Book Excerpt: Sopranos Psychology

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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