Why are we so skeptical of the things right in front of us? “Turns Out It’s Pretty Good” is a series that examines the path from resisting the well-known to wholeheartedly endorsing it.
Sure, I had heard of The Sopranos. I took two degrees in Film Studies, and for my Master’s, I focused primarily on TV. In my books and in class, The Sopranos was referred to in hushed, reverent tones, coming up as frequently as a gold standard for Serious TV, the way Seinfeld does for comedy. I knew full well how critics had hailed the show, which follows capo and later boss Tony Soprano as he navigates the complexities of balancing his family, both regular and capital F, and his affairs, both criminal and romantic, as the greatest of all time.
Still, I had my reasons for not watching it. I knew The Sopranos was about men and violence, and my focus, both academically and personally, was on shows across all genres that prioritize melodrama, comedy, and interpersonal relationships. Buffy, Desperate Housewives, The X-Files, and The O.C. are my all-time favorite dramas. The Sopranos seemed like it would be heavy on violence and short on jokes, so I filed it in a box with The Wire, a show I had watched one episode of at school before deciding it was not for me. I felt on the outside of some inside club, but not enough to actually start watching.
All I needed, it turns out, was a way in. Earlier this year, a friend of mine posted photos of Drea de Matteo, who plays hostess and mob girlfriend Adriana La Cerva, wearing a tight, beautiful tiger-print outfit. I’m a simple woman. I’d seen Drea de Matteo’s sixth-season turn as the gorgeous, sharp-tongued Angie Bolen on the delightfully campy Desperate Housewives, and I’d loved her performance. Could that be enough?
Tentatively, I reached out to my friend: “should I finally watch The Sopranos?” The answer was an unequivocal yes; my friend promised more of the laughs, acrylic nails, and luscious hair that de Matteo had brought to Desperate Housewives. I asked if I would be bored, but was told it was worth the investment, that The Sopranos was more outlandish than it seemed. I was sold on the mob-wife aesthetics alone, and from the opening scenes of the pilot I was a convert. I’ll admit it: Tony’s tender appreciation of the ducks in his pool and his consequent devastation when they leave him tugged on my heartstrings. I loved this big dummy!
I was disappointed to learn that Drea de Matteo only featured briefly in the pilot, and that it would be even longer before her hair got a starring role, but I turned my entire focus to learning about the inner workings of these men and their crimes. I was sucked into their world, addicted to their interpersonal dramas and beefs. I flinched away from the violence, but found myself glued to the nuances of every conversation — my friend was right, camp and melodrama was in the DNA of these men. I inhaled their banter and slang, finally understanding the memes. Gabagool!
What The Sopranos is so good at is the same thing that makes it uncomfortable viewing: It resists falling into old tropes and traps, never letting you sympathize for long. Before The Sopranos, many shows were organized to make sense in the way that we wish life made sense. People grow, they head on a linear path of personal development, and they become better, shedding their neuroses and bad vibes. Seeing Tony and his friends appear to grow before descending back into violence was agonizing not because it was fabricated, but because it felt real.
Nothing on The Sopranos is more horrifyingly real than what happens to the show’s women. They are treated badly and often discarded; prime examples include Tony’s therapist not getting justice for her sexual assault and the cruel murder of a stripper. Still, I thought, at least I’ll always have Adriana. I was wrong. One night, when looking for funny Adriana GIFs, I stumbled across a spoiler that she would have an ending that one poster called “tragic.”
After weeks of anticipation, I reached “Long Term Parking,” a heart-in-throat episode that rightfully won de Matteo an Emmy. In it, Adriana, who had been speaking to the FBI for months but never giving them anything useful, finally confesses to her abusive husband-to-be the secret that’s been exacerbating her ulcerative colitis. Instead of hearing her out, Christopher tricks her and Tony orders Silvio to murder her in the woods. I sobbed. I took a break from the show, thinking I might not be able to see it through.
In 2017 de Matteo discussed the episode, and her character’s death: “You take the journey with her rather than just watch her go to the guillotine. I even cried,” she said. She called the death a huge risk because it showed the characters for who they were, what they were willing to take, even a character as beloved as Adriana. She was right — it was genius. But there was no coming back for the men in my eyes, and I watched the final season with gritted teeth, glad when it was over.
Am I glad I watched The Sopranos? Partly. It gave me a greater understanding of its impact on TV. I enjoyed the messy drama, the speedy banter laced with New Jersey slang, AJ’s collection of nu-metal T-shirts, Adriana’s character development, Melfi’s sly shading and humbling of Tony. It’s not boring, far from it, but it could also be painful and unsatisfying. The Sopranos has no redemption arcs. There is no real finale, just an agonizingly coy final scene that leaves Tony’s fate to the viewer. There are no answers, no small comforts, nothing that warms you or makes your hand feel held. That’s why The Sopranos is as good as they all say: It defies your expectations, smashing your long-held prejudices about narrative and character development with a big butcher’s mallet. It did not care about mine or Adriana’s many feelings. Part of me still hates the show for its brutality, but — turns out — a bigger part of me respects its genius.