‘The Sopranos’ Is the Id of New Jersey

‘The Sopranos’ Is the Id of New Jersey

‘The Sopranos’ Is the Id of New Jersey

How the Garden State’s surreal political culture made its most famous television show.

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How could the Giants name
that place the Meadowlands? It has
about as much in common with a pasture
as would the inside of an oven.
—Louise Glück

David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, grew up in New Jersey, in an apartment in the city of Clifton and a house in suburban North Caldwell, where he would tromp through the woods carrying muskrat traps and a .22 rifle with the firing pin removed. In college, he read Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper and began to see New Jersey as a “lost paradise,” a landscape within the American pastoral tradition. In 1997, when he shot the Sopranos pilot, Chase thought of the Meadowlands: a windswept swath of beige reeds and asphodel and landfills outside New York City, home to 200 bird species and a creek with the highest concentration of mercury in the country. I saw a heron there once, standing regal next to a bald, bloated tire in a greenish pool.

“Part of that was just the desire to do something different than any typical downtown New York gangster movie,” Chase tells television critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall in The Sopranos Sessions, an omnibus of recaps and interviews published to mark the show’s 20th anniversary. “Put it out there, with the trees and wind and all that stuff, in New Jersey.”

The Sopranos is, among other things, an unapologetically Jersey show. Its writers lifted plotlines from the pages of The Star-Ledger—bear sightings, gay mobsters, the release of a cadre of mafiosos locked up in the 1980s. Several of its stars were local, amateur actors, and scenes set at aspirational Maine liberal arts colleges were filmed on the campus of Drew University, 15 miles west of Newark. (A significant death scene was shot in the Morris Plains strip mall where I bought clubwear as a teen.) The boundary between the world of the show and the lives of its actors proved unusually fine; when Edie Falco first read for Carmela Soprano, she felt a sense of familiarity. “I know this woman,” Falco said. “I could play her in my sleep.”

The show has been praised for transcending its antecedents; from the Mafia drama—a genre so barnacled in trope that steering it into new territory seemed unmanageable—came a tale of the rot at the heart of the American Dream and the pathos of middle-class precarity. But series’s achievements owe some credit to an adjacent, lesser-known entry in the American cultural repertoire: the grimy, hilarious, fatalistic strain of postmodernism endemic to New Jersey. New Jersey postmodernism as a state of mind predates The Sopranos, but the show is its heir and its best champion. Understanding it helps plumb the depths of the nation’s twisted id in an age of decline.

Everything in the known universe you can find in New Jersey,” a Sopranos location scout told writer Brett Martin for his book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. And it’s true that the state has both diverse flora and a deep-seated drive to define itself by pointing to other, more famous places in its built environment; the state’s zeal for pastiche, reference, and kitsch is rivaled only by Los Angeles. Along with Tudor-style condo complexes and Spanish Revival split-levels, New Jersey boasts at least half a dozen historical theme parks, including Wild West City, infamous for an incident in which a cowboy reenactor shot his partner with a real bullet at the climax of a skit. In the show, Garden State pastiche appears in the broad, surreal strokes of Italy in the Soprano house’s blond stone, rococo chandeliers, and Corinthian TV plinths; but also of the anachronism of 12th-century France in the fake Romanesque mansion owned by AJ Soprano’s girlfriend’s family, and of blueblood Nantucket in the white clapboard house Tony nearly buys down the shore. “Kind of remind you of the Kennedy compound, don’t it?” he brags to Carmela on the porch.

In an essay published in The Nation in 2001, Ellen Willis describes the series as “a kind of postmodern Middlemarch, whose inhabitants’ moral and spiritual development (or devolution) unfolds within and against the norms of a parochial social milieu.” But, she adds, the setting itself is in flux; Bush-era New Jersey is no quaint Midlands hamlet. “This era being what it is…the Sopranos’ milieu has porous boundaries, and the norms that govern it are a moving target.”

When Chase pitched the series to HBO, he described New Jersey as a character in its own right, and perhaps this is what he meant: that Tony Soprano’s abortive pursuit of self-knowledge occurs in a place that is also striving and failing—in big, loud, morbidly funny ways—to know itself. In the series’ final episode, Tony Soprano and his sister Janice sit on the back porch of her home staring out at black, desiccated trees and the featureless backs of McMansions. “Five, six years ago, when Johnny Sack bought this house, this was all cornfields,” Tony laments. But the mansion was there, too, and building the first house on farmland is barely different from building the tenth. The feeling of living in a wasted paradise—the sense that, as Tony says in the first episode, “the best is over”—hangs over the show, with no one daring to ask on whose behalf, precisely, it has been wasted.

