The Sopranos has been praised by many critics as the most groundbreaking television series of all time. It has won countless awards and has been singled out for the writing, acting and directing. The series is noted for its content, music, cinematography and its ability to deal with controversial subjects including crime, gender roles, mental illness and Italian-American culture. The show has also been frequently criticized for perpetuating negatives stereotypes about Italian Americans. It ran for six seasons from 1999 to 2007.
The show centers on the life of Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini (1961 – 2013), an Italian-American mobster as he attempts to balance his family life with that of being a mafia leader. These are explored during therapy sessions with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. At times Tony seems to be a giant bear of a man prone to violence; at other times he seems small and vulnerable, as he is also prone to panic attacks and bouts of depression. Dr. Melfi often clashes with Tony but she is rational and humane, in contrast to Tony’s personality. A serial womanizer, Tony divulges his sexual attraction to her; Dr. Melfi, on the other hand, is more attracted to Tony’s power and danger and to the challenge of treating such an unusual patient.
Like the characters they portray, many of the actors on The Sopranos are Italian-American. The series shares 27 actors with the 1990 Martin Scorsese gangster film, Goodfellas, including Bracco, Michael Imperioli, and Tony Sirico. In fact, some of the episodes of the series were based on the real life of Tony Sirico who, when he was young, joined a gang and ended up being arrested 28 times for weapons possession, robbery and other crimes. He agreed to play the role of Paulie Walnuts in the series as long as the character wasn’t a “rat.”
The series was created by David Chase, who credits American playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams for influence on the show’s writing and film director Federico Fellini as an important influence on the show’s cinematic style. Chase was fascinated by organized crime and the mafia from an early age. The Sopranos was inspired in part by the DeCavalcante family and the Boiardo family, two New Jersey organized crime families. In fact, most of the exterior scenes for the series were filmed in New Jersey. At the outset, Tony Soprano drives through the Lincoln Tunnel and onto the New Jersey turnpike before he pulls into the driveway of his suburban home. The sequence is designed to show that this particular mafia show is set in New Jersey, as opposed to New York, where most previous mafia dramas had been set.
It is the final episode that sparked one of the most controversial finales in television history. Tony is in a diner waiting for his wife Carmela and his daughter Meadow. A man at the counter notices Tony and then goes to the restroom. The tension mounts. The diner door opens with a bell ringing. Tony looks up, and the screen cuts to black. After a few seconds, the credits roll in silence. Some viewers thought that they had experienced a cable outage. The question of whether Tony was murdered has continued for years and has spawned websites devoted to finding out Chases’ true intention.