Stories We Tell
Chris Wisniewski on The Sopranos

Did The Sopranos change everything, or did everything change around The Sopranos? It’s probably a bit of both.

Thinking back to my days as a young twenty-something cinephile, I still swoon over several formative, life-changing encounters with great films in a theater. There was that time in San Francisco when I saw Mulholland Drive alone on an autumn evening at the movie theater near the Embarcadero. Dumbstruck by it, I walked out literally shaking with enthusiasm. In the summer of 2004 while visiting my family, I snuck off to the Downer Theater in Milwaukee to see Before Sunset, and I remember driving back from the east side to my childhood home tucked just inside the city’s southwestern border, positively giddy with movie love. And then there were my encounters with the Malicks—The New World and The Tree of Life—both of which I saw at critic screenings before they were released to initially mixed reviews. They left me agog, confused, and exhilarated, alive to the possibilities of the form in new ways.

I treasure those memories. Yet my experience of The Sopranos was just as foundational, and today, particularly poignant. I now see that it anticipated a time—hastened by the pandemic—when I would become less likely to encounter moving image art in a theater than on my television screen, whether I was in fact watching “TV” or, perhaps, a “film” on a streaming channel or screener. In the early days, seasons one through three, my parents would record the show and pack the VHS tapes for me, boxing them with pecan turtles, cashews, and other goodies from home in priority mailboxes. When the shipments arrived, my college friends and I would devour the episodes along with the food. In hindsight, this was probably my first experience of binging, a phenomenon still novel in the early days of the century. When I was adult enough to have my own HBO subscription, I endured the interminable stretches between seasons as the show progressed toward its generation-defining conclusion in 2006. This too felt new. I was a child of the eighties used to September season premieres, November and February sweeps, and May finales. The fact that David Chase and company took their sweet time to churn out batches of 13 episodes (or sometimes less) telegraphed something different: The Sopranos was not just another television series—Chase would talk about television contemptuously in interviews as a medium designed to comfort, reassure, and ultimately sell things to its audience—it was inventing a new form of serial drama that challenged, provoked, unsettled, and dispensed with formula. It came back when it came back, and it ran as long as it ran. We could only be grateful.

Now that television has largely usurped the centrality of serious adult filmmaking in the cultural conversation, the primacy and legitimacy of the medium is taken for granted. It comes as no surprise that I got more dinner party conversation mileage in 2023 out of Succession than I did out of Saint Omer, my favorite film of the previous year. Over these past several decades, cinephilia has become increasingly rarefied as television’s cultural capital has been ascendent. While it would be reductive to claim that The Sopranos caused this shift, there is no doubt that it accelerated it.

There are more than a handful of movies over the past two decades—roughly, my adult life—that I would rank as major achievements; with this conviction in mind, any claims about the death of cinema are, in this writer’s opinion, baseless. Nevertheless, The Sopranos marks an artistic apotheosis during this period that is unique, if not unrivaled. I make no claim that it is superior to Mulholland Drive or The Tree of Life. To compare them is more than a little misguided: as serial television, The Sopranos exploits and problematizes its medium, where Mulholland Drive and The Tree of Life possess their power and grandeur precisely because they are feature-length movies made for single-session viewing in a theater, embracing cinematic scale and the history and legacy of the medium. (This, despite the fact that Mulholland Drive was initially conceived as a television pilot, but that is a subject for a different essay.) Rather, the claim I am making is that these three works and numerous others have cast a long artistic shadow over the early days of this century. Because of The Sopranos’ status as television, though, its influence is singular. Its “undeniability” legitimized future claims on behalf of shows like The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Twin Peaks: The Return, paving the way for a new discourse and endless arguments about television as art.

