Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'Sopranos' a violent fantasy for middle-aged guys

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 1:57 PM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: After cowboys and Indians, mafia became our central media metaphor
  • Avlon: "The Sopranos" was a violent fantasy for middle-aged guys who want respect
  • He says Tony represented the plight of the male with its many contradictions
  • There was a guilty pleasure in watching oversensitive thugs refuse to take any crap, he says

Editor's note: John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, is the author of "Independent Nation" and "Wingnuts." He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

(CNN) -- Why do we love gangsters -- at least the ones on TV and in the movies?

The sudden death of actor James Gandolfini at age 51 has brought a round of instant nostalgia for the HBO show he led at the turn of the millennium, "The Sopranos." It helped define the time for people living it, stretching between the excesses of the Clinton years and the grim patriotic grit of the post-9/11 period.

There was very little admirable about the character of Tony Soprano -- most of us don't murder on our lunch break -- and yet he became a kind of elevated everyman.

John P. Avlon
John P. Avlon

From the commute home to New Jersey shown in the opening credits -- over the techno-blues of Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning (And Got Myself a Gun)" -- to Tony's constant struggles to keep in control at work, this was a violent fantasy for middle-aged managers who want respect.

Opinion: Gandolfini's gift to television -- and America

A half-century ago, cowboys and Indians were the quintessential American set piece for TV and film. The pioneer life was still within living memory. But since at least the 1970s, with Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" films, the Mafia has become our central media metaphor. We are a nation of people who live in and around cities, more the descendants of immigrants than Western pioneers. The struggle is less for settling land and taming wilderness than it is for money and respect and defense of our family. The goal is getting ahead and living the good life.

Gangster fantasies also undercut the old adage that there is no honor among thieves. While the Sopranos crew was often a rolling disaster of violent incompetence, Tony was the flawed moral anchor of the Mafia family, trying to instill some values even while acknowledging (reluctantly, in private) his own hypocrisy and contradictions.

HBO's success built on 'Sopranos'
Friends react to Gandolfini's death
2000: 'Sopranos' success surprised me

What made "The Sopranos" different from the boatload of Mafia shows that came before it was that Tony was in therapy. The sight of a mobster having an anxiety attack and suffering through psychotherapy was the central conceit of the show, the selling point of the pilot episode that led to the six-season series. But if "talking about your feelings" seemed like the least masculine thing you could do, here too Tony represented the plight of the modern American male, reconciling his animal instincts with polite society. Therapy is where strong silent types get sent to be civilized.

Appreciation: James Gandolfini, a pure actor

Good luck. Part of the appeal of the show was the fantasy of being able to vent frustrations violently. "The Sopranos" was the anti-"Seinfeld." While Jerry and crew fixated on the small annoyances of daily life from the perspective of Manhattan's Upper West Side, Tony and his crew reacted to the small frustrations of daily life with violence over in New Jersey, punishing the pretentious, dishonest and arrogant with vicious beat-downs and more than a few bullets to the chest. They weren't going to be anyone's nominee for civic leader, and yet the guilty pleasure came from watching oversensitive thugs refuse to take any crap from anybody.

For middle-aged men, I always suspected that part of the appeal of Tony Soprano was the archetype he provided that fat men, who eat and drink and smoke too much, can be recognized as central figures rather than side characters. Overburdened with work and the weight that comes with too many good times under his belt, Tony was the patriarch who demanded respect and ultimately received it. He was oversexed and had what might be described as Old World notions of fidelity, despite his appearance, because "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac" -- and yes, I just quoted Henry Kissinger in a column about Tony Soprano.

Tony Soprano's best quotes

All of which is to say that Tony Soprano was not admirable, but was an eminently relatable figure for men who wrestle with the competing pressures of raising a family, running a business and being a man. He provided validation for their own mistakes and made them look good by comparison. When they struggled with their children, the disrespect Tony endured from his two kids made the domestic seem dramatic. When the average guys' own dim-witted bosses, for whom they do all the day-to-day work, tried to undercut them, Tony's struggles with Uncle Junior (who tries to have him killed) made their own frustrations seem manageable.

In the end, having a Mafia show be a metaphor for daily life doesn't exactly reflect a country living up to its best traditions. But then the gap between fiction and reality is always stark, especially in the rearview mirror. Tony Soprano mattered to so many people because his struggles were their own, writ large, and he could take decisive actions to demand respect for himself and his family that they could only fantasize about, trying to maintain control and impose something like sanity on all the constantly moving craziness that surrounds us.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT