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Did 'The Sopranos' Anticipate the Rise of Trump?

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in "The Sopranos" (1999-2007). (HBO)

In “The Sopranos’ ” controversial and relentlessly scrutinized final episode, “Made in America,” Tony’s misfit son AJ makes a reluctant announcement: He’s going to fight in Afghanistan because he believes the Army will improve his career prospects. “My ultimate goal is to qualify for helicopter pilot training,” he tells an incredulous Tony. “Afterwards go to work for Trump or somebody. Be their personal pilot.” (AJ ultimately accepts a position at “Little” Carmine Lupertazzi’s production company, which is developing a movie about a private detective who gets sucked into the internet.)

Twelve years later, the U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan and Donald Trump has improbably ascended to the White House, his family’s criminal undertakings offering their own source of fascination for the American public. To borrow a phrase from “Sopranos” character Bobby Baccalieri, maybe Quasimodo predicted all this. Either way, the series understood acutely where America was headed as a culture and a society.

“I think the thematic heart of the show—corruption, consumption and waste—are subjects that are on people’s minds to a far greater degree now than they were in the late ’90s,” New York Magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz tells Truthdig. “And I hate to be so blunt, but we have a kind of gangster president.”

In their new book, “The Sopranos Sessions,” Seitz and co-author Alan Sepinwall offer a critical reexamination of the HBO drama—one that explores how the series revolutionized serial television, aesthetically and thematically. “The show’s mercurial unpredictability was electrifying,” they write in their introduction. “Pre-Sopranos, TV was widely dismissed as a medium for programs that didn’t ask the viewer to think about anything except what was coming on next, and that preferred lovable characters who didn’t change and had no inner life. The ideal network series was filler between commercials.”

The book also includes new interviews with creator David Chase, each of which provides fresh insight into the writers’ and show-runners’ creative process. Since their publication, these interviews have caused a stir of their own, fueling further speculation about the fate of Tony Soprano. I won’t dissect Chase’s admission here, but the fact that audiences and the media alike continue to hang on his every word is a testament not just to the brilliance of the show’s final scene but the enduring power of “The Sopranos” itself.

Over the phone, I spoke with Seitz about the show’s politics, America’s reverence for anti-heroes and its fundamental discomfort with ambiguity. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Jacob Sugarman: This year marks the 20th anniversary of “The Sopranos,” which serves as a hook of sorts for your book. Why do you think the show continues to resonate decades after it first premiered?

Matt Zoller Seitz: Well, there are number of reasons. One of them is that television as we know it now comes from “The Sopranos,” for better of worse—[specifically] the tradition of the anti-hero, or anti-heroes, being at the center of the story rather than a more moralistic hero that audiences can approve of. That’s a major change. Other shows had attempted that, but “The Sopranos” actually pulled it off, and it deserves the credit. Or the blame.

[More significantly], I think the thematic heart of the show—corruption, consumption and waste—are subjects that are on people’s minds to a far greater degree now than they were in the late ’90s. Tony Soprano is a waste-management consultant, but he’s essentially in the business of hauling and dumping garbage. That’s where his veneer of legitimacy comes from. He’s also a character who disposes of people, figuratively and literally, when they are no longer of any use to him; for whom morality is entirely situational; and who is gluttonous in every way. Food, drink, women, drugs, cars, houses, you name it. He’s a corrupter who introduces an element of decay to the people around him. And I hate to be so blunt, but we have a kind of gangster president.

JS: Please, be blunt!

MZS: I mean, that’s what he is. In fact, when I first heard Donald Trump announcing his presidency—the way he was talking and the way he was acting like a tough guy, implying that he could have people beaten up, or legally crushed, and making it clear that if you were loyal to him he loved you—he sounded like one of the two-bit gangsters Tony would end up killing before the end of the season, simply because he was too loud and too stupid to be allowed to live. You know?

JS: Do you think it’s fair to say that the show anticipated the rise of Trumpism? Rewatching the pilot episode for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how much Tony’s opening monologue seemed to echo the kinds of grievances that were so pervasive in the run-up to the 2016 election.