Still, we’ve continued to police the increasingly amorphous border between cinema and television. Scanning through 20 years of Reverse Shot top tens, one gets a valuable snapshot of international art cinema in the 21st century, but something is missing. I’ve felt that way as a Reverse Shot contributor. A little over a year ago, I was happy to submit a top ten with Saint Omer and Armageddon Time and The Eternal Daughter near the top of my list. When I reflect on my viewing experiences from that year, though, nothing enchanted, delighted, or moved me more than Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep miniseries, and I watched nothing more mind-bendingly brilliant than Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal. Perhaps this essay functions as an attempt to right the record. By revisiting The Sopranos as one of the definitive moving image works of this century in commemorating two decades of Reverse Shot, I may be trying to say that my journey as a cinephile over these past 20 years has involved a growing acceptance that cinephilia itself has become a destabilized and unsustainable category, an antique of the twentieth century.


Unsurprisingly, the changing landscape of cinephilia travels a parallel path with the shifting landscape of film (or cultural) criticism. When Reverse Shot started, I was just about to enter grad school for Cinema Studies. My first semester, I tried unsuccessfully to get into a seminar taught by J. Hoberman titled, simply, “Film Criticism.” Demand was high, and I didn’t make the cut. This disappointed me, maybe because I had an outlandish fantasy that I would so impress Hoberman that he would take me under his wing, with a gig writing criticism for The Village Voice to follow. I’m quite sure I wasn’t the only member of my grad school cohort nursing this delusion. Within a few short years, the field of “film criticism” would begin its slow death march as a viable profession, and as paid critics lost their posts one after the other, my dream of making a living writing about movies flamed out rather quickly. I became a Reverse Shot writer while all of this was happening, more to contribute to a serious online conversation about film than to start a career.

Around this time, Reverse Shot launched a blog, which marked a major change for a publication that prized considered, serious, lengthy pieces and editorial rigor and that eschewed the free-for-all of open comments.The Reverse Blog served as the perfect forum for the publication’s first foray into television writing. As The Sopranos entered its final nine-episode run, two other contributors (Adam Nayman and Michael Koresky) and I agreed to “blog” the season as it unfolded, each of us taking turns writing a lead post and the other two offering shorter responses quickly after the episode aired. In keeping with the openness of the blog itself, Nayman’s Sopranos-obsessive mother, Evelyne, joined the fray—anonymously at first—providing disarmingly smart commentary on our conversation.

We could not have known it at the time, but our Sopranos blog anticipated the entrenchment of recap culture, which has arguably supplanted film criticism for many a mainstream cultural consumer. Gone are the days when a New York Times rave for a film like A Thousand and One can catapult such a worthy indie to prominence. The recapper lacks the singular authority and influence of the film critic in the profession’s heyday; what they offer instead might better be thought of as a conversation-starter, one that invites larger communities of viewers to reflect on and share their perspectives on moving image art. The comment sections on recap columns in the Times or Vulture or the former AV Club are lively places to kill time, whether the subject is a galvanizing series like Succession or detritus like And Just Like That… The Sopranos blogging exercise allowed me to flex a new set of muscles. The posts were rapid-fire and unfiltered. I had previously experienced writing as a laborious enterprise undertaken over several days: I have never been able to put metaphorical pen to paper until I’ve already sorted out the argument I wanted to make, and I’d never turned in a piece of writing to a teacher or an editor without putting it aside for at least a day and then revising it with a fresh pair of eyes. This was different.

Writing for the Sopranos blog was only possible for me because of the richness of the text. By the time season 6-B had rolled around, I had seen all of the previous seasons through at least twice and turned its ambiguities, open ends, false promises, and despairing world view over in my head more often than I care to admit. In the pilot episode, Tony (James Gandolfini) wonders whether he got into the Mafia after the good times had already ended, an apt enough metaphor for the death of the American Dream at the end of the 20th century. Over the course of several seasons, the show would tease Carmela’s (Edie Falco) awareness of her husband’s moral depravity and criminality, going far enough in the season three episode “A Second Opinion” to employ a therapist figure who tells her, directly and explicitly, to leave with her kids, abandoning Tony and his blood money. “You can never say you haven’t been told,” he warns her.

