‘The Sopranos’ Gets the TikTok Treatment — 25 Years Later

As Tony Soprano once asked, ‘How could this happen?’

Courtesy HBO
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of 'The Sopranos,' HBO is trying to promote the show to younger viewers via TikTok. It's an affront to the show that's the epitome of the golden age of televison. Courtesy HBO

“The Sopranos” turned 25 last month, and the show, the epitome of “The Golden Age of Television,” is as influential as ever: whatever has been said about the show rings true to this day. The character of Tony Soprano and his emotional plights has become a prestigious antihero, surpassing even the likes of Walter White and Don Draper. If “The Sopranos” didn’t exist, would shows like “The Wire” and “Deadwood” ever have existed?

“The Sopranos” has proven that television can be capable of becoming art, whereas long-form storytelling can be as gripping to the viewer as watching a movie or reading a book. With its wide cast of characters — from Carmela Soprano to Dr. Jennifer Melfi to Johnny Sacrimoni — who are nothing short of fascinating, the show lives on and define the shadow of the human psyche. 

Yet 25 years later, HBO has put 25-second recaps of the beloved show onto the social media platform TikTok. These edits are, at best, clumsy clips of the full show, and at worst, don’t capture the essence of the show at all. If this is meant to get younger people to watch the show on their streaming platform Max, then it didn’t need to happen. The show itself is sufficient to make Gen Z care about the emotional plight of a mob boss. 

In reaction to the TikTok dump, the Guardian felt confused. Who is this for, they asked. To answer that question: I guess it’s for younger viewers, the kind of which would use Tiktok. Why? Because that’s who HBO is hoping will watch the show.

The topic of young people watching “The Sopranos” has fascinated observers.  Upon the release of the show’s spinoff film “The Many Saints of Newark,”  the New York Times asks why “The Sopranos” resonates with younger people despite not having been on the air since 2007. The piece’s author, Willy Staley, argues that its portrayal of a mafia entering the 21st Century and the crises facing Mr. Soprano’s children, AJ and Meadow, resonate with a younger cohort who are used to experiencing decline. These are not the only aspects that matter the most, as the show covers so many more.

The most significant aspect is Tony Soprano himself, the face of the New Jersey mafia, whose emotional neuroses affect his leadership. Mr. Staley lists his many personality traits, from  anxiety to dwindling life prospects, before asking, “does this sound familiar?” The answer is yes, but that shouldn’t be specifically limited to the challenges facing millennials and Gen Z. To be fair to Mr. Staley, he does list a senior fan of the show who feels the same way. “I don’t think I felt like it was a good time,” he said. “I felt that things were going downhill.”

“The Sopranos” fandom has become bigger than the show. It has spawned numerous podcasts, most notably Talking Sopranos, hosted by Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, who played Christopher Moltisanti and Bobby Baccaleri, respectively. It has also spawned a large fan convention, with meet and greets of its cast members, numerous meme accounts — one of which is themed on socialism — and video essays about its contemplative and mysterious nature, especially the infamous blackout that suddenly ended the series finale, “Made in America.” As the podcast’s online fans increase, so does the possibility of bringing the show forward into other mediums.

The TikTok recaps are a symptom of the show’s endless fan culture that devours and embraces the state of mind known as “content.” As Martin Scorsese once argued, content becomes disposable and is “a business term for moving images.” These recaps are, by design, an attempt to abridge episodes into something digestible, but reduce their essence into something meaningless. 

All of this misses the basic reason for “The Sopranos’s” appeal, which is that it was universally and traditionally moral in its classical storytelling by combining tragedy, lust, and evil. The moment when Tony chokes an informant in real-time while on a college tour with his daughter remains shocking but was even more shocking to the viewer when it aired the first time. The recap of that episode, “College,” contains moments leading up to this sequence, but that’s not enough. It also has to compete with thousands of minute-long videos related to talking about “The Sopranos,” all of which pale in comparison with the show. 

Even the commentary surrounding the show meets the shallowness of such “content,” using “The Sopranos” to make the hosts’ ideas seem palatable, no matter how ridiculous they may be to normal fans. Viewing the show through the lens of feminism and progressivism, or any other fashionable politics, misses a larger point about, broadly, why people watch the series. One piece decisively claims the family’s matriarch, Carmela Soprano, as a gay icon, with a headline declaring that the show belongs to the gay community. When the creator of “The Sopranos,” David Chase, praised the fans for how open-minded their interpretations are, he ultimately encouraged them to limit their viewing of art to specific experiences, rather than keeping the show’s spirit alive. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Chase, 78, has described the 25th anniversary of “The Sopranos” as a funeral for the golden age of television, which he argues has ended. “We’re going back to where I was,” he says, referring to his early days in television, writing for “Northern Exposure.” The creative license he got to create a sophisticated serial drama is granted to creators less and less these days, he argues. “They’re going to have commercials,” he adds, referring to streaming services like Prime Video and Netflix that recently added ad-supported subscription plans. Likewise, the recaps of “The Sopranos” on TikTok are like advertisements themselves, next to other advertisements.  

Such artless content is nothing new, but it does show that the age of the algorithm has dramatically affected how we consume media. To add another reason why “The Sopranos” hearkens to the end of TV’s golden age, consider how Tiktok is the platform of decline, consistent with where attention deficit and shallow performativity is largely rewarded, the complete opposite of “The Sopranos’” rich substance. Yet the recaps do not service the show; instead, they become just another piece of chum in the endless churn of content that appears on the internet every day.  

The New York Sun

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