MZS: When Tony says, “Lately, I’ve been thinking that I came in at the end, that the best was over,” he was specifically addressing the end of the millennium, which had triggered widespread concern that our computer systems were going to fail us, that lights were going to go out, dams would burst, planes were going to fall from the sky. None of that happened, of course. But Tony was also speaking to the end of the American Century. It might not have happened right away, but the seeds had likely been planted as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. Then 9/11 happened three years after “The Sopranos” debuted, and they had to take the twin towers out of the rearview mirror in the opening credits.

I think it’s inarguable that things have become worse for America, at least in terms of our international prestige, and we brought it on ourselves. Of course, it’s debatable whether a country built on genocide and slavery ever deserved such an exalted position in the first place. When people say they love you, what they really mean is they fear you. And that’s not a situation that’s unique to America. Before us, England played the part of Tony Soprano, and China took its turn, and France. A lot of different countries have had that role. But we have given up even the pretense of being a moral authority. I think the bloom is off the rose now in a way that it maybe wasn’t even in the ’50s and ’60s, when we were building up to Vietnam. Honestly, I’m stunned that we didn’t have somebody like Trump in charge of the country sooner. I look at that guy, and I feel like I’m seeing what we actually are and never wanted to admit. And I think, as a country, we need to spend some quality time with Dr. Melfi and take a good, hard look at ourselves.

JS: I thought it was really interesting that “The Sopranos Sessions” is publishing at a time when “Vice” is in theaters right now. Obviously it’s a different medium, with a different subject, but it seems like we’re trying to grapple with the damage of that administration. I think of “The Sopranos” as the ur work of the Bush presidency.

MZS: I would have to disagree with you slightly. Remember, David Chase is a baby boomer, and his sensibilities as a young man were shaped by counterculture works like “Catch-22,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And in cinema, stuff like “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider,” and “Blow-Up,” which is a major influence on the ending of the show.

Just in terms of calendar, Bill was in office when “The Sopranos” debuted. Clinton was a scumbag, and I don’t think we’ve really started to come to terms with the fact that he’s probably a rapist. At the very least, he used his power in a way that sexually dominated and intimidated women. There was a natural charm to him that women responded to in a consensual manner, but then there were also times when he threw his weight around like a gangster, and he lied about it. Peter Bogdanovich is quoted in one of the articles from the book as saying that he thought that the show spoke to the moral murkiness of that period.

JS: All fair points, and I would never try to absolve Bill Clinton of any kind of moral murkiness. But I guess I’d counter that the bulk of the series is set in post-9/11 America. You’re repeatedly reminded that the towers have come down, and the country has radically changed course.

MZS: Once Bush got into office, I think “The Sopranos” spoke directly to his presidency too, especially in the way that the mob guys expediently started blaming everything on Middle Easterners. They saw it as a way to escape the heat of the FBI.

JS: To return to your earlier point about the show revolutionizing serial television as we know it: Do you think “The Sopranos,” and the wave of anti-heroes it inspired, might have helped prime the country to embrace a sociopath as president?

MZS: Well, I think you can make a case for pop culture acclimating people to a Trump-like figure, but I probably wouldn’t pin it on “The Sopranos.” I think that show is basically on the side of the angels when it comes to making us feel conflicting emotions about a character like Tony and the gangsters he ran with, as well as the wives and girlfriends who were complicit in the evil of these men. There were a few moments when [the writers] kind of lost their grip and seemed to be getting off on the brutality of the characters, but it happened a lot less often than you would think. If anything, I think “The Sopranos” offered a counterweight, because the framework of it was morality and moral relativity.

But the movie characters I grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s seem really sinister in retrospect. Who were the male box office stars of that era? They were people like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Michael Douglas, Robin Williams and Bruce Willis. And what do they all have in common? Like Mel Gibson in the “Lethal Weapon” series, they’re “mavericks.” In “Top Gun,” Tom Cruise’s character is even named Maverick. All of these guys are personable, good-looking and hyper masculine. They walk with a swagger. They’re wittier than everybody else, and they’re more confident than everybody else. They enter a room and just take over, and they don’t give a damn about rules or regulations. They may get reprimanded, they may have to give up their badge for a period of time, but they’re [invariably] rewarded with a slow clap at the end. And there’s always a sputtering authority figure who complains that they don’t have any respect for protocol, and traditions, and all of that business.

