What Young People's Embrace of "The Sopranos" Says about a Changing CultureBreaking News
tags: organized crime, popular culture, cultural history, television, Sopranos
In August, Michael Imperioli and his band, Zopa, played a show at the Mercury Lounge in Lower Manhattan. It was a Saturday night, and the concert was sold out. Looking over the crowd, Imperioli — the actor best known for playing Christopher Moltisanti on “The Sopranos” — saw a sea of youngish Sopranos fans. Some were even dressed up like Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana La Cerva, who favored form-fitting cheetah and tiger prints. “I don’t know what they were expecting,” Imperioli told me later. The concert had nothing to do with “The Sopranos”; it was a benefit for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a trans rights organization.
Imperioli, like just about everyone with a significant role on “The Sopranos,” had his life completely upended by it. When he took the job, he was a successful character actor — he played Spider in “Goodfellas,” the gofer kid Joe Pesci’s character kills for no good reason — and was in the process of writing the screenplay for “Summer of Sam,” which he went on to make with Spike Lee. But then “The Sopranos” happened, and for the next decade he portrayed Christopher, the troubled, moody and impatient heir apparent to Tony Soprano’s crime family.
Imperioli’s post-“Sopranos” career has been a successful one, but he has never fully escaped the show’s gravity. In the years after its finale, he would still travel around with a handful of cast members to do spots at casinos: James Gandolfini (Tony), Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante). “We’d go to, like, Vegas,” he said. “We’d go to Atlantic City, we’d go to Foxwoods,” and on down to “Tahoe and Reno,” stuff like that. They’d be the entertainment for the night, telling stories from behind the scenes of the legendary show. These were “high roller events” and “very Rat Pack” — and fun, he says. “ ‘The Sopranos’ was a perfect casino draw.”
“We always had our audience that grew up with us,” Imperioli said. “They watched it when it first aired. They had, you know, pasta and pizza parties on Sunday night, and they grew older with us.” The die-hards within this group were the sorts of guys you might have met at the Silver Legacy in Reno: guys who love mob movies and think mobsters are cool, guys who know the manager at the casino. But then something changed. Around 2019, Imperioli joined Instagram and discovered “all these fan sites and meme sites” dedicated to the show, and all these young people who’d made their avatar image a picture of Christopher in a neck brace. He also noticed that people in their 20s and 30s were coming up to him asking for selfies. Just over that last week in August, he told me, he saw three people with “Sopranos” tattoos.
It was also around this time that Imperioli and Schirripa started to be approached by podcast producers, who told them they could take their stage show and bring it to the masses. This became “Talking Sopranos,” which debuted in April 2020. America was in lockdown, and watching (or rewatching) “The Sopranos” had found a spot in the pantheon of loafing-class activities, alongside breadmaking, jogging and scolding strangers online. According to HBO, the show has had its overall streaming hours triple during the pandemic. And “Talking Sopranos,” which lives up to its humble promise — Imperioli and Schirripa rewatch and discuss each episode, often with guests from the cast and crew and usually for more than two hours — became a genuine hit. A book based on the podcast will be published in November. Hollywood also seems to be banking on resurgent interest in the show. This week, David Chase unveiled the first new addition to the show’s story since it went off the air in 2007, a prequel film called “The Many Saints of Newark.”
One oddity that can’t be ignored in this “Sopranos” resurgence is that, somewhat atypically for a TV fandom, there is an openly left-wing subcurrent within it — less “I feel so seen by this” lefty than “intricate knowledge of different factions within the Philadelphia D.S.A.” lefty. This is especially true on Twitter, where just about everything takes on a political valence. But it goes beyond that: There’s a Socialist “Sopranos” Memes account on Facebook with 22,000 followers, run by a Twitter user called @gabagoolmarx. There’s a podcast called “Gabagool & Roses,” “the ONLY leftist ‘Sopranos’ podcast,” a presumably ironic claim, because there’s also the much more popular “Pod Yourself a Gun,” which frequently brings in guests from the expanded Brooklyn leftist podcast scene. The queens of downtown leftish podcasting, at “Red Scare,” sell “Sopranos”-inspired merch; the “Irina Thong” ($21) and “Capo Tee” ($30) both have the podcast’s name styled just like the Bada Bing’s logo. The “leftist ‘Sopranos’ fan” is now such a well-known type that it is rounding the corner to being an object of scorn and mockery online.
And perhaps Chase did slam the door on his viewers at the time. But back then, they were the fortunate 28 million Americans who had HBO subscriptions and, possibly, TiVo. They were the same self-regarding upper middle class that the Soprano family aspired to join, and who let them in at arm’s length for their own amusement — people like Dr. Melfi’s therapist, Elliot Kupferberg; or the Cusamanos, who lived next door. These characters were audience surrogates, and Chase plainly held them in contempt. But new viewers don’t identify with those characters; instead, they see in them their parents, whose HBO login they stole, or the rich friend’s parents whose login they stole, or just some yuppie Boomer nitwits. Younger viewers do not have to fear Chase’s wrath, because they are not so obviously its object. They are also able to watch the show for hours on end, which makes the subtext and themes more apparent. Perhaps all of this has offered clarity that was not possible when the show aired. Perhaps it is easier now to see exactly who — or what — Chase was angry at.
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