Book Excerpt: Sopranos Psychology

In his new book, The Psychology of the Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire and Betrayal in America's Favorite Gangster Family, Glen Gabbard draws on his experiences as a psychoanalyst, and his Sopranos trivia knowledge, to explore how the show dramatically showcases the psychological conflicts that all humans face.

In the first chapter, Gabbard looks at how the character of Dr. Jennifer Melfi interacts with her patient Tony Soprano, while making comparisons to films that used psychoanalysts to offer a different view of a character. Read the excerpt below.

Chapter One: Bada Being and Nothingness

The door to a psychiatrist's office opens into the waiting room. A 40-something female psychiatrist hobbles out on crutches, and the young female patient looks at the cast on her leg with concern. She follows her doctor into the office and sits across from her. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, the patient asks her therapist,"Should you really be here?"

The psychiatrist responds, "I feel better when I'm working." The patient pauses for a moment and asks, "You mean, like Dr. Melfi?"

This real-life account of a therapy session reflects how David Chase's spectacularly successful Home Box Office (HBO) series, The Sopranos, has entered into our collective consciousness. Here the patient is referring to Dr. Jennifer Melfi's rapid return to her consulting room after being raped in a parking garage. In another therapy session, a thousand miles away from the first, a female analyst is upbraided by her patient for walking down an isolated stairwell to a parking garage. Her angry patient shouts at her, "That's where Dr. Melfi was raped!"

The Sopranos has received unprecedented praise from media critics. Writing in the Nation, Ellen Willis referred to it as "the richest and most compelling piece of television — no, of popular culture — that I've encountered in the past twenty years." Television critic Nancy Franklin notes, "There has certainly never been anything like it on TV, and on network TV there never could be anything like it — it goes out on a limb that doesn't even exist at the networks." In its third season the show received the highest ratings in HBO's history for a nonsporting event. Perhaps most telling, in 2001, huge numbers of Academy Awards watchers switched over in the middle of the annual event to get their weekly Sunday evening fix of The Sopranos.

Indeed, in towns and cities all over the United States and Europe, there is a "Sopranos effect" on the evening of a new episode. Retail establishments are suddenly deserted. Restaurant patrons make a hasty exit. Social invitations are declined. Answering machines pick up phone calls so not a single word of dialogue is missed.

The human condition involves psychological conflict, the inevitability of strife in intimate relationships, existential loneliness and crises of meaning. These psychological struggles are writ larger than life each week on The Sopranos, and we are drawn to the show because of them. In this book, I explore human psychology as it unfolds in The Sopranos, not only in the context of psychotherapy but in the characters' relationships, behavior and dreams that occur outside the consulting room. The series' writers, clearly serious students of human behavior, have done what Hamlet recommended to a troupe of traveling players visiting Elsinore. They have held a mirror up to nature-human nature, that is, and 11 million viewers can't take their eyes off the reflection.

Psychotherapists have shown a particular interest in The Sopranos. Many of them hooked up to cable or subscribed to HBO solely to see Jennifer Melfi's latest session with mobster Tony Soprano. And the next day over coffee or in the elevator, they critique Melfi's therapeutic strategies, chortle over Tony's malapropisms (Hannibal "Lecture" is one of my favorites), argue vehemently about whether or not Tony is treatable, express their growing distress about Dr. Melfi's crossing her legs when she wears a short skirt; and they debate Tony's diagnosis and micromanage Melfi's medication choices. These informal discussions were formalized in the third season when three other psychoanalysts and I began discussing each episode on the slate.com TV Club. The Slate discussion became popular beyond the wildest expectations of its editors, with hundreds of thousands of readers regularly following our dialogue.

To be sure, we therapists had been waiting a long, long time for a depiction of psychotherapy in the media that even approximates the complexity of real life we see in our offices. From Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium (1906) to Hannibal (2001), we have endured cinematic depictions of therapists that range from the buffoonish to the malevolent with very rare exceptions that approach what a therapist might actually do in practice. We've watched Peter Sellers attempt to seduce his women patients during group therapy in What's New, Pussycat? (1965). We've munched popcorn in darkened theaters while Woody Allen's other protagonists grow increasingly disillusioned with the therapeutic inaction of psychoanalysis. We've chuckled as Richard Dreyfuss unravels to the point of attempting to kill his patient (Bill Murray) in What About Bob? (1991). We've marveled as one beautiful female therapist after another succumbs to the charms of handsome male patients in movies like Spellbound (1945), Knock on Wood (1954), Sex and the Single Girl (1963), The Man Who Loved Women (1983) and Prince of Tides (1991). And, of course, our culinary preferences have been challenged by watching Hannibal Lecter sauté Ray Liotta's brains while making light conversation in the kitchen (although I think poor Hannibal is regarded with excessive harshness by my colleagues, especially since the American Psychiatric Association ethics code does not strictly forbid eating one's patients).

