Monday, 11 October 2010

Essay: Fuhgeddaboudit! The Sopranos - a genre and audience analysis of the best TV drama ever!

The popularity of Home Box Office’s (HBO) award-winning serial The Sopranos (1999-2007), continues well beyond the finale of what is often cited as the ‘the best TV drama of all time’ (Nelson 2007:29). The show has also been credited with changing the way that television is being made, contributing to what some have called ‘the HBO effect’ (Leverette et al 2008:1; Keeton 2002:131). Clearly drawing on generic antecedents from the mobster movie genre, the show is also a family melodrama and owes its lineage to earlier television conventions from which it has borrowed, ultimately transforming and transgressing the expectations of the gangster genre (Nelson 2007:36; Keeton 2002:131; Leverette 2008:125-126). In this essay I will discuss the show with regards to genre, and the way that genre necessarily constructs a particular audience. This will be achieved by looking at the show from three perspectives: industry, audience and text, which are not mutually exclusive, but operate together and provide a suitable basis for textual analysis in television studies.

The term genre is a French word meaning ‘type’ or ‘kind’, which was first invoked in literary studies, and then later applied to film analysis (Neale 2000:1; Turner 1993:85). Whereas the literary use is concerned with the categorisation of fiction by subjective categories with little regard for industry and audiences, genre study in film and television, due to the nature of the material conditions in which it operates, must examine the relationship between industry, audiences, and texts (Schatz 1981:15-16). Genres are also defined as ‘a particular set of conventions, features and norms’, which are ‘a fundamental aspect of the way texts of all kinds are understood’ (Neale 2008:3). They also bring with them a ‘horizon of expectations’ for the viewer, and construct a ‘generic audience’, one that is sufficiently literate and familiar with a genre’s conventions, and who participate ‘in a fully genre-based viewing’ (Jauss cited in Neale 2008:3; Altman cited in Neale 2008:3).

Neale (1990:49) also notes how genres operate through the process of ‘intertextual relay’, which he describes as
the systems and forms of publicity, marketing and reviewing that each media institution possesses – plays a key role not only in generating expectations, but also in providing labels and names for its genres and thus a basis for grouping films, television programmes, or other works and texts together.
This can be seen in the way that critical, industrial and other discourses surrounding The Sopranos are presented in terms of ‘quality television’, and ‘original programming’ – what I call meta-genres, or generic signifiers which represent, not just a particular period in television production, or institutional programming policy and market strategy, but also issues surrounding authorship, aesthetics and audiences (Santo 2008:19-42; McCabe and Akass 2008:83-92).

Since going on the air in 1972 as one of the first nonterrestrial cable networks (and becoming one of the first to broadcast via satellite in 1975), HBO has continually striven to redefine television, and has gained a reputation for offering high quality original programming (Leverette et al 2008:1). Indeed, HBO has come to be regarded as a premier site of what has come to be called ‘quality television’, which according to Thompson (1996) is defined in contrast to the earlier broadcast period of ‘least objectionable programming’ (LOP). This was ‘the strategy in the network era of making bland programmes which would build and sustain audiences not by directly attracting them but by offending the fewest’ (Nelson 2006:62). As Thompson (1996:13) has pointed out ‘[q]uality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not “regular” TV’.

This very point is inscribed in the HBO tagline: “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO” (Nelson 2006:62). A clever marketing strategy, and as HBO relies on viewer subscriptions, a key marker of difference which helps the organisation separate itself from commercial stations, and, consequently, take chances (Leverette 2008:15). This risk-taking can be seen in HBO’s policy of ‘original programming’, which it instituted, staking its groundbreaking reputation on ‘notions of “quality” based on branding, cost, and innovation as it sought to find a place for itself in the overcrowded television marketplace’ (Leverette 2008:16). However, whilst HBO may define itself as “Not Television”, most of the content appearing on HBO ‘draws upon existing television forms, narratives, aesthetics, themes, and economic and institutional practices in order to articulate [its] difference’ (Santo 2008:24).

