanwhile, its cry for redemption is far more real and acute.
As the Church, do we engage or build walls? Do our ears perceive the cry of our culture? Or are we so put off by the shock tactics and careful offensiveness of our culture that we miss the deep need for God, meaning and grace they betray?
If you do not watch The Sopranos I do not recommend that you start. The show should probably not be watched by anyone. But as the Church—as who boast of the redemption that washes clean vilest offender—I hope that we tune in to our culture. That instead of just wagging our fingers or shaking our heads at the degradation of television or pop singers, we pay attention to and attend to our world’s cry for hope in a vacuous wilderness without meaning.