Television psychotherapists have not fared much better. They appear to be far more disturbed than their patients and seldom helpful to those who seek them out. I am aware that Frasier has been lavished with Emmy Awards and that Sidney Freedman helped Hawkeye work through a devastating trauma on M*A*S*H, but for the most part therapists on TV would not lead the average viewer to check the yellow pages for the nearest mental health clinic.

After a disconcerting history of more than four hundred American films featuring outrageous portrayals of mental health professionals at work, we psychotherapists have finally found a therapy process we can take seriously. Not only is the therapy an arguably accurate version of what actually happens in our consulting rooms, but the writers are blessed with an extraordinary psychological sophistication. The themes in Tony's life represented in the therapy are so complicated and compelling that they inspire collegial debate in the hallways of office buildings and at cocktail parties. Lorraine Bracco, who plays Dr. Melfi, and four of the show's five writers have been in psychotherapy themselves, and their experiences give the treatment an "inside" perspective that provides a ring of truth to the sessions between Tony and Dr. Melfi.

Not all mental health professionals are thrilled with the series or with the psychotherapy portrayed. The disagreements have prompted heated exchanges. In Psychiatric News, the official newspaper of the American Psychiatric Association, a reader asserted that he would flunk Dr. Melfi if he were examining her for the board certification exam because she colludes with her patient's antisocial behavior instead of confronting him about it. Another psychiatrist responded with an impassioned defense of Dr. Melfi: "I would dare say that The Sopranos has done more to destigmatize mental illness (through educating the public about such clinical diagnoses as panic disorder and antisocial and borderline personality disorders), reveal to the American public what goes on behind the closed doors of the therapist's office, and help define what a psychiatrist is than any public relations initiative ever promulgated by our own professional guild organization." He goes on to suggest that the American Psychiatric Association should honor the producers and writers. In fact, in December 2001, the American Psychoanalytic Association did present the producers and writers with an award for "the artistic depiction of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy." Lorraine Bracco received an award at the same event for creating "the most credible psychoanalyst ever to appear in the cinema or on television."

Other colleagues criticize Dr. Melfi for telling Tony that if he reveals an intent to harm others, she will have to report him to the authorities. In their view, she has thus encouraged him to violate the fundamental rule of psychoanalytic therapy, which is to say whatever comes to mind without censoring. Still others have felt that Dr. Melfi is stiff and stilted in her style, heavy-handed, prone to speak in jargon and inclined toward lengthy psychoeducational monologues.

Because psychotherapists rarely see each other work with patients, however, there is no firm consensus about what constitutes a good session with a particular person. Hence, they may have dramatically different opinions on depictions of psychotherapy in a television series. One reason, though, that the psychotherapy in The Sopranos is so fascinating is that the writers make no attempt to idealize Dr. Melfi as an oracular source of truth. They have wisely chosen to show her as a professional and competent practitioner who is nevertheless troubled with conflicts of her own and with specific countertransference reactions to Tony. Countertransference — the therapist's emotional reactions to the patient — is an expectable part of any therapy process and a tool to help understand the therapeutic interaction. Dr. Melfi's mistakes and her own emotional struggles with Tony lend further credibility to the series and are especially engaging to viewers on both sides of the couch.

The Sopranos also departs from the positive cinematic depiction of psychotherapists. In a brief golden age of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in the cinema between 1957 and 1963, idealized portrayals of dramatic healing misrepresented psychotherapy as badly as the negative portrayals. Think of Simon Oakland's brilliant psychodynamic formulation of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) or Lee J. Cobb's magnificent cure of Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). In the former, the psychiatrist explains all of Norman's psychopathology and even the location of the missing money after a couple of forensic interviews. In the latter, the therapist integrates the disparate aspects of his patient's multiple personality by hypnotizing her and encouraging her to recall a single traumatic memory from her childhood. With The Sopranos, it is refreshing to see a therapist who is neither devalued as contemptible and incompetent nor raised to a transcendent level of expertise.

