Thoughts on The Sopranos season one

Being a huge fan of American-Italian gangster movies(Goodfellas is my all time favorite movie), I regret not seeing this television masterpiece, until this week. The Sopranos is regarded by many as the greatest tv show of all time. It is also one of the highest rated show on imdb website. I was thinking of watching The Sopranos since many years, but the lead mob character did not ‘look’ charming to me and frankly, I thought it was just a TV show-it could not be the Godfather. Finally, this week I binge watched the show and I just have one thing to say: it certainly is worthy of the hype it had generated since its first episode aired in 1999.

The greatness of The Sopranos stems from it’s treatment of the characters and it’s general comprehensiveness. Its rather easy to make an above average series on mobs, In every episode incorporate a gory violent mob shooting scene in slow motion which takes 10 to 15 minutes of times, allocate another 10 minutes to the scenes which builds up suspense to the violent scene, 10 to the aftermath scenes and the remaining time show naked women-Kaboom you have a show. Violence and sex sells period, it has and it will be the successful formula whether it is books, movies or tv. But The Sopranos is not an above average mob show giving what the audience wants, taking the easy way out. Though it does depict blood splattering killings and a fair share of sex itself, It is at heart a family drama. The protagonist is not a De Niro nor an Al Pacino but a middle aged over sized mobster, who is ridden with depression, suffering from mother issues and is in constant worry over his crumbling crime ‘business’.

The story sounds boring right, convincing their producers must have taken a lot of efforts. But the boring story works amazingly well because here we get to see the raw and unpolished mobster life. The realism of it all makes us connect and empathize with the characters.

David Chase the creator of the show humanizes the characters by focusing more on the human relations between the characters on the show. He turned his characters inside out, we can see their every emotion-their fear, paranoia, their sacrifices and their Skinner boxes which made them who they are. The casting is excellent, every actor on the show succeeds in conveying the essence of their characterization.

The other most important aspect of The Sopranos is the subtle commentary on various aspects of contemporary American society. The sly writers used the gangster plot as a front while through the many second track stories, which actually had nothing to do with the main plot, made their points on a lot of issues. This is hallmark of great writing. Great stories tell a lot more than just a story, they are able to capture the Zeitgeist of their times in all aspects, without deviating majorly from the main plot.

Many have already written reviews of Sopranos, i do not intend to do that. I want to share my observations and the subtle commentary that went in to the show according to me.

Main characters on the show:

Anthony Soprano(Tony), the main lead is one of the capos(captains) of an organized crime family in New Jersey, he suffers from panic attacks and depression due to his family and mafia problems. Reluctantly he joins a therapy session with the female psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Tony’s wife’s is Carmela who has a complex relationship with his mobster husband. Tony’s mother is Olivia “‘Livia” Soprano, she is shown as a psychotic person. Tony’s uncle(father’s brother) is Corrado “Junior” Soprano, who has his own ambitions of becoming the head of the crime ‘family’.  Christopher Moltisanti is the ambitious nephew of Tony, who joined recently as a ‘soldier’.

The scam of psychologists:

Psychology is not an empirical science, though it trumpets otherwise. Human behavior, mind and conscious are too complex and diverse to arrive at physics like laws to define and objectively understand them. That does not mean that we should not try to study them, but we should be clear about what we definitely know and what we don’t. The problem with giving psychology the same status as other sciences is that, it gives it a certain credibility and there by more power to people who ‘create’ and ‘use’ that psychological knowledge. Taking help of psychology to solve human problems in not wrong, but psychologists and psychiatrists stretch their claim of understanding human psychological problems. They overestimate their capacity to rightly diagnose the problem. There are many in psychological community who use the grey areas of human understanding to take advantage. There are disputes about the efficacy of psychological medicines like Prozac and Lithium. Some people with phoney psychological expertise, take advantage of people’s trust in ‘psychology’, their fears and even their need to talk to someone.

The first scene of The Sopranos starts in a therapist’s office, with Tony taking therapy from Melfi, the psychiatrist(one of the major character in the series). Dr Melfi is a highly qualified psychiatrist who uses her psychological knowledge to help Tony deal with his problems. But a few episodes later they show the other negative side of the application of psychology.

Tony’s son Anthony Jr(AJ) is caught drinking wine in school. Immediately the parents are called in by the headmaster and are told that AJ needs to be tested by the school psychologists(of course it costs additional money) to ‘understand’ the boy’s problem. The school psychologists says to the Sopranos that he observed some problems with A.J like: trouble following the rules, weighing consequences, not thinking before acting. From these he speculates that A.J might be suffering from psychological problem A.D.D which is attention deficit disorder. It’s symptoms are inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.