These two towering, compromised figures and the sad, desperate, small people who surround them haunted me through my twenties. Similarly, David Chase’s refusal to deliver the kind of narrative closure the medium had always required challenged me to think differently about television as a form. As a writer, I relied on the mysterious resonance of these doomed characters and the expectation-defying brilliance of Chase’s dramaturgy to fuel a more nimble response to each new episode than I had previously mustered in my film criticism.

For Reverse Shot, the blog would prove a dead end. For me personally, it gave me one of my most rewarding and collaborative writing experiences while also foreshadowing where so much cultural criticism would head in the late teens and twenties. I felt a part of a larger community, both of Reverse Shot writers and Sopranos viewers. For all our justified cynicism about the toxic influence of social media and internet echo chambers, it is easy to forget the generative power of technologies and trends that have made culture and cultural consumption more fundamentally participatory than they were in the previous century. Our culture is different from the one I inhabited in 1999, waiting for shipments of VHS tapes from Milwaukee. Not altogether better or worse, but unrecognizably different.


In the first post of the Reverse Blog’s Sopranos column, still archived deep inside the IndieWire website (if you do some sleuthing!), a contributor named “CNW” (yours truly) examines the final episode of season 6-A, “Kaisha.” In the post, I argue that “Kaisha” functions as a fabrication. Literally, the name refers to a fictional girlfriend that Tony’s nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) invents to deflect attention from his affair with an ex of Tony’s. Toward the end of the episode, Tony and Carmela’s daughter Meadow phones from California. They say to Meadow, falsely, “Everybody’s here,” though Meadow herself is absent, as is Christopher’s former fiancée Adriana, who was murdered in the previous season. Everyone is lying to one another.

At the time, I made the case that “Kaisha” stands in as a structuring absence, the thing or the person that is missing and papered over to make everything seem alright. An alternate reading is that Kaisha is the story we tell to others and to ourselves to make sense of our lives and our decisions, particularly the ways life disappoints us and we disappoint ourselves. Now that I’m in my forties and have been forced to confront my own failures and shortcomings—or sometimes to ignore them—the metaphor has more relevance than it did when I first wrote about the episode.

This dissonance, between the reality of our lives and the stories we tell about them, is arguably the central conceit of The Sopranos’ pilot episode. Structured largely around Tony’s first session with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), the pilot derives much of its black humor from the disconnect between what Tony says (e.g., he’s in “waste management”; he and Christopher had “a conversation” with the man they ran over and violently attacked) and what we actually see depicted onscreen. The hypocrisy is brazen, Tony and Melfi’s shared understanding bordering on the delusional. How can Melfi actually “help” Tony if their every interaction is predicated on a lie? What does it even mean to “help” someone like Tony? The contrast between their relationship and Carmela’s exchange with her psychiatrist in “A Second Opinion” is stark. Even so, that moment toward the end of season three goes nowhere. The therapist tells her that her husband’s a murderer, that her wealth is “blood money,” that she can’t say she hasn’t been told, and then she…does nothing. Thinking back on our blog posts about the final season of the series, what strikes me most powerfully is our reluctance to fully accept the central thesis the show had asserted continually over six previous seasons, the thesis built into the hilariously despairing therapy conversations of the pilot: these people won’t change, because people don’t.

Thankfully, I have not yet gotten to the point that I have fully embraced The Sopranos’ bleak world view, but its cynicism about people and their ability to better themselves compels me, as I approach my middle age, more powerfully with each passing day. Whatever else The Sopranos has taught me about viewing habits, television and cinephilia, criticism, or my own writing, it has become a part of me over these past two decades. Like any great work of art, it has shaped me as I have changed and as the world’s changed around me. But unlike the movies I adore, I have lived with this show for years at a time, dipped into and out of it, and circled back on several occasions to its very beginning. My relationship with The Sopranos is now a part of the story I tell about myself. This is the beautiful mystery of art, the thing that happens after that magical first encounter as the unrelenting force of time has its way with you.