Even though The Sopranos is about many other aspects of Tony Soprano's life, the psychotherapeutic relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi is at its heart. Creator David Chase noted that the therapy session was the germ of his idea for the series. Everything grew from that central image. He has acknowledged in an interview that the sessions with Dr. Melfi reflect his own experience with the woman therapist he saw. He also said he was helped by three or four male therapists before he found her. He insisted on a high degree of realism: "It was very important to me to let the silences play that really happen in a psychiatrist's office."

To say that the therapy represented in The Sopranos is the most accurate and complex ever to appear on television or film is not the same as saying that it is identical to what transpires in the office of the typical female psychiatrist conducting psychoanalytic therapy with a Mafia don. It would be a challenge, of course, to find such a therapeutic pair anywhere in the entire psychoanalytic community. The notion that a powerful mobster would seek out twice-weekly analytic therapy with a gorgeous woman therapist is a conceit that tickles the funny bone of audiences, who find this high concept irresistible. At least producers think they do. The Sopranos series was the sixth time in the 1990s that a mobster visited a therapist to get in touch with his feelings. Bill Murray spouted psychobabble in the 1993 film Mad Dog and Glory. Four years later, John Cusack poured out his soul to psychiatrist Alan Arkin in Grosse Pointe Blank. The same year National Lampoon's The Don's Analyst appeared on cable with Robert Loggia as the don and Kevin Pollak as the analyst. In Faithful (1996), Chazz Palminteri makes phone calls to his therapist (played by the director, Paul Mazursky) while holding Cher hostage. And in Analyze This (1999) Robert DeNiro is a mobster who, like Tony, suffers from panic attacks and Billy Crystal is the therapist. (Coincidentally, their creators made The Sopranos and Analyze This without any knowledge of each other's projects.) There is something inherently reassuring in learning that hard-boiled criminals are really sensitive pussycats beneath the surface. All that mayhem, extortion and cruelty probably just stem from not being loved enough as children.

Media like television and film occupy a region between reality and illusion. This realm is known as a "play space," a concept derived from the work of the British analyst D.W. Winnicott. He refers to a psychological experience that begins between an infant and mother but arises later in other relationships. It is a psychological space between fantasy and reality and between one's inner and external worlds, and it plays a key role in the development of play, creativity and other factors that lend richness to human experience. In the ideal psychoanalytic treatment, the patient and analyst enter this space to explore aspects of the self that are based partly in fantasy and partly in reality. For example, you as a patient may experience your analyst "as if" he or she were your mother or father. This evocation of an old relationship may help you explore feelings toward the therapist that grow out of early experiences, and help you to see how you re-create these feelings in your present relationships.

The unlikely notion that a troubled mobster might visit a therapist for intensive psychoanalytic therapy is an example of entering this fantasy-saturated playground, though in reality such events are unlikely to unfold in just this way. However, if one accepts the premises of the treatment arrangement — if indeed a Mafia don were to actually enter treatment with a beautiful Italian-American psychiatrist, the therapy that unfolds in The Sopranos becomes compelling and believable.

The series' writers rarely miss an opportunity to have fun with the premise of a hard-boiled thug in a psychotherapist's office. When Tony decides to tell his henchmen that he has been seeing a psychiatrist, his colleagues react with stunned silence. Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) finally breaks the silence with words of moral support: "I'm sure you did it with complete discretion." Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) is similarly supportive, offering that "it's not the worst thing I ever heard." Then, swept up by the Oprah-like atmosphere in the room, Paulie goes further: "I was seeing a therapist myself about a year ago. I had some issues."

The use of a play space is not, of course, limited to the therapy scenes in The Sopranos. In one surreal episode, a huge Russian thug, a veteran from the war in Chechnya, is beaten, choked, thrown in a trunk and even shot in the head. Yet he won't die. Who is this guy? Tony calls Paulie on a cell phone that keeps breaking up during their conversation. He explains that the Russian killed sixteen Chechnyan rebels single-handed and was with the interior ministry. Paulie is duly impressed. Turning to Christopher, he says in awe, "He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. The guy was an interior decorator." Christopher is unimpressed: "His house looked like s---," he retorts. Chase fully recognizes this departure from realism: "The Russian guy was like something out of a fairy tale. Well, not a fairy tale exactly. He's more like a spirit."

