'The Sopranos' Remains A Cross-Cultural Catharsis For Viewers with Depression
Tony Soprano, depressed Italian mob boss, helped me, depressed Korean American, find my way out of the labyrinth.
“So after all is said and done, after all the complainin’ and the cryin’ and all the fuckin’ bullshit… is this all there is?” -Tony Soprano
For a period of my life, I suffered from severe depression. I refused to leave the sanctity of my couch, smoked weed all day, and shunned all human company. Depression is not unique to me: approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 suffer from depression. The government defines depression as “a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration interfere with everyday life for weeks or more.”
When it feels like a Darth Vader-like vise is squeezing your skull all the time, it’s hard to think about anyone or anything else but your own solitary state of misery. The future was dark and shapeless: after a string of unfulfilling internships, burnt out, I still had no clear idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. But even so, being a 24/7 shut-in breeds further loneliness. I hadn’t lost my mind, only my will to survive.
Serendipitously, I had access to a box set of The Sopranos, a TV series I’d never bothered to watch when it first aired. “How good could it really be?”, I thought, my inner monologue still apathetic and detached. Turns out, very fucking good indeed.
A cathartic look at a characters likewise grappling with depression and an entrancing escape, The Sopranos was more restorative than my experiences with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, prescriptive pills, or my own misguided attempts to self-medicate with marijuana.
I binge-watched the HBO series all day, everyday, as if my life depended on it – and arguably, it did. As I obsessively ripped through all six seasons in two weeks, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) turned out to be my perfect avatar. In 86 episodes, Tony unspools a cynical life philosophy through his impatient interactions with his family and mob underlings, and through his reluctant therapy sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). The sharp and witty dialogue engaged me intellectually, but it was late actor Gandolfini’s delivery of those lines that really reached out and found me where I was ruminating. Like Tony, I was struggling to find my place in the world, and the process had exhausted me.
Tony harbored a deep mistrust of modern-day therapy, in part due to the anxious masculinity rampant in the “family”; he knew how other men in the mob would react to his need of a shrink. During their first session together, after Dr. Melfi pulls out her script pad, suggesting medication, Tony declares dryly: “Here comes the Prozac!”
My parents are Korean-American immigrants who have always eschewed public signs of weakness, so, in an odd way, I understood Tony’s discomfort. At least for my parents’ generation, mental illness wasn’t talked about in the same way as it was in westernized cultures. In fact, it wasn’t discussed at all. In Korea, being called mentally ill” is equivalent to a serious insult, not to mention a deep source of stigma and shame; the onus of blame is entirely on the defective individual for being crazy in the first place. As for inner feelings, they were never prioritized at home. I never recall my parents ever asking me, “So, how are you feeling?”
Tony echoes the concerns of my parents in one episode: “Nowadays, everybodys gotta go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on Sally Jessy Raphael and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!”
While I never judged anyone else for going to therapy, I always doubted it was for me. I refused to believe that someone who did not personally know me or care about me could help. I thought, because I was a resilient and capable thinker that, given enough time, I should be able to think my way out of the labyrinth.
Psychotherapy has permeated mainstream culture such that very little of Dr. Melfi’s method appeared new or striking to me. What really resonated was Tony’s sarcastic responses, revealing a starkly black-and-white world view, which I could all too closely identify with. In therapy, Tony gave vent to all the rage, disillusionment, and sadness that I had repressed and buried for years. He articulated my own unexamined feelings of doom about the genetic predisposition toward depression that I’d obviously inherited:
Dr. Melfi: You think that everything that happens is preordained? You don’t think that human beings possess free will?
Tony Soprano: How come I’m not making freakin’ pots in Peru? You’re born to this shit. You are what you are.
Dr. Melfi: Within that, there is a range of choices. This is America.
Tony Soprano: Right… America.
Vicariously, I was forced to attend therapy with Tony, but had the advantage of being a viewer, and not a participant. As Tony and Dr. Melfi’s dynamic back-and forth interaction explored Tony’s formative years, in turn, it made me question and confront the traumatic experiences that shaped who I had become as an adult.
I found myself empathizing with, and even sympathizing with, a complex, multi-dimensional fictional character. Witnessing Tony’s antics in Dr. Melfi’s office also provoked a response that I was not at all prepared for: for the first time in a long time, it made me laugh.
Of course, there’s no quick fix for depression. But The Sopranos managed to reach me on a deeper level like nothing else since I had become ill. The outcome wasn’t just acquiring a new perspective on life, but realizing how much I truly loved great TV shows; or how they can actually impact and transform lives.
Binge-watching The Sopranos also gave me direction and renewed hope for the future; I’ve been writing about TV and films ever since. While I still privately cope with depression on and off, I’ve made peace with outside help and attending professional therapy.
Tony Soprano remains an effective proxy for every wounded child masquerading as a fully functional adult. And to be totally honest, while I’m not sure that I am any less angry than I ever was, I’ve learned that a dark sense of humor definitely helps to channel and cope with unwanted, overwhelming negative feelings.
When things turn sour, thanks to Tony, there’s often a little voice in my head that shrugs its shoulders and asks, “Whaddaya gonna do?,” or just throws its hands in the air and shouts: “Vafangul!” The resignation, and darkly humorous resilience I learned from Tony is still helping me. Depressed or not, it would probably be healthier for everyone to have a mini-Tony Soprano in their heads, too.
‘The Sopranos’ is available, in full, on HBO Now.