HBO has also ‘relied upon various regulatory and economic differences between pay and regular television to add variation to its programming strategies, but very rarely produces anything non-televisual’ (Santo 2008:24). In this regard, HBO holds two considerable advantages over its network competitors. Firstly, its shows are not subject to the same censorship regulations as broadcasting. This is due to the outcome of its court battle with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Court of Appeals’ declaration that cable, due to being purchased rather than ‘freely distributed’ like radio and broadcast television, was ‘more akin to newspaper publishing, which is offered protection under the First Amendment’ (Strover in Santo 2008:25). This means that HBO is able to ‘incorporate nudity, violence, and vulgarity in ways the networks [can’t]’. Importantly, this gives HBO a competitive advantage whereby it can appeal to audiences as a site for content they can get nowhere else (Jaramillo 2002:65). However, I would suggest that in recent years, due to the ‘HBO effect’, groundbreaking shows can be found on competing cable networks such as Showtime (Weeds, Dexter) and AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), and on commercial networks such as ABC (Lost, Desperate Housewives) and Fox (24).

Secondly, due to being subscription-based, HBO does not to have to ‘tailor the content of its programming (as the networks do) in order to appease merchandisers seeking inoffensive material appealing to the greatest common denominator’ (Santo 2008:27). But there is also a considerable textual advantage too. By not having to incorporate commercial breaks, HBO programs can be written, such that they ‘build steadily towards a climax through multiple examinations of a particular theme from myriad perspectives’ (Santo 2008:28). I would also say, that by deploying a serial narrative structure, characters can be better psychologised, ultimately lending a greater degree of realism to their representation.

These factors work to target a niche audience – ‘an elite…intellectual audience with high expectations, willing to pay a premium price for the subscription service’ (McCabe and Akass 2008:91). This means that HBO can demonstrate a greater respect for its audience, and according to Jaramillo (2002:66), it ‘implies that [HBO’s] consumers can handle graphic language, sex and violence in a more thoughtful and productive way than broadcast viewers.’ Santo (2008:33) adds further that this sort of exclusivity offered at HBO, ‘supposedly grants paying viewers membership in a distinct community that clearly ranks above the riffraff who watch the standard broadcast and cable stations.’ From a creative perspective, David Chase, the creator/writer/director of The Sopranos, notes that his authorial latitude is granted in terms of the audience: “We all have the freedom to let the audience figure out what’s going on rather than telling them what’s going on” (cited in Lavery 2006:5). In this way, the show rewards ‘active viewing’, in which the viewer ‘has to dig for links and meanings beyond what’s spelled out on the surface and is often left with mysteries’ (Yacowar 2002:12).

The Sopranos, then, can be classified as ‘quality TV’, which according to Thompson (1996:15) ‘creates a new genre by mixing old ones…tends to be literary and writer-based [and]…is self-conscious’. In this regard, The Sopranos has created a new genre – let’s call it an existentialist gangster drama – by mixing the mobster film genre with television family melodrama. For example, the show takes the conventional gangster as protagonist, but mixes with it with a family melodrama storyline. One of the early taglines for the show was ‘Family. Redefined’. By combining these two genres, the show is able to expand on the various constructions of family – crime family, work family, private family (Jaromillo 2002:68; Nelson 2007:36).

Nelson (2007:36) points out that as a family melodrama, ‘the strong women in…Tony’s life [feature] fully, partly in relation to him, but also in their own right.’ For example, Carmela (Edie Falco) Tony’s wife, holds the family together and takes the major responsibility for bringing up their children, Meadow (Jamie Lyn Sigler) and Anthony Junior (Robert Iler). This is evident in the pilot episode, in which Carmela is making preparations for Anthony’s birthday, and later, due to catching Meadow climbing out her window, has to discipline and ground her, temporarily upsetting the order of their mother-daughter relationship. These family dimensions ‘afford intercutting of action-adventure sequences and scenes of gang conflict and violence, typical of a mobster movie, with domestic locations and issues (Nelson 2007:37). And according to McCabe and Akass, in The Sopranos, ‘the gangster genre collides with the [family melodrama] in a series in which the mobster finds himself in unfamiliar generic territory characterised by mundane chores and domestic worries’ (cited in Nelson 2007:37).