Audiences don't want to stare at the screen only to find themselves looking back. They seek out something larger than life, something of mythic proportions. Hence television and film have a mythopoetic function. The Mob has already been firmly entrenched in cultural mythology, so The Sopranos can build on The Godfather, GoodFellas, Casino, Prizzi's Honor, The Untouchables and numerous other Mafia films stored in viewers' memory banks. Chase is a great admirer of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990) and refers to it as "The Koran."

A recurrent theme in The Sopranos is the fluidity between life and art. When Christopher Moltisanti's (Michael Imperioli) friend Brendan is dispatched by a hit man with a bullet through the eye, Big P---- Bompensiero (Vincent Pastore) comments that the hit was a "Moe Green special," referring to a similar killing in The Godfather. And throughout the series Silvio entertains his cronies with imitations of Al Pacino doing Michael Corleone. Paulie drives a car that plays The Godfather theme on its horn. Tony gets teary-eyed watching a video of Cagney in The Public Enemy.

There are homages to other films throughout The Sopranos. Christopher shoots a bakery clerk in the foot, recollecting a similar incident in GoodFellas, when Michael Imperioli played a waiter in a tavern who himself was shot in the foot by Joe Pesci's character. The bakery clerk screams, "You shot my foot!" As he walks out the door, Christopher says, "It happens," a sly reference to his character in GoodFellas. Tony seeks out further therapy with a male therapist decked out in blue jeans, Western tie and cowboy boots. Tony uses a pseudonym to avoid recognition, but Dr. Hopalong is not fooled: "Mr. Spears … I watch the news like everyone else. I know who you are. And I saw Analyze This. I don't need the ramifications that could arise from treating someone like yourself." Tony pleads with him: "Analyze This? Come on, it's a f------- comedy!" The writers of The Sopranos know that life imitates art and vice versa, and they use this device with great flair.

In The Sopranos, art also imitates life. The nicknames "Big P----" and "Little P----" were taken from actual gangsters from the 1940s. Jerry Adler's character, Hesh, was based on a Jewish record producer in the 1950s who was reported to have had connections with the Gambino family. The blowing up of Artie's restaurant, Vesuvio's, paralleled a mob incident in Providence, Rhode Island. A hit was planned at the Providence establishment, so the restaurant was torched to avoid adverse publicity.

The writers are particularly fascinated with the role that film plays in how the mobsters form their identities. Christopher is a frustrated screenwriter, and the more he learns about screenwriting, the more he senses that his life falls short of the mobsters he sees in the movies. Over and over again he laments that while every character in the narrative of a film has "an arc," he himself has no arc.

During the second season, Christopher becomes obsessed with a film Jon Favreau is making on the streets of New Jersey and serves as a de facto consultant after he shows up on the set and advises the director on the proper use of indigenous slang for female genitalia. Favreau and his assistant Amy (Alicia Witt) listen intently to Christopher as he tells about a colleague of his who was getting a blow job from a gorgeous woman, only to discover the "she" is a "he." Amy chimes in: "Crying Game." Favreau corrects her sternly: "It's a true story." Although life is like a film in some ways, it's not the same thing. Christopher's stint as technical advisor is less than auspicious, however, and he returns to his humdrum existence as a foot soldier in Tony Soprano's army.

In one of the more amusing scenes, we see Dr. Melfi at home with her parents and her son, Jason. For reasons that are not clear, her ex-husband is also present at the dinner table. She has let slip that she is treating a Mafia don, and her ex-husband gets on his soapbox about the stigma attached to being Italian American. He tells her that five thousand Mafia members give a bad name to twenty million Italian Americans. To his surprise, his son Jason jumps to the defense of the stereotype, pointing out that Italian mobster movies are classic American cinema like Westerns, giving iconic and mythic status to Italian gangsters. Jennifer's father agrees with his grandson.

The art-imitating-life-imitating-art dimension of The Sopranos seemed particularly uncanny in July 2001, when 16-year-old Robert Iler, who plays Tony's son, A.J., was arrested in Manhattan for robbing two teens on the Upper East Side of about $40. Sopranos fans reacted with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. Iler is not the first actor on the show whose real life matched his screen identity. Tony Sirico, who plays Paulie Walnuts, was arrested twenty-eight times and sent to jail twice for a total of seven years before he became an actor. He was almost a made man in the Mob but stopped himself from taking that final step. He still has a scar where a bullet entered his leg.