ADHD diagnosis problem

Show me a normal boy who does not show those symptoms at some point of time in their childhood. Think about it, trouble following the rules is one of the symptoms of ADD, robots are supposed to follow all the rules, humans make mistakes and they rebel that’s how progress happens. I do not say that ADD is a fake disorder, it could be a serious problem for a small number of people but a large portion of ‘patients’ get over-diagnosed and drugged unnecessarily. Who is to get advantage from over diagnosing?-the pharmaceutical companies who fund tv campaigns ‘raising awareness about ADD’ and provide ‘incentives’ for psychiatrists to push their drugs. As they age, the ‘patient’ would need larger and larger amounts/power of drugs to have a similar effect. In the last few years, the number of people who are being diagnosed with ADD and related disorders and the sales of the related drugs are going off the roof.

Last year, at least two world renowned neurologists said in public that ADD & ADHD are not real diseases and expressed concerns about the long term effect. One of them said that ‘most people displayed signs of the condition at some point in their lives’ and that parents are too happy to drug their children as it mellows the children down. Consider this- close to 5% of people are estimated to have ADHD i.e in a crowd of 100 people 5 suffer from a specific mental disease- isn’t this suspicious. Also, more men get ADHD than women for which there is no psychological explanation-the common sense one is because, boys are more likely to not follow rules, go out and do ‘boy stuff’. America is the most legally drugged nation in the world-70% of Americans are on atleast 1 prescription drug and 25% of them on at least 5 prescription drugs and over 6 million children were diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives i.e 11% all children!-mind boggling statistics. China was drugged deliberately by Great Britain with opium in 19th century which led to the downfall of China, i wonder what will happen to the present day super power-USA which is voluntarily getting hooked addictive drugs.

What are the negative effects of wrong diagnosis?

  • When Tony says, this is bullshit and that what his son needs is a whack on his head for his mischief. The psychologist sees Tony as if he said, he would kill h1is child. This is a big problem in the west. They do not give physical punishment anymore, the parents are afraid that the child help department(who are again psychologists) would file cases against them or take away their child from them. Even debating about the wisdom in giving physical punishment has also become a taboo now. What ever happened to the saying ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’.
  • It stigmatizes the child for the rest of his life. The cloud of the ‘abnormal’ child who needed ‘special’ treatment will follow him through out his school days and the child’s self esteem would be devastated forever
  • We do not fully know the long the long term effects of these drugs as doing such research is very difficult. But in long term, people need more doses or more powerful drugs to effect any change
  • Parents who do not ‘pay up’ would be labeled as insensitive who do not take good care of their child. This makes it emotional manipulation and extortion(from a gangster in this case) by the school psychologists.
  • Many times parents believes what the psychologist’s diagnosis and they internalize that their child has a major psychological problem. This leads to a lot of stress and fear in them. It also changes their behavior towards their child-they may start blaming A.D.D for the child’s every misbehavior and their response would be drugging him or ignoring their mischief instead of giving the child punishment.
  • ADHD drugs are mostly made up of components which are basically illegal drugs like meth and speed. So adults who are self-diagnosing themselves after getting ‘awareness’ from tv and internet and are self-medicating themselves with the illegal drugs that are less costly than visiting a doctor in US!

So what did Tony the gangster do?

A.J is given all kinds of tests for his psychological assessment. Freud’s theories have almost zero credibility now, still therapists use the ink-bolt test-which assumes that by seeing an ambiguous pictures people would use their unconscious to fill in the gaps and create a meaning to it. And the therapist would be able to unravel the unconscious things by deciphering the message the test taker created. No objectivity, not a single empirical proof for the theory behind it and many intervening variables- all these make such tests highly subjective and unscientific. Still psychologists and psychiatrists use it all over the world.

After testing is done, The Sopranos are again called in and are told that A.J has five symptoms of ADD. And one of them is “fidgeting with hands and feet”- Ya it is a real thing, mentioned in APA(American psychology association)’s DSM-4 manual, even Albert Einstein must have fidgeted more than once in his life. This is the last straw, Tony reacts like all parents should after he hears this bull shit. His exact quote being- “he is not a case, he is a 13 year old boy. That’s the trouble with you people, every time you see a problem you turn it in to a disease. He is a kid who made a mistake, who will pay for it, but he is gonna be fine”

And I agree with him, well done writers.

Psychology has come a long way since its initial years. With sophisticated technologies and advancement in neurological understanding, our knowledge about human psychology has grown leaps and bounds. It can be used wither used wrongly as is being done with ADHD/ADD or it could be used for betterment of people. The field of psychology is still in its infancy(It has been just 125 years before psychology was started being studied scientifically), we should a healthy skepticism towards what it says and not blindly follow it.

You can learn more about what is ADHD and why its misdiagnosed so often and its effects on society by watching this video:

The post had become longer than I expected, i will write such other observations that i find interesting, intertwined in to the sub-plots of The Sopranos in other posts. Ciao.

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