The Sopranos: A Show About Mental Illness?

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The Sopranos recently marked its 20th anniversary. For most of us growing up in the 1990s, the show was something cool to watch. Something to emulate, pretending to be tough guys from the neighborhood. Something that encompassed the idea of the “alpha male” in the 90’s. This is way before the internet and memes and social media became a thing. No, in the ’90s, TV was everything. And when I started re-watching the show after the 20th anniversary, I had an awakening.  I realized the actual premise of the show is something we missed completely while growing up with Comcast Customer Service

Tony Soprano: It’s Okay to Not Be Okay:

Picture this. A made man, a mafia boss, a guy who kills and exports for a living, sitting in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. This is the scene that sets the tone for the whole show. As Tony Soprano sits there, he stares suspiciously at a naked woman’s sculptor in the waiting room. No explanation ever graces the screen for this. And it’s never mentioned in the show after that. But it certainly let us know there’s a lot more to the mafia boss character than you’d think. A man as far removed from civilized society as possible is struggling to find a way to live in his world. A world of deceit, manipulation, lies, extortion, blackmail, and murder. Tony Soprano, the epitome of the Italian American alpha male, is a man struggling with mental illness.

The Sopranos Mob: Flawed, Imperfect Men:

One thing The Sopranos points out really well is this. Behind all the comfortable veneer of the Jersey mob, individuals are still deeply flawed and deeply troubled. The show actually started the idea of “difficult men”. Men who are neither villains nor heroes. Men we choose to love, hate, make excuses for and trust all at the same time. The Sopranos reinvented masculinity. It showed even the toughest of men can fall prey to mental illness. It showed that we may all be the sum of the flaws in our personality, but don’t have to be.

An Answer to Escapism:

Back in the ’90s, TV was the dream life. People though their own lives were lackluster compared to those on TV. You had charming, glamorous doctors running around saving lives. You had tough cops kicking butt and keeping crime in line. It was all an escapist scenario. People wanted to escape their own boring lives and live their favorite characters’ lives instead. When The Sopranos pilot first aired, people thought it was just more in the escapism assembly line. At first, it just seemed like the modern Godfather.

Wiseguys, hits, mob bosses, and dons. It had all the clichés. But it also had something more. But under all the dubious conduct and the high-roller life, Tony Soprano is not the alpha the world thinks he is. He is a frail man, fraught with insecurities, depression, and fear. The Sopranos brings out the frailty in the male psyche.

Setting Men Free: The Sopranos Style:

The Sopranos literally freedmen from the black-and-white traditional masculine values. Our parents had clear choices between Superman and Lex Luthor. They had easy choices between the good and the bad. The Sopranos was the evolution of television as we know it. Suddenly, the world was not black and white anymore. It presented an alpha male with all the feelings that have been traditionally associated with weakness. He had panic attacks and he fainted at dinner parties. But he also beat the living daylights out of people and rammed them with cars. For the first time in TV history, men were at a crossroads.

It showed that its okay to be complex or complicated. It put an end to the one-dimensional masculine ideals of the era. Instead, it paved the way for more complex characters, to show men that it’s okay to have different sides to your personality. You could be the toughest man on the planet and still come home and watch cartoons on your showtime channels on Xfinity. You could be one of the most powerful men in New Jersey, and still suffer from feelings of inadequacy or insecurity. The Sopranos deserves more credit than it gets for the evolution of entertainment. Toxic masculinity is gradually becoming a thing of the past, as times change. The Sopranos, at the end of the day, is not the mafia/crime show we remember. It was a show about fear, insecurity, mental illness, family and toxic masculinity. And in my humble opinion, no show has ever come close since.

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