There’s nothing more American than someone who refuses to follow the rules. I actually did a piece for The Star Ledger in 2003, and a lot of readers didn’t appreciate it because it was a pretty Republican circulation area at the time. But it essentially made this point. I don’t think we would have been as willing to accept somebody like George W. Bush if pop culture hadn’t been telling us for over 20 years that this is the guy that we all really want. Trump is more like a Michael Douglas character from an ’80s movie, honestly. He actually auditioned to be in “Wall Street”—did you know that?

JS: I did not, but that’s perfect.

MZS: He was going to play himself. When I was writing a book about Oliver Stone, he told me that Trump was a terrible actor, that he was impossible to direct, and that he wouldn’t take direction at all.

JS: Of course he wouldn’t.

MZS: Keep in mind, this is Oliver Stone, who is not exactly Mr. Sensitivity.

JS: Since your book was published, we’ve learned that [creator] David Chase is working on a prequel film to “The Sopranos” called “The Many Saints of Newark,” set during the Newark riots of 1967. Obviously details are pretty sparse, but do you see a project like that as Chase attempting to reckon with our political moment?

MZS: They certainly weren’t shy about referencing recent politics on the show. So yeah, who knows?

JS: I ask because the series makes explicit reference to future New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Imperiale, a racist rabble-rouser and proto-Trump, if ever there was one.

MZS: That’s interesting. I hadn’t even thought about that. But you know, I guess it’s possible. I remember seeing a profile of him on “60 Minutes” when I was a kid. And my stepfather, who was born and raised in Queens, and was a big reactionary right-wing guy, loved Imperiale. His very existence seemed to excite him. It’s interesting to think that he could be in the movie.

JS: I know you have to run, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the show’s final scene. It’s funny, because your book has its own little Holsten’s diner moment. David Chase appears to make a Freudian slip and acknowledge that Tony gets whacked, but then he quickly retreats, leaving the reader wondering exactly what just happened.

MZS: Right.

JS: I’m not going to ask you if you believe Tony is killed, because that feels like a boring question at this point, but why do you think we’re still so desperate to know what happens, 12 years after the show has wrapped?

MZS: Well, I should start by telling you that, if you tell me that the point of that scene is that Tony died, I’m not going to argue with you. I think you can certainly read it that way. But what I object to is the idea that there’s only one acceptable answer to what happened at the end of “The Sopranos,” and that it’s not open to interpretation, because that’s just absurd. I think if you keep insisting Tony died, and you won’t accept any other discussion, then you weren’t really paying attention to the show. And I would say you don’t really love the show for what it actually was.

“The Sopranos” was very rigorous in insisting that we don’t get the answers to certain questions, and it denied us closure every chance it got. This started in a big way in the second episode of season 3 when [Tony’s mother] Livia dies. There’s a scene where AJ and Meadow are talking about Robert Frost, and AJ is very frustrated because he [can’t understand] one of his poems. He just wants the answer, and Meadow keeps giving him intellectual prompts that are intended to stimulate independent thought, and lead him to his own conclusions. As he told us in the book, that was Chase’s way of acknowledging his own frustration with some of the viewers of the show. It annoyed him that people were so literal-minded in the way they dealt with certain aspects of the series. And this allowed him to mock them a bit.

In the next scene, AJ thinks he hears the floorboards creaking outside his bedroom. He goes into the hallway and says, “Grandma?” Was his grandmother there? Is there another world on “The Sopranos,” beyond the one we can sense? Maybe and maybe not. The show never settles the matter.

This is going to make me sound like a jerk, but I’m just going to say it: I feel like it is our duty as people who know what art is, and accept certain properties of art as being non-negotiable, to stand up and fight against this treatment of the final four minutes of the series as a puzzle. I think that this desire to solve the last scene like an eighth-grade algebra question is part of a larger war on art that has always been [intrinsic to] the American experience of culture. People don’t want art to be art. They want it to be entertainment, they want it to be digestible and they want to come up with the answer so they can get on with the rest of their lives. To be free of it. And you’re never going to be free of “The Sopranos.”

Jacob Sugarman
Managing Editor
Jacob Sugarman is the acting managing editor at Truthdig. He is a graduate of the Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism whose writing has appeared in Salon, AlterNet and Tablet, among other…
Jacob Sugarman

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