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Lithium The Italian renaissance: “The Sopranos” in 2021

Sep. 29, 2021
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One February morning, my ex-girlfriend texted me to ask why she had just had a dream about The Sopranos.

ur subconscious has taste? I suggested. She sent back an eye-roll emoji.

My ex has never seen The Sopranos. Most of her exposure to HBO’s flagship tale of a depressive, middle-aged mob boss in Northern New Jersey has been courtesy of me by way of motor mouth. I believe every young gay woman has at least one white-male-antihero-show that makes them think, wow, he is literally me. Like a moon sign but misogynistic. The Sopranos, which I watched and loved for the first time at 15 and rewatched and went rabid over this year at 22, is mine.

My ex and I have known each other since our mid-teens, and she’s grown at least semi-immune to my steamroller-style media recommendations. She’s been insistent since September that she doesn’t have time to watch The Sopranos; I’ve pretty much given up the fight. 

But while clicking around the internet (“researching”) for this piece, I realized that in all my efforts to persuade my ex to tune into my favorite tragicomedy, I’d overlooked a key rhetorical strategy. Rather than linking her to Vulture pieces, I should have communicated The Sopranos’ many charms via the most universal of languages: memes. 


Tony Soprano’s therapist, Dr. Melfi, looks out from the confines of a familiar circle: the Twitter profile picture. You can’t see her legs, but you can tell by the twist of her body that they’re crossed. You can’t hear her because, uh, it’s a picture, but underneath there are two lines of text. First, in bold: “sopranos out of context.” And then, smaller, a quote: “freud said dreams are wishes.”

Freud said a lot of things. So did Jennifer Melfi, patron saint of protracted psychotherapy, over the course of seven seasons. But this isolated idiom is typical of The Sopranos, which trades in genre catchphrases (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”) and malapropisms (“creating a little dysentery among the ranks”) the same way Tony and his guys trade in Advil, Thanksgiving turkeys, and ethernet cables. It’s these bite-sized setpieces, among other things, that make The Sopranos so endlessly screenshot-able.  

At least that’s what Maya, the face behind the Melfi profile picture and better known as Twitter’s @oocsopranos, has found. OOC, or “out of context,” meme accounts make up a firm base in the nutrition pyramid of casual cultural consumption. Occasionally (and less occasionally) timing tweets to be relevant to major world events, OOC accounts post isolated screenshots, sometimes captioned, from their television show of choice. The format is hardly new, but with OOC accounts covering everything from Frasier to Buffy, the medium has continued to match the message.

Having first watched The Sopranos at fourteen, Maya is a longtime fan. As a college freshman, she started her account the same way many people seem to have started the show this year: stuck at home and bored senseless. “I had hurt my knee and couldn’t go to school or work,” she tells me. “So I started watching The Sopranos again and I was like ‘Man, this show is really funny, I wonder if there’s an out-of-context account for it.’ I went on Twitter and there wasn’t one, so I took it upon myself to start it.” 

Maya calls the show’s humor almost ‘90s-sitcom-esque, fitting for its blend of work-family and family-family melodramas—and its ability to wring absurd hilarity out of both. David Chase, the show’s creator, agrees. “The Sopranos was ambiguous to the point where, to this day, I’m not really sure whether it was a drama or a comedy,” he told Vanity Fair for their 2012 oral history of the show. 

For a generation that mostly sees The Sopranos as a decades-old drama at best and dad-oriented at worst, the proliferation of its snarky punchlines into memes has to have been something of a revelation. Or, at least, the catalyst to a kind of renaissance: Between March and June of this year, Maya’s follower count climbed from 4,000 to 15,000. (It now hovers around 116K.) With a social media manager’s savvy, she attributes this growth in large part to ease of access. At the outset of the pandemic, HBO made its whole catalogue publicly accessible. Then, in May of 2020, its new streaming service, HBO Max, arrived on the scene. The Sopranos had never been more available. And, with nothing better to do, everyone seemed to simply wake up one morning and decide to get themselves a gun


When The Sopranos aired its infamous final scene on June 10th, 2007, whole neighborhoods called their TV service providers, outraged. Or so the story goes. I’ve always loved this anecdote because it is both objectively hilarious and suggests a kind of communal engagement with appointment-era television that makes me nostalgic for a time I’m too young to miss. Like that picture of everyone watching the Seinfeld finale in Times Square, there’s something warm about watching people watching people watching the people on TV. Massive glowing advertisements aside, solo Twitter-scrolling is almost nothing like being in a Times Square crowd. Still, watching my feed fill up with first-time Sopranos watchers has left me with a sense of disembodied closeness—which, this year, isn’t such a bad kind.

Maybe it’s silly to say that The Sopranos is having a renaissance, that accounts like Maya’s have returned to it a status that had slipped away sometime between 2007 and 2021. As any bored high schooler sick of Shakespeare could probably attest, artifacts firmly entrenched in our cultural canon aren’t quite mortal enough to die. And who’s to say the show hasn’t been making the internet rounds for years, while I, to come totally clean, remained too squirrelly to be much of a Twitter user?

But I like to imagine The Sopranos is having a moment because this, a year of plague and pain and political precarity, is its moment. When I ask Maya to name a scene she thinks sums up the show, she cites one from the first season. In it, Tony and some of his crew sit around the back office of the Bada Bing, the strip club out of which they do much of their business. The TV is on, and it reports the end of days: “The party’s over,” an ex-mobster explains, referring to the capital-B Business by which Tony and co. make their living. “It’s gone the way of the dodo.” 

