Why I Quit Watching “The Sopranos”

When my daughter was four or five years old, we took her to a highly touted “children’s movie” animation having to do with the escapades of a pony finding its way through fraught circumstances. I remember neither the title nor anything else to do with the plot save this: at one point, the pony was tied to a stake and thrashing helplessly as foreboding music swelled and some evil force prepared to descend upon it.

The movie ended for us right then because my daughter began to sob uncontrollably, fear and sorrow etched full upon her face. After a few murmured soothings from her mother and me proved completely fruitless, we exited the theater.

I thought back to that episode recently when finally catching up to “The Sopranos,” the multi-award-winning television series that had critics of the time swooning, but which I completely missed during its 1999-2007 run. Parents will surely understand why—those dates coincided with my daughter’s first eight years of life, a time when my television viewing was pretty much limited to morning “Sesame Street” and “Blue’s Clues,” with an occasional evening peek at a “Seinfeld” rerun (if I could keep my eyes open).

So then this question presented itself: What is my role as a spectator and consumer of these depictions of horrific violence? Am I being complicit in the acceptance and normalization of this appalling violation of human dignity?

Having watched exactly five episodes of “The Sopranos,” I can well understand the critical acclaim for its powerful storytelling and character development. No argument from me there.

But I was also surprised at how easy it was to stop watching.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I grappled with the decision over the couple of weeks I watched. The inclination to carry on was simply due to the show’s stellar production values, its fine writing, acting, and in-depth presentation of multiple characters.

But upon due consideration, I said, “No más.”

I did so because I had been noticing a mounting sense of trepidation and turmoil seeping into my body whenever some particularly horrific (and lamentably, not infrequent) sequence of violence begetting great bodily harm began forming itself on the screen.

My dis-ease began with unsettledness in my gut as the violence was imminent, followed by a nearly audible wince and urge to look quickly away when the blows and kicks and shots commenced.

Not so very unlike what had overcome my daughter as she feared for the well-being of her pony in the long ago.

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One of the great joys of having reached this age is getting to watch my nearly 20-month-old grandson gambol across his life with a relentless grin and chortle for all that is. Sure, he’s subject to the basic pains and frustrations that come with being a mortal and limited creature, but at this stage and in this part of the world, he lives in that blissful state of being wholly unfamiliar with great material want and the blackness that can overcome the human heart.

His mother was three years old when the destruction of the World Trade Center shook this country to its very foundations. As much as her mother and I felt compelled to glue ourselves to media in subsequent hours and days, we made an instant decision to completely avoid exposing her to the imagery of crashing buildings, grim faces and rubble.

But some two years later, we traipsed into a movie theater with her, holding our popcorn, care-less about the travesties of the world beyond, anticipating only the magic of the movies. What we got instead was her terror and concern for the animated pony on the screen, which completely overwhelmed her, body and soul.

Revulsion, after all, is never merely psychological—as goes psyche, so goes soma. Biofeedback taught us that decades ago, and modern CT scans can pinpoint exactly what happens when violent stimuli sends our entire biological apparatus into overdrive.

Except, of course, when we have become hardened to it through repeat exposure.

Whether we witness it on screen or become one of the depraved souls who act with wanton violence in real life, we are remarkably adaptive creatures. Sufficient exposure and/or basic propaganda that sees victims as subhuman can help us “grow out of” our natural revulsion to violence and simply shrug when it presents itself. That was true thousands of years ago, and it remains true today.

That adaptation is, actually, a requirement if we are to “stomach” (notable word there!) the violence that seems to dominate so much of modern media. And the curious thing is I seem less and less able to stomach it.

Hmmm…

So I ask myself: Am I reverting to some version of a childish heart, an offshoot of Shakespeare’s famous “Seven Ages of Man,” its last age bent and small, trending back to the helpless thrashings of an infant?

Maybe.

Or maybe “growing out” of such an aversion isn’t quite what our own evolution, the creative force behind our flourishing selves, ever had in mind for us.

What are the consequences, after all, of quelling and deadening our natural revulsion to the battering and degradation of the human body?

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A salient point, I think: Seeing rockets launched at targets thousands of miles away, or dropping bombs from 30,000 feet, even if we’re seeing explosions below, allows for a psychological distance that is closed off to us if the violence is done with, say, a rifle from 30 yards.

Less again with a handgun fired across a room, still less with a gun in a victim’s mouth, a knife sinking into flesh, and the relentless kicking and pounding of heads into tables and cement that is so popular in mobster media like “The Sopranos.”

