In The Wake of Tony Soprano

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Do we need a moral framework?

For Matthew Weiner, the creator of AMC’s Mad Men, ours is the golden age of television. Quickly it has become one of the central places for the artist to participate in cultural discourse. “If Dickens were alive today,” Weiner stated in a recent interview, “he’d probably be a show writer.”

Such shifts in culture also extend from writer to audience. New York Times’ David Carr writes of this change:

On the sidelines of the children’s soccer game, or at dinner with friends, you can set your watch on how long it takes before everyone finds a show in common. In the short span of five years, table talk has shifted, at least among the people I socialize with, from books and movies to television. The idiot box gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it.

It was with this backdrop that our Into the Noise cohort started watching the first season of the HBO gangster show, Sopranos. Considering myself something of mild TV buff, it has been a point of insecurity that I had not seen the show widely considered to be the start of our current television cultural boom.

As a television evangelist, I like to think it is not crazy to believe we might learn something about the human condition from the art that is modern television. In recommending the show as our first ‘cultural assignment,’ I have to admit I was playing into my own desire for greater nuance when it comes to moral understanding.

Maybe hearing a bit more of where I come from will help explain this dynamic.

Just a few days ago, the day before Christmas Eve to be specific, my brother and I hopped in his Volkswagen station wagon in Baltimore, Maryland and onto i70 towards Chicago. Together, the two of us, along with his black and white spotted German Short Haired Pointer, would trek across the country to make it home for the holidays. Because of our late start, Google was courteous enough to let us know our estimated arrival would be 1:30 in the morning.

About halfway through the Ohio Turnpike portion of our drive, the caffeine long drained of its potency, the miles began lulling us to sleep. To keep us awake, I pulled a strategy out of left field—an on-the-fly playlist of 90s Christian music. For those of you who grew up in this era and subculture, these names will be familiar: Newsboys, Jars of Clay, Audio Adrenaline, even the OC Supertones… The list goes on, 103 minutes of unadulterated evangelical subculture.

After getting over the shock at how quickly the lyrics came back to us—DC Talk’s “that kind of girl” was a favorite—what surprised me the most was the moral flatness of many of the lyrics. In and out—clearly delineated. Right and wrong—easily discerned. Showing this problem is not limited to music alone, I was reminded of my sister’s decision to jokingly watch the Left Behind series only to curiously note that… Surprise!… the post-apocalyptic world was filled with a bunch of smokers! Big tobacco rejoices.

To give my family and community credit, the worldview they taught had significantly more nuance. Nevertheless, a re-education in moral thinking isn’t a bad thing, and what better place to learn discernment of these dynamics than the moral ambiguity of a bunch of Italian Jersey mobsters.

In a review of the final episode of the series over at The Atlantic, Ross Douthat highlighted a line that gets at the core of Tony Soprano’s moral worldview. Turning to his underboss Paulie, Tony says, “I am not saying there’s nothing out there, but you gotta live your life.”

The trick is this, isn’t the quality of living predicated on some assumption of what makes that life worthy—some moral, social, or aesthetic standard that gives this life color? This is not to say that we can walk through life with a clear and coherent set of views on immanence and transcendence, or specific historical, theological principles and debates. But don’t we need a guiding framework that justifies and underscores our actions? I do think most of us have this, however unarticulated. Indeed, isn’t some of the power of film, or in this case television, the way in which we see these visions take shape as we move forward in our living?

For me, what resonates about Sopranos is the way in which this vision emerges, is refined, and sometimes is avoided in the therapist’s office. Not being much of a man for the confession booth, week after week we see Tony arriving at the therapeutic alter. In a world that is moving quickly from spiritual to psychological explanations, we can learn quite a bit about the human condition in how Soprano conceives of himself in anticipation, or in response to, moral action—going about ‘living his life,’ in other words.

As an audience, can we not help but step into the shoes of Jennifer Melfi, his therapist, and ask how we would counsel this man with a vision of morality and authenticity. Simultaneously, it is challenging to watch the show without wondering how we might best honor our duties to family and clan as they are infringed upon us from the outside, just like they are with Tony.

The cultural conversation is shifting, but maybe the lessons from a Jersey therapist’s office are a bit more timeless. To the extent that these kinds of conversations continue to bleed into soccer sidelines and dinner conversations, it’s worth our time learning how to see those glowing screens propped across from our couches differently. For a guy who needs to learn to see the moral world with more nuance, learning to take these conversations in communities like Into the Noise provides a wonderful space for refinement. And if you look closely enough, you might even see Dickens nodding along.