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Rooting for Tony Soprano

Rooting for Tony Soprano

The Sopranos manipulates us into identifying with Tony's humanity so that we overlook his wickedness.


Psychoanalyst Glen Gabbard, author of The Psychology of The Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire and Betrayal in America's Favorite Gangster Family, has an interesting take on the phenomenon of Tony Soprano.

The success of The Sopranos, it seems, depends not on Tony Soprano the mobster, but on Tony Soprano the psychoanalysis patient. Whereas in daily life, Tony is a crook, a thug, and a murderer, on the couch Tony is a regular guy, with the same hopes, dreams, problems, and anxieties as the rest of us.

Dr. Gabbard explains that people love to root for Tony the regular guy to prevail over Tony the violent criminal; they want more than anything to be able to find a noble everyman at the heart of the worst of the worst and the lowest of the low.

Simply stated, viewers don't want to believe that anyone is really evil.

Why do viewers forgive Tony Soprano, the Godfather who terrorizes and murders for fun and profit, just because he worries about his marriage and his children?

This is a remarkable turnabout from the early 80s when everyone's favorite television creep was J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Back when "Who shot J.R.?" was on everybody's lips, it wasn't because we wanted to see the would-be assassin brought up on charges -- we wanted to see him handed the key to the city. We didn't want to understand J.R. -- we wanted to hate him. We loved to hate him.

J.R. never killed anybody, never even beat anyone up, yet we cheered from our couches when he got what was coming to him and hoped desperately that his every nasty scheme would fail. If so, why do viewers in record numbers forgive everything for Tony Soprano, the Godfather who terrorizes and murders for fun and profit, just because he worries about his marriage and his children? C'mon, even J.R. loved his daddy.

Perhaps there's no better barometer for the moral pressure of society than our relationship with television's most popular characters. When we cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys, isn't it because of our desire to see that justice is done?

But when we sympathize with a violent criminal, when we identify with him because he cares about his kids just as we do, isn't it a sign of abandoning the commitment to differentiate between right and wrong?

The job of making moral decisions, of balancing right and wrong in complex circumstances, is no simple business. But instead of challenging us to recognize that Tony is a villain in spite of his human side, The Sopranos (and, more generally, the entertainment industry) manipulates us into identifying with Tony's humanity so that we overlook his wickedness.

Based on Dr. Gabbard's assessment, it seems that we yearn to deny that genuine evil walks this earth. Indeed, it may be admirable to look for the good in all people and give our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, but not to the exclusion of recognizing that sometimes there is no doubt, that what little good remains in some people has been hopelessly buried under a mountain of evil. The Hitlers, Stalins, and Ahmadinejads of the world may love their children and may have had troubled youths, but evil remains evil whether we choose to look it in the face or to bury our heads in the sand.

Too often, it seems, we avoid looking evil in the face at any cost. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a growing element in our society blames the United States for Pearl Harbor, blames Israel for Palestinian suicide bombers, blames all of Western Civilization for September 11. But making excuses for evil does not make evil go away.

It just keeps coming back, each time bolder and more brazen than before.

The Talmud warns us to distance ourselves from a bad neighbor and not to associate with a wicked friend. Even if he loves his kids. Even if his name is Tony Soprano. Perhaps, especially if his name is Tony Soprano.

April 14, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 25

(25) Scott, April 10, 2013 6:24 PM

don't like him

I'm half way through the second season and i want to see all of them get wacked. Carmel is a twat as well. The only characters i like are the psychiatrist and Adriana and Artie. Tony's mum, Carmel, silvio, paulie..etc etc - i hope they get they all eat it.

(24) Virgina Jonkers, March 28, 2011 5:53 PM

funny tony soprano

Its a very nice article but checked you out the website that is really hilarious Kind regards Virginia

(23) Raphaela Seroy, June 7, 2007 11:39 PM

p.s. The Sopranos as a great work of art

p.s. There are moments that are directed as brilliantly as any Fellini film. The Sopranos is -- literally and creatively not a matter of black and white; good or bad.

(22) Linda McConnell, April 19, 2007 11:09 AM

Sopranos more complex than this

Having watched The Sopranos from the beginning, I take issue with the view that the show "manipulates us into identifying with Tony's humanity so that we overlook his wickedness." We identify with his humanity AND we observe and are disturbed by his wickedness. I suspect that nobody who watches this series carefully approves of Tony Soprano, or would argue that he is not evil.

(21) Joe, April 18, 2007 2:26 PM

So many seem to have missed the point

First off, fantastic art and directing of the Sopranos does not invalidate this article's main point. It is easier to bury one's head in the sand and fail to recognize evil. The thing that is curious about the writer though is he seems to have missed the episode with the old Jewish psychiatrist that Carmela went to several seasons ago. He makes exactly that point. He goes on to rail against relativism as ultimately destructive and in the context of medicine, it destroyed psychiatry.

The question that this article failed to adress, which the Sopranos takes head on, is why is Evil so seductive? The mobsters know full well who they are and what life they chose. Why would one embrace it?

So yes you are right, relativism is terrible. Cowardice is terrible. Weakness is terrible. What you fail to realize is that Tony is no coward, and he is not weak in the Western sense. He is also charming. The key to getting why people love Tony is that he does what he pleases and makes no apologies. That is escapism in an emasculated world where people are afriad of confrontation and judgement.

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