The closer violence gets to actual human flesh within our touching distance, the more our natural response is to wince and groan and avert our gaze along with the victim, covering up in a protective crouch that fairly screams, “Enough! Stop, Now!”

And one thing I noticed in the few “Sopranos” episodes I subjected myself to was how “Enough!” was never enough for the perpetrators in a rage over some mob family slight or fear they were being cut out of a deal. One, two, six, 10 pistol whips or savage kicks to the ribs, head and groin, the victim helpless and damaged beyond all reason, and still the blows came, violating something deep within the human psyche that the perps had long since overcome in their absolute denial of empathy or moral restraint.

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So then this question presents itself, not completely new, but persistent and perhaps more urgent than it has been in the past: What is my role as a spectator and consumer of these depictions of horrific violence?

Begetting more questions: Am I being complicit in the acceptance and normalization of this appalling violation of human dignity?

Have I fallen for the lure of this artfully depicted assault on what I truly do believe to be the sanctity of the human body, by giving it my attention and likely some of my dollars?

And perhaps most grievously: Have I forsaken some deep sensibility that I have had to quash or explain away in a bargain with myself so I could bear what I have chosen to sit in front of?

Contrary arguments abound, I know. I have had them with myself for many years.

One person’s “Too violent for me” can be another’s “No biggie,” or, “It’s just a movie.”

“Violence is part of our nature, seeing its true impact can help us better understand and perhaps curtail it.”

From a creator’s standpoint: “I’m just making movies here, about a basic human phenomenon, keeping it real.”

But that’s not really the matter at hand, is it? It’s not so much about violence per se, which even abounds in fairy tales, and is, as the one-time Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown put it back in the ’60s, “as American as cherry pie.”

What it’s actually about, I think, is the unmoored explicitness and extravagance modern media violence foists upon its consumers, with zero left to the imagination. (One could say much the same about depictions of sex, but let us leave that for another post…)

It’s not enough that we well know a character is being shot or beaten. No, no, no…we have to see the bullet enter, the skin tear, the blood spurt, the brains splatter on walls. The assault is particularly egregious in visual media, which enters the consciousness unmediated, mainlining its way into the brain with a power that reading words on a page doesn’t, and which makes such imagery far more difficult to “unsee.”

So there I shall leave it, with but one additional note: My original headline that got me going on this post was: “Why I’m Quitting The Sopranos (I Think…). The “I Think” reflected a continuing ambivalence about forsaking, no doubt about it, a well-executed and compelling series that revolves around the seemingly inexhaustible allure of mobster movies.

But that ambivalence was then.

Having now weighed these issues through the hours this post required (and for which I thank you for getting this far), I’m certain I have thought my way out of ever returning to “The Sopranos.”

My body won’t have it otherwise.

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Not much going on here visually, all the better to close your eyes and enter a world…

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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Pony by Nick Kenrick, Wirral, UK  https://www.flickr.com/photos/zedzap/

Woman with head in hands by Melanie Waser  https://unsplash.com/@melwasser

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Seven Ages of Man and wicked witch from the public domain

Navy bomber from historical archives website Picryl   https://picryl.com/media/

8 comments to Why I Quit Watching “The Sopranos”

  • Moon  says:

    My wife will enter her comments later, as you have (as usual) captured the essence of her feelings about most drama in the film and TV industries these days. For me, I have unconsciously become numb to the “ultra violence,” and see it as “cartoonish.”

    We just watched a series called The Killing, with Peter Saarsgard as a condemned man awaiting execution. Too realistic and gut wrenching. So much so that Karen says she cannot watch anything with him in it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Important point here, Moon, thanks. Yep, coming to see ultra violence as “cartoonish” is another—and probably the most effective—way we can defend ourselves from its emotional battering. Indeed, that is the tactic many creators use, whether in literal cartoons where bodies and whole worlds get blown to pieces, or in the kind of blithe, ultra-hip filmmaking in the style of Quentin Tarantino, where the violence is highly stylized and sometimes almost tongue-in-cheek. “Nothing to see here, keep it moving…”

      Though the same question presents itself, I think: What is the psychic cost of that repression (if any), and then what else are we getting from the film if we are successful at merely shrugging our shoulders at its savagery?