This notion of being in unfamiliar generic territory also extends to the audience. According to Keeton (2002:132), ‘[w]hen viewers tuned into the premiere episode of The Sopranos in 1999, most expected a conventional gangster narrative, but what they saw did not match their expectations.’ The opening shot after the credits frames a nervous, angst-ridden middle-aged male half hidden by a statue of a naked woman. Yacowar (2002:16) suggests that this shot ‘expresses the anxiety of a man insecure in his manhood’. Looking at Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) body language he is clearly uncomfortable in his environment, suggesting to the audience he is on unfamiliar turf (Keeton 2002:132). When he finally goes into psychiatrist Dr Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) office, the camera cuts between them as they study each other, moving from longer to closer shots. Melfi then breaks the silence.

In the exchange between the two characters that follows, it is established that Tony has had a panic attack, and that due to ‘the line of work [he is] in’ it is ‘impossible [for him] to talk to a psychiatrist’. In this opening scene, we have a new meaning being circulated for the audience, which has been created through frustrating the conventions of melodrama. In other words, the conventions of the gangster genre prohibit Tony from speaking to a psychiatrist because what he does is illegal. And as those audience members who are literate in the gangster genre would know, he is bound by the code of silence – omerta.

This scene also establishes the tone of Tony’s intense feelings of anomie and alienation, which permeates most of the series, and can be read at a wider cultural level, of reflecting postmodern concerns of a loss of meaning in the midst of unprecedented potential for affluence (Keeton 2002:133). For example, in the scene, Tony recounts his state of mind the day of his first panic attack: “The morning of the day I got sick, I’ve been thinking. It’s good to get in on the ground floor. I came in too late for that. I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling I came in at the end, that the best is over.” Melfi replies: “Many Americans, I think, feel that way.” Tony continues: “I think of my father. He never retired. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his standards, his people, his pride, not like me. What have we got?”

So even before the first guy is ‘whacked’, this initial exchange ‘suggests how far the show has moved from its traditional gangster roots of the working class ethnic underdog forced into a life of crime by the closed hierarchy of capitalist society’ (Keeton 2002:133). This scene serves another purpose in that it creates sympathy for Tony as he works through the traumatic revelations of his childhood abuse, which are later discussed with Melfi. In representing Tony as a gangster with working class roots, it further encourages empathy because he ‘romanticises the time when a working-class man with minimal job skills could enter the workforce and support a family’ (Keeton 2002:142). This also invokes a moral ambiguity for the audience, as it encourages empathy towards ‘a thug whom we watch committing heinous acts’ (Holden in Yacowar 2002:17).

The show wears its proud gangster generic heritage through the self-conscious intertextual references to The Godfather (1972-1990) trilogy of films and Goodfellas (1990). This works to also encourage a degree of authenticity, which stems in part from the ways in which these references are used by the audience – or those who are familiar – to locate the fictional world of the series (Johnson 2007:17). For example, in the pilot, there is a scene in which Tony ranks Goodfellas against The Godfather trilogy. In episode two, “46 Long”, Silvio (Steve van Zandt) quotes Michael Corleone’s famous line from The Godfather: Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”

Other instances of referencing can be found in the casting decisions. For example, Dominic Chianese who plays Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano, appeared in The Godfather II, and several other cast members are Scorcese alumni from Goodfellas. Indeed, Michael Imperioli who plays Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos, and who also appeared in Goodfellas, is able to reprise the fate of his character in that film. In episode eight, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”, he shoots a bakery clerk in the foot, clearly referencing the scene in Goodfellas in which Joe Pesci’s character shoots his character in the foot.

However, in my opinion the most important reference comes at the end of the show’s final ever episode, “Made in America”. Its significant because, whilst the ambiguous and non-closed ending can be read without the reference, it allows a rewarding reading to those literate in the genre. In the final scene, the family are getting settled around the table at a diner, and a man that has been sitting at the counter with a jacket that says ‘members only’, walks into the toilet. Just as Meadow enters the diner, there is a sudden cut to black, and that’s the end of The Sopranos, and if read as the end of consciousness of the show’s protagonist – the end of Tony Soprano. What this reading implies, is that the man walked out of the toilet armed with a gun and shot Tony – another Godfather reference. I would argue that the ‘members only’ jacket is a self-conscious wink to that part of the audience – the privileged ‘members’ – who have the literacy to figure this out.