Not surprisingly, real-life organized crime figures have become regular viewers of The Sopranos. Writing in the New Yorker, David Remnick reports on a wiretapped conversation between mobsters recorded on March 3, 1999. A capo named Anthony Rotondo and an enforcer named Joseph Sclafani commented on the similarities between local mobsters and Tony's gang. They offered positive critiques of the acting and writing, but Sclafani clearly felt slighted by the lack of attention to him in the episodes. "I'm not even existing over there," he concluded.

The writers' pitch-perfect understanding of their characters' inner world is beautifully displayed in their portrayal of Christopher. Like Sclafani, he feels unrecognized. When he watches a TV news exposé of the Soprano family, he worries only that his name is not mentioned. He is devastated when his colleagues are named and he isn't. In one reflective moment, he laments, "The f------in' regularness of life is too f------ hard for me." His source of suffering is a sense of existential meaninglessness, a feeling of being doomed to an unobserved life where he is a pawn in a chess game beyond his comprehension. He regards his very being as an inconsequential nothingness. When Christopher's name finally does appear in the news, he is ecstatic and speeds to the corner newspaper dispenser, where he removes the entire stack of newspapers to be sure all his friends and relatives are informed that he is no longer a nobody.

This theme of being a nobody runs through The Sopranos. Matthew Bevilaqua (Lillo Brancato, Jr.) and Sean Gismonte (Chris Tardio) are two young goons who work for Christopher at his scam stockbroker operation. Like Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they feel cut off from the action-mere observers of the movers and shakers who shape the events around them. They eagerly inquire of Christopher, "Does Tony ever talk about us?" The answer is a deadpan "No." The solution to their existential angst is one with overtones of Camus's The Stranger — they will establish a sense of authenticity and identity through the act of murder. They pay for it, of course, with their lives. A variation on this theme is repeated when Jackie Aprile, Jr., (Jason Cerbone) and his cronies decide to transcend their status as losers by robbing a group of made men at a poker game. The same consequence awaits them. In Being and Nothingness, his effort to banish the dualism of being and appearance, Sartre declared: "The act is everything."

The most striking example of this quest for heroic status occurs in the moving episode when the aging mobster Bobby Bacala, Sr. (Burt Young) strives to be "useful" as he is succumbing to lung cancer. He jumps at the opportunity to bump off his godson as a way of going out in a blaze of glory. Only through extraordinary persistence is he able to pull off his assignment, and he is elated as he drives away from the crime scene. His celebration is interrupted, however, when he dies at the wheel. The viewer, like Bacala himself, derives some satisfaction that he has died with his boots on.

Death hangs heavy over The Sopranos. Funerals are a regular feature. When it's not a hit man (or constipated bowels), it's cancer. In the same episode in which time runs out for old man Bacala, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) is diagnosed with colon cancer. In a moment of profound empathy, Tony's sister Janice (Aida Turturro) comments, "Another toothpick," a term she learned from her equally empathic mother, Livia, to describe the wasted appearance of the cancer victims in the family.

Ernest Becker, in his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, said that the problem of heroics is the central dilemma of life. Facing the certainty of death, how does one achieve a measure of immortality in an otherwise humdrum life? He describes human heroics as "a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog." The howling is especially shrill in The Sopranos, where being a grunt in the Mafia hierarchy is a dreaded fate.

Death is the great leveler. Every viewer glued to the television set on Sunday evenings knows that death is the ultimate certainty. We all want to make an impact, leave a trace of some kind. We, too, feel like grunts in the game of life. We, too, know that we could be snuffed out tomorrow by a terrorist attack, a coronary or a drunk driver. When we watch Tony and his gang, we see ourselves racing against time to make a mark before the final curtain.

With life imitating art so intensely, it is not surprising that the cast of The Sopranos worries a good deal about whom Chase will whack next. Death in The Sopranos means loss of a regular job. At one point Gandolfini was so worried about getting killed off that he called Chase at home to ask him if his character was in danger.

Even Tony's son, A.J., sounds like a nihilist. When his grandmother Livia (Nancy Marchand) tells him about a group of teenagers killed when their overcrowded car hit a tree, he comments: "Those kids, they're dead meat. What's the use? What's the purpose?" Livia makes no attempt to revise his thinking. She advises him not to expect happiness and succinctly summarizes her view of life: "It's all a big nothing."