No one is listening to coverage of the apocalypse. Christopher does bicep curls. Tony counts cash. Big Pussy Bonpensiero, reading glasses pushed down his nose, flips through a gossip rag: “A guy here asks, ‘What if they had cloned Princess Di?’” This, not the other thing, finally incites a clamor. 

Shooting the shit while the TV charts the end of everything as you know it—isn’t that what we’ve all been doing between Zoom calls since March of 2020? Not to compare the uncertainty and devastation wrought by a pandemic to the decline of organized crime in the wake of RICO, but also, to do that: The Sopranos is as big on capital-D Doom as it is on Business. “Oh, poor you, Tony’s mother, Livia, laments again and again. “It’s all a big nothing.”

Though it resents her cynicism, The Sopranos often literally and thematically echoes Livia’s hollow sentiment, as does the mobster genre on the whole. “America's love affair with gangster stories usually creeps back into the mainstream during times of great political or social strife,” reads KnowYourMeme’s write-up of The Sopranos as a social media phenom. “It makes sense…The genre shows characters chasing and achieving the ‘American dream’ while harboring a deep resentment and distrust for law enforcement.” A deep resentment and distrust for law enforcement, yes, but also for organized religion, the institution of marriage, late-stage capitalism, and governments of the federal, state, and local variety. You could mad-lib these anxieties all day, and every combination would hit some contingent of American audiences right where they live—and not just because they’re playing out on their living room TVs. 

But dreams on The Sopranos aren’t always so literally American. In the show’s fifth season, Tony dreams he is in Melfi’s office, where he catches a glimpse of himself on the corner TV, and then in the corner TV, and then he’s suddenly standing in his own kitchen. Carmela, his wife, futzes with the dishwasher, and a tiny Sony in a roll-up cabinet plays Spaghetti Westerns. In the dream, Tony stares at the screen for a long minute, tuning out as Carm protests his inattention.

“It’s just so much more interesting,” he explains, “than life.” 

“What? Are you kidding me?” Carm jerks her chin at the little TV. “This is your life.”

The Sopranos is a sitcom of sorts because it is funny. But it is also a sitcom because it traps its characters into a preemptive syndication—everyone is always doing the same thing, hollowing out their narrative niches, and not because the network needs the live audience back laughing in their seats next week. It isn’t out of respect for any formal convention that The Sopranos is so fond of anticlimax and shot through with nihilism; it’s a perspective, and it’s a guiding ethos. The Sopranos is a show anxious about everything and certain of nothing. Tony first goes to therapy because blackout panic attacks are interrupting his days, but later the problem morphs into the way these days, like the ones I’ve passed on couches since last March, aren’t interrupted. “Every day is a gift,” he admits in a late episode. “It’s just, why’s it have to be socks?” 

If The Sopranos knows that the present is frightening, it also knows that the future is fatally boring. There’s a point at which anxiety rolls lazily over into inertia. There’s a point at which we enter our second pandemic spring, and it feels more and less exactly like the first one. A point at which you sit on your couch and watch a big screen unblinking until it finally goes pitch black. You could ring the TV providers, but you won’t get through. 


For some reason, I don’t think any of this information would make my ex want to watch The Sopranos. In addition to its bleak sense of humor, the show can be brutally violent, terribly sad, and just generally insane. There are funnier things, surely, than hearing Tony Soprano resign himself to a very on-brand type of tedium: “You go to Italy, you lift some weights, you watch a movie. It’s all just a series of distractions ‘til you die.” Scarier and more comforting, too, depending on your persuasion. 

Still, when my ex texted to say she’d dreamed herself straight into Satriale’s, I couldn’t help but think fondly of memes, and of Dr. Melfi. 

On Maya’s Twitter layout, Melfi’s assertion that “Freud said dreams are wishes” stands alone; it is, of course, an out-of-context quote. But on the show Tony is puzzled by this statement—which means he is immediately pissed off.

“Dreams are wishes?” he asks. “I thought you said dreams represent repressed urges.” 

Melfi is patient. “It depends.” 

“I oughta quit this fucking therapy,” comes the petulant reply. “Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s a fungule!” 

At the end of this episode, Tony will have a dream that is mostly a nightmare: a vision of his mother standing silent on the stairs of a remote house. And before that, he will have come through on his threat to quit therapy—not for the first or last time. “I’m a miserable prick,” he admits to Melfi. “I’ve said it since day one.” Her reply is measured: “And you’re no longer interested in changing?”

It is maybe not about interest, but impossibility. Tony isn’t confined to the concentric circles of his criminally little life by a quarantine, but he is trapped in his day-to-day just the same. Either because of some flaw in his character or because of the undeniable fact that he is a TV character, Tony Soprano will always be caught between a black screen and a hard place. 

Sometimes it’s worthwhile to dive deeper into this weird limbo, and sometimes it’s easier to skim the surface. Sometimes it is easiest to simply watch TV, and to see yourself or not, but to know either way that even the most miserably cyclical of stories is more interesting than what your life has to offer. It’s a cold kind of cultural comfort, to be sure, but sometimes that’s the best and only kind. Isn’t that why my ex—in this, our year of inertia and isolation—dreamed of The Sopranos

Maybe. Or maybe she’d just taken too much melatonin in the hopes it would knock her out before midnight. There are lots of ways to escape reality, and a surprisingly limited number of ways to engage it. Regardless, Tony puts it best: “Oh, fuck the dream,” he snaps. “It was just a dream.”