Finally, the show is literary and writer-based, and due to its serial format is able to develop characters into complex beings, providing ‘a slice of life as textured, nuanced, and involving as a Charles Dickens novel’ (Yacowar 2002:13). Indeed, Schulman (2010:27) praises the show asking ‘has there ever been an existentialist social novel quite like The Sopranos?’ The pedigree of the writing can be seen in episode fifty-two, “Whitecaps”, in which Tony calls off the hit against Carmine Lupertazzi (Tony Lip), telling Carmine’s underboss Johnny ‘Sack’ (Vince Curatola) that it would ‘create chaos in the organisation and be bad for business’. To which Johnny replies, incensed that he can’t bear to go to work tomorrow, take orders again ‘like it never fucking happened?!...Creeps in this petty place!’ To the astute observer, this is a clever reference to Macbeth, and ties the scene to one of Shakespeare’s ‘great proto-existentialist moments, the speech Macbeth makes after he can only greet news of his wife’s death with indifference’ (Schulman 2010:38).

In conclusion, the above discussion has provided an analysis of genre by considering the way in which genre constructs a particular audience. In considering the ideas surrounding notions such as ‘quality TV’ and ‘original programming’, The Sopranos can be situated in a discourse which also explains the positioning of its audience. Examples were provided from various episodes which demonstrated the hybrid generic nature of the show, intertextual references to its mob gangster roots, and the degree of its literary qualities. Finally, it can be said that through transforming and transgressing the conventions of the gangster and family melodrama, The Sopranos has not just remade the rules and expectations of the mob narrative, but through the ‘HBO effect’, has been responsible for transforming audience expectations of television at large.


Jaramillo, D.L. (2002) “The Family Racket: AOL Time Warner, HBO, The Sopranos, and the Construction of a Quality Brand”. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 26 (1): 59-75.

Johnson, C. (2007) “Tele-Branding in TVIII”. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 5 (1): 5-24.

Keeton, P. (2002) “The Sopranos and Genre Transformation: Ideological Negotiation in the Gangster Film”. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 10 (2): 131-148.

Lavery, D. (2006) “Introduction: Can this Be the End of Tony Soprano?” in D. Lavery (ed) Reading the Sopranos: Hit TV from HBO. London: I.B. Tauris: 1-14.

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Leverette, B., Ott, B.L., and Buckely, C.L. (2008) “Introduction” in M. Leverette, B.L. Ott, and C.L. Buckley (eds) It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. London and New York: Routledge 1-10.

McCabe, J. and Akass, K. (2008) “It’s not TV, it’s HBO’s original programming: Producing quality TV” in M. Leverette, B.L. Ott, and C.L. Buckley (eds) It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. London and New York: Routledge: 83-94.

Neale, S. (1999) “Questions of Genre”. Screen, 31 (1): 45-66.

Neale, S. (2000) Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge.

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Nelson, R. (2007) “HBO Premium”. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 5 (1): 25-40.

Santo, A. (2008) “Para-television and discourses of distinction: The culture of production at HBO” in M. Leverette, B.L. Ott, and C.L. Buckley (eds) It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. London and New York: Routledge: 19-45.

Schatz, T. (1981) Hollywood Genres. New York: Random House.

Schulman, A. (2010) “The Sopranos: An American Existentialism?”. Cambridge Quarterly, 39 (1): 23-38.

Thompson, R.J. (1996) Television’s Second Age: from Hill Street Blues to ER. New York: Continuum.

Turner, G. (1988) Film as Social Practice (2nd edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Yacowar, M. (2002) The Sopranos on the Couch. London and New York: Continuum.


The Godfather, dir. F.F. Coppola, 1972.

The Godfather II, dir. F.F. Coppola, 1974.

The Godfather III, dir. F.F. Coppola, 1990.

Goodfellas, dir. M. Scorcese, 1990.

The Sopranos, created by D. Chase, 1999-2007.

“The Sopranos” (pilot), airdate January 10, 1999, dir. D. Chase.

“46 Long”, airdate January 17, 1999, dir. D. Attias.

“The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”, airdate February 28, dir. T. Van Patten.

“Whitecaps”, airdate December 8, 2002, dir. J. Patterson.

“Made in America” (final), airdate June 10, 2007, dir. D. Chase.

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