In a sense, the Mafia of The Sopranos is essentially a middle-class enclave homicidally frustrated by the illusory quality of the American Dream. Fredric Jameson describes the mobster genre as “not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself,” in that the mafia and capitalism both conscript society into a secretive, esoteric hierarchy, developed not for liberty or the well-being of its members but purely for the accumulation of profit at the top. New Jersey adds a postmodern twist: This history of capitalism and power isn’t confined to academia, but is broadly mainstream—and, when stories of wrongdoing surface, plenty of New Jerseyans will argue that mobsters, scammers, and corrupt politicians occupy a reactive and relatively minor position within a system rigged against them.

In the show’s second season, for example, Tony defends the Mafia with an almost Marxist account of his origins: “When America opened the floodgates and let all us Italians in, what do you think they were doing it for? Because they were trying to save us from poverty?” he rants to Jennifer Melfi, his therapist. “No. They did it because they needed us. They needed us to build their cities and dig their subways, and to make them richer…. And those other fucks, the J. P. Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was the business, right? The American Way.” When Dr. Melfi points out the incongruence—“That might all be true, but what do poor Italian immigrants have to do with you?”—Tony fumes that she’s acting like “Betsy fucking Ross.”

Tony Soprano uses historical metanarrative to exculpate himself; New Jerseyans use The Sopranos. A few months ago, I found a brief, unattributed op-ed from 2001 in The Record of Hackensack that credits the series with producing real-world malfeasance. Two New Jersey politicians—acting governor Donald DiFrancesco and senator Robert Torricelli—had recently been implicated in corruption, ending a short idyll in which the state seemed to be shedding its reputation for cronyism and grift, and the writer laments: “Maybe it all started with The Sopranos.

“A few months ago, most people in New Jersey did not know who Donald DiFrancesco was,” they continue. “Now you can pick up a newspaper in Kansas City and read about him on the front page.” The show’s popularity, the writer implies, not only heightens interest in New Jersey corruption; it actually calls it into existence. “[The Sopranos] glamorizes everything we’d felt inferior about for decades,” they write. “And we don’t have to pretend anymore that we have moved on. Now we can revel in our corruption.”

While The Sopranos isn’t literally responsible for corruption, it does reflect that legends about the state’s criminality and the specific shape New Jerseyans choose for their foibles tend to travel close together, often to the point where self-awareness offers a more plausible explanation than naïveté. David Chase and Terence Winter, a writer on the show, love to tell the story of a North Jersey politician named James Treffinger who, critical of the show’s depiction of Italian Americans, blocked The Sopranos from shooting its “Pine Barrens” episode in Essex County—he went to prison three years later for a corruption scheme that was well underway when the episode shot. Winter described it as “the greatest punch line ever.”

This knack for intertextual crimes—part of what Ellen Willis would call “the Sopranos’ milieu”—gave the show its relevance in an age of precarity masked by nationalistic bluster. Its characters wield moral relativity like a baseball bat. They understand ways in which narratives can produce reality and, in turn, be produced by it, until the distinctions between the two become impossibly fine: a reality studded with bits of unmingled fiction and fiction studded with bits of reality. The show is littered with Godfather references, like pompadoured Silvio Dante performing, again and again, his glowering, oily Don Corleone. In the first episode, when Pussy Bonpensiero and Christopher Moltisanti argue over the disposal of a corpse, Chris snarls a Godfather misquote: “Louis Bratsi sleeps with the fishes.” Exasperated, Pussy corrects him. “Luca Brasi! Luca.”

Iknow a lot of people said the show was about how people never change, but that was never the intention,” David Chase says in The Sopranos Sessions. “To me, people do change, but it’s a long process.” In their recap of the episode “A Sentimental Education,” Seitz and Sepinwall go further: “[Characters] try to alter either themselves or their contexts, but usually the world around them not only has no interest in this transformation, but actively conspires against it.” The pall of doom darkens as the series progresses, not because something novel and cataclysmic is coming, but because maintaining stability within the life Tony Soprano has chosen takes a heavy toll. “On some level, they all want out and they can’t get out. Even Tony…. He can’t get out of this life he’s in,” Matt Stoller observes.