These concerns about death, meaning, being and nothingness pervade the series, and Tony himself struggles with them in psychotherapy. Indeed, the fact that Tony is in psychotherapy allows viewers to penetrate his interior world, which would be otherwise unavailable to us. Psychotherapy often serves as a plot device in film. A novel's narrator can inform the reader about the protagonist's inner struggles, but a film has no such omniscient observer. One solution is to have the central character in a film visit a psychotherapist to reveal an inner monologue. In The Hospital (1971), written by Paddy Chayefsky, the audience finds out that the character played by George C. Scott is seriously suicidal when he stops in to chat with a psychiatrist colleague. In Klute (1971), Jane Fonda's high-priced prostitute talks to a psychotherapist about her internal struggles showing that she is more complicated than her call girl activities suggest.

Tony's psychotherapy with Dr. Melfi serves a similar purpose. The history taking of a first psychotherapy session conveniently paints a picture of Tony's life. Flashbacks illustrate what Tony is telling Dr. Melfi about his symptoms, his family and his background. The writers use this exposition technique to comic effect, juxtaposing the sanitized version of events that Tony reports to Dr. Melfi with flashbacks of the violent altercations that actually took place.

The comparisons between psychotherapy in film and in The Sopranos are instructive, but limited. One cannot capture the complexity of a psychoanalytic psychotherapy process in a two-hour feature film. One of the reasons the therapy in The Sopranos is so convincing is that over thirty-nine episodes in three years of viewing, the writers can illustrate the slings and arrows of outrageous transference, countertransference and acting out.

One reason The Sopranos is so satisfying is that it conveys life in all its complexity. The therapy scenes contribute to that complexity, because the coin of the realm in psychoanalytic therapy is multiple determination, where a symptom's multi-layered meanings unfold gradually as one layer is peeled off to reveal another. Consider the fear of speaking in public, a common phobia that brings many people to therapy. On the surface, it may seem to come from a dread of being exposed or of failing. But upon closer examination, therapist and patient often discover that fear of success, not failure, is actually driving the anxiety.

Nothing conveys complexity quite as directly as therapy, and therapy abounds in The Sopranos. Besides her sessions with Tony, Dr. Melfi goes to her own psychotherapist, Elliot Kupferberg, played by film director Peter Bogdanovich. Carmela has a confrontational consultation with one of Dr. Melfi's teachers, and she also attends sessions with Tony in Dr. Melfi's office. In the first season, a clinical psychologist evaluates A.J. for attention deficit disorder after he gets into trouble at school. In an improbable but amusing scene, Dr. Melfi, her son and her ex-husband appear in the office of a family therapist (Sam Coppola) to discuss what she should do about seeing a mob kingpin in therapy.

At its core, The Sopranos is a tragicomedy exploring American values and the moral ambiguity of our age. In the same way that Quentin Tarantino loves to depict sleazeballs struggling with moral dilemmas in such films as Pulp Fiction (1994), Chase has fun with the clash between God, mother and apple pie, on the one hand, and money, sex and corruption, on the other. Like Samuel Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot, Chase's characters entertain us by wringing humor and meaning out of the fabric of a bleak backdrop of nothingness. Even though The Sopranos is entertainment, it teaches us something about ourselves that warrants a closer look. As Nancy Franklin noted in her New Yorker review, The Sopranos, in contrast to Analyze This, "gives you something-almost too many things-to think about." And as Gandolfini commented in an interview, "I have learned a hell of a lot from this show … just from the sessions with Dr. Melfi alone, about human beings. David Chase has taught me a great deal about depression and about anger and about things that I never knew about. And you come home, and you think about them."

In addition to providing complexity, the writers have produced a play space that appeals to all sorts of viewers. The music used in the series ranges from Sinatra to grand opera to rap, a diversity emblematic of the varied audience the show reaches. The power of the narrative, the characters and the psychological themes transcends television conventions, political correctness and viewer expectation.

The ubiquity of psychotherapy in The Sopranos offers a sophisticated rendering of fundamental human dilemmas rarely portrayed in any medium. Many therapists have reported increases in male patients as a result of The Sopranos. One can speculate that the windows on the unconscious mind that psychoanalytic approaches open up in the series may suggest a renewal of interest in the in-depth exploration of the individual psyche. Although the time-intensive techniques of this kind of treatment run against the grain of today's more fashionable pill-popping, we still have a hunger to know ourselves. Critic Ellen Willis points out, "Our culture's flight from psychoanalysis is not permanent." The pendulum is swinging back, and the motion of that pendulum may have been influenced by a cable series about the relationship between a mobster and a therapist.

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