Watching ‘The Sopranos’ is relaxing. Am I broken?
As ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ premieres, let’s examine why dark television is so satisfying.
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, having yet another existential crisis.
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, having yet another existential crisis. [ HBO ]
Published Oct. 1, 2021

As Tony Soprano knocked out a guy’s teeth for talking to his daughter, I clutched my warm mug of tea. The cinnamon steam wafted into my nose. So mellow, like a spa day!

It’s my second viewing of The Sopranos. This time, I’m picking off episodes while reading a companion guide called The Sopranos Sessions, which is voluminous enough to be a mob weapon. The show is a parade of murderous, misogynistic, bigoted characters who are somehow still, I don’t know, funsies. Watching them is the best part of my day.

The Sopranos is also an art piece, a time capsule of declining civilization and a prototype for antihero television. But this isn’t about why the show is good. With The Many Saints of Newark prequel movie out today, there are hundreds, nay, thousands, nay, millions of takes about the show’s legacy.

Michael Gandolfini, left, as Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in "The Many Saints of Newark."
Michael Gandolfini, left, as Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in "The Many Saints of Newark." [ COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES | TNS ]

I’m just wondering what’s wrong with me. I make my living trying to find humor and joy in life. I spend a lot of time writing jokes. I am generally pleasant!

Then, before bed, I unwind with: beheadings on Game of Thrones; meth-making on Breaking Bad; street killings on The Wire; demonic babies on American Horror Story; and functional alcoholism on Mare of Easttown.

Once a week, on Macabre Monday, my husband and I watch a horror movie. This week, we watched Saint Maud, a film about a devoutly religious woman who gets more and more extreme. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s brilliant. And absolutely horrific.

“Ready for bed?” I said during the credits.

“After THAT?” he said, and turned on The Office.

Yes, millions of people are still watching The Office during the eternal pandemic. Viewers also watched 30.5 billion minutes of Ozark, a show about a money-laundering dad, and 19 billion minutes of Lucifer, a show about, um, the Devil.

I called Dawn Cecil to diagnose my issues. The University of South Florida professor studies media representations of crime and justice, and teaches a class on crime media and pop culture. Her book Fear, Justice and Modern True Crime examines the rapid growth of true-crime TV and podcasts.

“What I do ruins what I watch sometimes,” she said.

Cecil watched The Sopranos when it came out, with no academic strings attached, marveling at how it twisted expectations for television. Later, she got into the Serial podcast and began breaking down human attraction to gritty stories.

I posited that they tap into our cultural anxieties and give us tools to grapple with them. They offer conflict, which we have in spades, and resolution, which we are sorely lacking.

There’s no single reason people flock to darkness, Cecil said. The complex storylines can stimulate our brains. They can be therapeutic for people who’ve lived through trauma. They can be purely escapist.

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“Like, my life is not so bad after all,” she said. “People have it so much worse.”

And maybe, Cecil has learned, we don’t have to work so hard to defend it. Maybe it’s okay to like what we like.

So if you’re with me, clear your calendar for that new cult docuseries. Listen to medical malpractice podcasts on the treadmill. Politely thank friends who recommend a sitcom, then ignore them. Keep on doing what moves you, like Tony Soprano staring at ducks in his swimming pool.

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