In The Sopranos’s first episode, during a therapy session, Dr. Melfi asks Tony if he has any qualms about how he makes a living. Tony evades by comparing himself to Pagliaccio, the sad clown from the opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo: He tells her he is “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” There’s a shade of uncertainty in his voice, like he’s trying on the clown’s ruff and pom-pom smock for the first time, not sure that they will fit. But it’s an apt metaphor considering that, in Pagliacci, the boundary between the clown and the actor who plays him becomes so blurred that the opera’s play-within-a-play culminates in a fatal onstage brawl. Tony may playact the fool, but on some level, he understands the stakes.

The characters of The Sopranos, Tony chief among them, harbor a deep affinity for tough-guy tropes—from the first episode, we understand that no one joins the Mafia in the late 1990s for the money; a consultant on the show estimated Tony’s net worth at $1.5 million, far south of Don Corleone’s “bigger than U.S. Steel” empire—but the desire to play the role well compels them to ghastly acts of violence. As the series progresses, the relationship between Tony Soprano and the myths that scaffold his life reveals itself to be instrumental rather than reciprocal: The myths are realized, they become fate, and then there’s no way to escape them. The parts of Tony Soprano not useful to his performance as a mob boss are pared away; then, he’s discarded.

This year, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie released the comprehensively titled memoir Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics. For a while, Christie seemed like the id of New Jersey made flesh: its bullying, protective big brother. My New Jersey friends swapped stories about him like trading cards. They all shared a certain zest, a toothsome, hilarious insolence. Christie refusing to reimburse the state for taking a police helicopter to his son’s baseball game, then relenting while pointedly not apologizing for the episode. Christie insouciant and trespassing on the beach. Christie, in a popular Vine, batting away off-topic questions with the brutal grace of a boxer. Watching him politick was like watching Frank Sinatra sing “My Way”: It had been done before and will be done again, but he did it with rare verve.

When James Gandolfini died of a heart attack in 2013, Christie ordered flags flown at half-staff across the Garden State to honor him. Christie called Gandolfini a “true Jersey guy,” and added: “I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically.” Noting authenticity, of course, is a kind of self-expression, and Christie must have seen the similarities; perhaps he even saw himself as Tony Soprano’s law-abiding doppelgänger, his post-recession twin. Maybe Tony did pave the way for Chris. “Without Mr. Gandolfini’s six-season tour de force as Tony Soprano,” Lee Siegel argued in The New York Times in 2013, “I don’t think the state would have been ready for big, blustery Chris Christie.” In The Sopranos Sessions, Chase muses that “there’s something sad about Jim, a big guy with those eyes.” There was something sad about Chris Christie, too; something about his eyes.

Christie’s eyes are what I remember—what most people remember—from a March 2016 press conference called by Donald Trump following a series of Super Tuesday primary wins. While Trump speaks, Christie stands behind him, wearing an expression of feral disquiet. His eyes dart like a bear cornered in a mall parking lot. It was suddenly clear, watching that video, that both Christie the character and Christie the person had always been the type to fold to Donald Trump. “From a stylistic perspective,” Christie writes in his memoir, “[Trump] was everything I was—but on jet fuel. He was brash. He was direct. He was in-your-face…. I was getting strong reviews from the pundits. Yet he was still dominating.”

Lines like this describe how a trope can come to drive history: Not that Tony is Christie and Christie is Trump, but the tristate area font of tough-talking, insecure machismo from which they all draw has more and less dangerous manifestations, and the damage wreaked by the more dangerous manifestations is virtually limitless. Sometimes, Chase tells us, we are fatally misguided in our choices of what character to embody; sometimes, due to circumstance, we don’t have many options beyond choosing how to play it. “[A] hundred years from now, when we’re dead and gone, people will be watching this fucking thing,” Tony tells Christopher at the premiere of Christopher’s Mafia slasher film, Cleaver. Chase himself strikes a different note—and, I think, a false one. “The show’s gonna be forgotten, like everything,” he tells Zoller and Seitz. “It’s not gonna have a legacy.”

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