By Shawn Van Valkenburgh
The past several years have witnessed a renewed interest in The Sopranos, the HBO series that inaugurated the era of prestige television. In September 2021, a New York Times headline announced that “Every Young Person” was watching the series. Although the show concluded in 2008, Warner Media reported that viewership has more than doubled since March 2019.
On one level this resurgence should not be surprising, considering the show’s skill in addressing broad-appeal themes like power, loyalty, violence, crime, and so on. Its central conceit is a delicious hook: Mob boss Tony Soprano seeks therapy from mild-mannered psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. And its writing is still considered the gold standard for prestige drama. In 2016 Rolling Stone declared it was the best TV show of all time, in part due to the richness and complexity of its characters. Esquire credits “The depth of its characters across the board,” while The New Yorker notes that its “characters arrive and take full human shape.” There is much for fans and critics to love about Sopranos characters, and that should be a good enough explanation for its second wind.
On another level, the Sopranos renaissance provokes further explanation. Why this series in particular—in competition similarly acclaimed dramas, like Mad Men for instance—and why now?
The New York Times attributes some of this renewed popularity to the “dirtbag left,” a brand of progressivism that embraces vulgarity online and openly disdains political centrism. While it is mostly populated by online slacktivists, the term “dirtbag left” is usually associated with snarky podcasts like Red Scare, Street Fight Radio, and above all, Chapo Trap House. An influx of Sopranos memes and references will be familiar to those who occupy some of Twitter’s niche comedy and political spaces.
The hosts of Chapo regularly deliver Sopranos references to their millions of listeners. In their book, Chapo praise The Sopranos with uncharacteristic sincerity, calling it “just as challenging and thought-provoking” as art from other media. But beyond the caliber of its writing, Chapo appreciate The Sopranos for its resonance with modern politics and social commentary. Co-host Felix Biederman praises its depiction of societal collapse, “not as a romantic, singular, aesthetically breathtaking act of destruction” but as a slow descent into barbarism: “you sit down for 18 hours a day, enjoy fewer things than you used to, and take on the worst qualities of your parents while you watch your kids take on the worst qualities of you.” This is the essence of NYT’s explanation for youthful interest in the show: The Sopranos expresses a pessimistic view of America that resonates with disappointed millennials.
But I’d like to point out another way in which The Sopranos resonates with current events and disaffected youths. It has to do with Melfi’s doomed attempt to rehabilitate Tony. The Chapo book finds political overtones in this relationship, as Melfi represents “the ultimate and final failure of educated, cosmopolitan liberals to meaningfully confront—let alone reform—evil.” In this reading, Tony represents the dark side of America in the 21st century. He is racist, violent, and misogynist. Although he appears to be a warm and loving father, he is willing to murder if doing so serves his financial interests. Dr. Melfi, meanwhile, presents a polite and ineffectual resistance to Tony’s violence. Though she struggles at times with the ethics of treating such a criminal, her only real impact on Tony is to provide him with a psychological language that he uses to manipulate others. Critic Emily Nussbaum observed that through his therapy, Tony “gained more sophisticated tools to cope with life. But he became a better mobster, not a better man.” For Chapo, Melfi’s impotence represents the political status quo, which seems unable to effectively confront social problems like war, climate change, and systemic racism.
Melfi ultimately decides that Tony is irredeemable after she reads The Criminal Personality, a real-life academic book that constructs a psychological archetype for criminological purposes. This book was published in the 1970’s, a time when social sciences were being used to justify a burgeoning war on drugs and the proliferation of prisons. Its central thesis tells us that criminals are irredeemable, and it seems to describe Tony perfectly. While he may show some signs of compassion — he seems to care about babies and animals — he only uses therapy to bludgeon those around him: “For the criminal, therapy is just another criminal operation.” After reading the book by lamplight in her bedroom, Melfi ends up agreeing with her ex-husband, who initially dismissed Tony as evil: “Call him a patient. Man’s a criminal, Jennifer. And after a while, finally, you’re going to get beyond psychotherapy, with its cheesy moral relativism, finally you’re going to get to good and evil. And he’s evil.” Shortly after coming to this realization, Melfi recommends that Tony seek therapy elsewhere.
I would suggest that this doctor-client relationship taps into common anxieties about the source of social problems in America. Are these crises caused by evil, or by well-meaning people who make mistakes? The former view lends itself to dismissal, punishment, and confinement — as the authors of The Criminal Personality might advocate — while the latter lends itself to some kind of empathy or understanding.
According to some dirtbag left discourse, attempts to find compassion for people who cause suffering end up rationalizing their harmful behavior, in the way that Tony’s therapy enables his criminal activities. Some would point out the dangers of trying to “understand” those who cause social harms, insofar as these well-meaning efforts might distract us from seemingly obvious solutions. (It is a moment of strange bedfellows, then, that the dirtbag left would end up resonating with a criminological theory that runs counter to progressive efforts to reform or abolish the prison system.) The source of evil in our society is something like a psychopath that can’t be reasoned with.
On these grounds, perhaps we can find some common ground between the popularity of The Sopranos and the success of Don’t Look Up, the surprise Netflix hit that delivers a coarse message about climate change. This film compares our ecological crisis to a meteor on a collision course with Earth, and suggests that much of our public discourse only serves to distract us from important issues. What was it about this film that made it the most successful Netflix film ever? Perhaps there is something about vulgar diagnosis that some millennials would find refreshing in a time when “nuance” can be used to equivocate and avoid meaningful action. If there is any common denominator between The Sopranos and Don’t Look Up, I think it indicates that millennials are sick of malarkey. Perhaps these cultural phenomena show that many view popular discourse as a cover for the simplicity of real-world solutions.
For all the nuance of Sopranos writing, then, what resonates most may be is its clear and direct theses about the criminal sources of social problems.
Shawn Van Valkenburgh is a research specialist with the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center's Media Impact Project.
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