To Live and Die in New Jersey: The Sopranos

This article originally appeared as part of the Kelly Writers House's "Writing about TV: Home" program

It was a dewy Northeastern Morning when I finished The Sopranos, riding the New Jersey transit and pulling into Newark-Penn station, passing those same iconic skylines that adorned the start of every episode. It’s a cliché to talk about “Jersey,” and I suppose by extension it’s taboo to mention how well the show encapsulates the environment in which I spent my formative years – but I’ll do so anyway.

When I first started watching the show with my parents, we both remarked how Tony’s mom Livy was a dead-ringer for my late great-grandmother, who spent her whole life in the bedroom behind the bar my family owned - that the production staff requested to shoot in, but in line with her ornery doppelganger on the show, my great-grandmother refused.

As I continued watching, the recognitions mounted: the high school I graduated from has a throwaway mention in season two, while season three recurrently visited the car dealership where my dad works (where he claims they shot a scene of Tony breaking a car window and never used it, but perhaps that was just a malignant hallucination of latent workplace stresses). It seemed at least once an episode I could pinpoint one of the “sets” as a place I’d grown up in, from the sterile industrial entrance to Willowbrook Mall to the pastel, smiling face of “Tillie” adorning the side of Palace Amusements down in Asbury Park. Along these lines, the show felt like a psychological map to the depreciated past of those same streets I once knew so well. And from the start, I saw shades of the people I knew in the characters I was getting to know. One of Tony’s first lines about how Christopher just bought a new car, but was too lazy to work for it, seemed particularly like something my father had remarked many times about his much younger co-workers or one of my cousins.

As the seasons went on and Tony’s empire gradually slipped through his fingers, as all things decayed and the show itself seemed to crawl to its fateful end by shedding the characters we’d come to know, I continued reading my life in the episodes; and I saw my father sounding like a broken record, aching on (melodramatic, as he usually is) about how he could croak any day. At the end of season 4’s “No show,” Carmela and Tony prepare for bed, discordantly facing opposite directions and following their routine on automatic. Carmela remarks on a fight they’d had with Meadow, “Listen to you now, what do you feel guilty? Don’t beat yourself up over it, it’s me she blames.” Tony replies with a hint of acid in his voice, staring out at the audience only through the mirror, “For what?” As the episode faded to credits, and the opening notes of Radiohead’s “Kid A” faintly entered in, I saw my parents there behind the screen. I saw my past, distant and hollow as actors in a show.

There’s a sense of fatalism to the workman diligence Tony applies to his way of life, the way he had to inflict and endure pain as the best path to provide for the ones he loved. His only hope, that his children would not follow him, likewise meant they would continue to grow distant. Fighting “all that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truce with malice in it…” Tony, like Ahab and his whale, both pursued and personified, “all the subtle demonisms of life and thought.”

Amidst all this, it was what we didn’t know, what we didn’t do, what could’ve been, all vanishing without our notice as we worked day in and day out - just the low anxious dread of workman living, which I relived watching the show retrace my high school years, follow my enrollment in some esteemed university, and subsequently forecast graduation and the transient future thereafter. What made The Sopranos great wasn’t the unexpected deaths, the indulgent, crimson Pollock spectacles that so many ensuing series also made their names on - deliberately surprising events by the chance actions of fictional characters - but rather the inevitable things, the things it couldn’t show: the lost moments, anti-climax, and abrupt cuts. That infamous final scene hits to the core of that existential dread. As Bobby Bacala contemplates in what’s perhaps his most famous line of the series, “you never see it coming.”      

Those fleeting times I returned to my hometown and drove those tiny streets with alien hands, vaguely remembering how to drive stick, I recalled how on the way to school the streets would back up three stoplights and you’d sit at a standstill for 15 minutes. Now at night the names faded, and the neighborhoods felt like abandoned soundstages. Those too ended, and with them the ephemeral dream that home was the enduring coordinate of a time and a place where we could be happy, when once I sat down with my family for a last bite at the diner.