  • Arjan Khalsa  says:

    Very insightful! Compare the tv violence you write about with more constructive story telling. I recall Bruno Bettelheim’s discussions regarding the role that myths play in child development – the usefulness of allowing one’s imagination to process life’s challenges and help prepare for tomorrow’s realities. Similarly, Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey, and how we make ourselves stronger by observing the productive struggles of others.

    There are plenty of examples of books, films, plays, and music that portray violence in ways that build character in the reader, viewer, and listener. I take from your writing that The Sopranos is not one of them. When I heard my friends discuss the show and when I read the reviews, I decided not to tune in.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Great point, Arjan. My complaint is not about violence as such—no pearl clutching here!—but about its manner of portrayal, its often utterly gratuitous savagery placed before us as a (nearly) captive audience. (We do, of course, have the power to walk out of the theater or click the remote to another channel, but that can be complicated.) As you point out, conflict and violence are an indelible part of our history and consciousness, and many fine thinkers and creators grapple with its meaning and implications without rubbing our faces in it with all the tools modern media has at its disposal. Toward what end? is the important question.

  • Karen Malin  says:

    to me, the desensitizing to violence in our society has slowly escalated until now we see a headline of someone slaughtering people in public spaces, and barely blink! We see torture and demolition of thousands of people in out-of-control military violence and shrug, as if we think what could be done? It’s a daunting thing I think happening around us. because entertainment and media look for response and reaction from the public they have to continually up the ante of violence and sensationalism. I remember when we took our daughter to see Bambi probably about 15 or 18 years before your daughter watched the pony, and she was hysterical over Bambi‘s mother being killed! Not sure what the answer is, but I do firmlly endorse your decision to turn off the TV. I didn’t start the sopranos, but I had the same response to a British series called pinky blinders. Keep turning off the switch and encouraging others to follow that gut feeling that is shouting that this is too much!

  • David Moriah  says:

    Ah, Andrew, my friend. We are kindred spirits indeed, right down to my remembering having to leave the theater with our then 4 year old daughter watching a Sesame Street movie in which Big Bird was kidnapped. She had nightmares for a week or so. And I made a similar decision to you regarding the Sopranos about 10-15 minutes in to my first view of it. I don’t think I even reached depictions of violence. For me it was the endless repetition of F-bombs and its generally nasty tone. I think I could sense soul-numbing violence dead ahead and I chose to “just say no” to it. (Thanks, Nancy Reagan, for that inspirational phrase!)

    And today, as I undergo regular chemotherapy to keep this old body going, I find therapeutic wisdom in the advice found in the Christian scriptures – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think upon such things” (Philippians 4:8). Amen.

    Thank you for this journal entry. It connects to the message of God’s word.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your argument that the violence in today’s media is overwhelming and more unnecessary than not. The powers that be are fully aware of the relationship between visual violence and box office receipts. More blood, more money. No questions that war is hell. The only debate is over how to present it. For example, compare the 1930 “All Quiet on the Western Front” with Netflix’s remake in 2022. As far as I’m concerned, the original version was far more effective in messaging this anti-war theme because it allows one to imagine the horror as an internal exercise and not merely view it as a mass of blood gore and guts. Multiple scenes of blood, gore and guts become breeding grounds for desensitization which in turn minimizes the impact of the anti-war message. I could write a lengthy critique of both, but it would fall far short of one simply watching the last five minutes of the 1930 “All Quiet on the Western Front”. It is the most moving scene I’ve ever seen in a war film.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Karen, I have almost nothing to add to your fine rant except I appreciate you giving me a heads-up on “Pinky Blinders.” Doubt I’ll forget that title, either, even though I can’t possibly glean one shred of meaning from it. But its oddity will at least serve the function of having my radar on so I will not be blindsided!

    David, I thought I had come across most all of Paul’s letters—even took a class just on him at seminary—so I’m surprised those lines you quote sound completely new to me. And quite beautiful and on-point, too. I appreciate you sharing them, though what’s less surprising the longer we know each other is how common our sensibilities are. Carry on, Brother, in all that good soul work you are up to. It’s an inspiration.

    Robert, it has been forever since I’ve seen the original “All Quiet…” and I’ve made many mental notes over the years to pick it up again. Have brought it up for consideration a few times with movie-watching groups and will again, and meanwhile, you have definitely dissuaded me from getting anywhere near the remake! Also, your note just reminds me how much more creative subtlety, suggestion and restraint are in the arts than is explicit, in-your-face action, dialogue, violence, sex, whatever. It’s the lazy person’s route to amping up drama, and it winds up just dumbing things down.

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