Still no f–king ziti: Why The Sopranos keeps feeling relevant after 25 years

Still no f–king ziti: Why The Sopranos keeps feeling relevant after 25 years

HBO’s hit mob show has had a second moment in recent years. Why?
A lot of television shows premiered in 1999. Some of them are considered classics of the medium, like The West Wing and — I would argue — SpongeBob Squarepants. Others have become cult hits in the years since, like Futurama and Freaks & Geeks. Some of them, like Family Guy and Law & Order: SVU, are still on.

But it would be tough to argue that, at this moment, any of those shows — with the possible exception of SpongeBob — have had the same sort of long lasting cultural impact as The Sopranos. And for sure, part of the reason it feels like we’re in a Soprano-ssaince is because HBO has gone full court press on promoting the show’s quarter century mark — the show debuted 25 years ago last month — but also, the reverse is almost certainly true. HBO went hard in the paint for the show’s 25th anniversary because it’s having a second moment. After all, HBO didn’t have food pop-ups to celebrate Oz’s 25th anniversary, which was in 2022. (What would that have even looked/tasted like?) It didn’t release five hours of previously unaired scenes from Arliss when that show turned 25 in 2021. Bob Odenkirk didn’t go on Seth Meyers to talk about the 25th anniversary of Mr. Show in 2020. (Which in retrospect, seems like a shame. I think we all could have used a solid dose of Mr. Show in the fall of 2020.)
But then, those shows don’t have a listicle’s worth of podcasts about them, or a seemingly endless number of Instagram meme accounts. Young women on TikTok aren’t using Sandra Oh’s character in Arliss as fashion inspo. (Although, to be clear, they could: Rita Wu got some fits off.)

So why does The Sopranos continue to have such a hold on pop culture? It turns out that there are probably a lot of reasons.

The first and most obvious answer is nostalgia. Vik Singh, host of Sopranos rewatch podcast Poda Bing, points out that Millennials — the generation who were by-and-large teenagers during the show’s initial run — are in their peak earning years.

“When you’re at your peak earning power, you spend money on nostalgia,” he says, and adds that, for those who were too young to watch the show the first time around, part of the appeal may be looking back to a simpler time.

“The world is kind of a weird place,” he says. “Things kind of suck right now — we have inflation, the election, multiple wars. What have we, as humans, historically done when things are bad? We look back at the past.”

Adam Brockman did a Master’s thesis on The Sopranos’ impact on our cultural understanding of mental illness while at Illinois State University in 2020. He says that, more specifically, The Sopranos reflects a portrait of an America that people his age — he’s 29 — have never known: an era of middle class prosperity and political stability.
“Pre 9/11 things were relatively stable,” he says. “Economically, politically [there was] not nearly as much turmoil as [what] was about to come. A big part of the premise of The Sopranos is characters whose lives are pretty good, living in this relatively stable era.”
He adds that Tony Soprano’s mental health crisis comes, in part, from a sort of ennui that feels like a bit of a luxury good in 2024.

“They have money, they have families, life is good,” he says. “Yet they’re depressed … [by] the slog of everyday life: just trying to go into your kid’s PTA appointments and paying bills and everyday things that aren’t traumatic, but are dull and you have to kind of live through.”

He adds that for younger audiences, the show may also be an interesting time capsule in terms of its social attitudes, as well. Aside from his justified fear of racketeering charges, Tony Soprano is deeply worried that if other people in his life find out he’s seeing a psychiatrist, it will diminish his status in their eyes.

“The entire premise is about a guy going to therapy and not wanting other people to know,” he says. “The conversation around mental health and around treatment is very different, and a lot more nuanced now. I think a lot of people are interested in shows that cover that type of material, and a show that is 25 years old —a lot of people are interested to see ‘How has this held up?'”

All that makes sense, but it doesn’t totally explain why The Sopranos is having a comeback while, say, The West Wing — a show where late ’90s stability and prosperity is even more deeply embedded — isn’t.
And that may be where memeability comes in. The show really lends itself to memes. Indeed, Singh says that Sopranos meme culture was part of what inspired his podcast. Despite being a very serious drama about crime, mental illness and familial dysfunction, The Sopranos is funny. The writing is sharp and filled with punchy one-liners. The characters are big and over the top. It feels, in some ways, like it was made to be memed.

“The characters were all so unique and well written and well thought out,” he says. “Tony, Junior, Silvio, Paulie, whoever, they’re all kind of their own mascots.”

Indeed, it seems like there’s a relevant, memeable Sopranos moment for just about any topic.

“When you take a current political or pop cultural issue, and then you hit it with The Sopranos, it’s like the perfect bowl of ice cream,” he says. “You can trade the memes, they’re like baseball cards, and they help keep the show alive.”

“Mob Wife Aesthetic” is another type of Sopranos meme. The TikTok-driven fashion trend — loosely defined as fur, animal print, big jewelry and square French tip manicures — that blew up this winter, openly takes inspiration from the women of The Sopranos. Characters like Carmella Soprano and Adriana La Cerva had a look that stuck out at the time, and sticks out even more now. Megan Ann Wilson is a Canadian-born, New York-based fashion stylist, and self-described “Adriana La Cerva head.” She says that in her opinion, the trend is less about organized crime adjacentness and more about women looking to the past for big, bold, aggressive style as a reaction to years of beige blandness and clean minimalism.
“Fashion is like a pendulum,” she says. “For so long it was all ‘Clean Girl’ and minimalism, and I think people are just bored with being so minimal … During the pandemic, everyone was home. Now we’re going out, and people are like ‘If I’m gonna be outside, I might as well have a full look. I might as well have fun.'”

She adds that there’s probably also a mix of nostalgia and aspiration in the Mob Wife Aesthetic.
“I think there is this idea like, ‘if I dress like an era that was a financial boom, I’ll have a financial boom,’ because there’s always this obsession with manifestation,” she says. “We’re in a time of crazy inflation and this kind of recession-but-not-a-recession, and I think in the younger generation there’s a wistfulness for something they never had … even if I’m broke, I want to feel rich.”

Aaron Toscano is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has written about The Sopranos. He says that another reason for the show’s enduring appeal is that it was a game charger. He says you can fairly easily divide television into pre-and-post Sopranos eras. It was arguably the first example of what would become known as prestige television. Because of that it’s become the bar against which all similar shows are measured.

“It was such a critically acclaimed show, that now when you [write] anything on prestige television, you have to go back to it,” he says.
Brockman adds that it was one of the first shows that had characters that we were fascinated with, even though we didn’t necessarily like them.

“Shows like Succession and Barry are about characters that are not necessarily that good, they’re about people that we don’t really like, but we also really want to understand them and learn more about them,” he says. “We find them interesting.”

But more than any of this, the thing that may be the biggest key to the show’s longevity, is the fact that — even though it’s about mobsters — it’s weirdly relatable. Toscano points out that for most of the series, Tony is fundamentally “a middle manager in a very tenuous position,” something that tens of millions of people around the world can relate to.
Singh adds that every time he rewatches the show, he sees the characters through different eyes, and relates to them differently.

“I’m a father now,” he says. “When I first came to the show I was a young man, and then I came back to the show when I first got married, and now I’m coming back to it again … and there’s elements and aspects of Tony anyone will find themselves experiencing in their everyday lives. There’s a little bit of Tony Soprano in all of us.”
Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he’s had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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