It's been 20 years since Tony Soprano first took us across that toll bridge from New York to New Jersey and brought us into his world. The Sopranos has earned a place as a cultural and artistic icon. It paved the way for current shows that have the same visceral context, like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. With a prequel movie on the horizon, it's a good time to get re-acquainted with the family.
What sets The Sopranos apart from other TV shows is the way diegetic references are used. The characters, the sets, and the show itself constantly make references to popular culture, a tactic that helps humanize Tony and his companions. Here are the ten best pop culture references you've seen on The Sopranos.
10 Trendy Psychotherapy
The whole show starts with Tony Soprano visiting a psychiatrist. Of course, he would, because doesn't everyone? The premise is both funny and chilling at the same time. Dr. Jennifer Melfi, his doctor, is naturally squeamish about the process, as Tony doesn't sugar-coat the stress that comes with his career. She ends up seeing one of her colleagues regularly to get through her sessions with the notorious crime boss, which is not only an indication of how terrified she is but also a way of satirizing the phenomenon of "having a shrink."
9 The History Channel
The History Channel isn't something that Michael Corleone would watch. Or is it? Tony Soprano certainly seems to enjoy it. Does Tony bring up the history of crime or a particularly ugly assassination? Something that would suit a mob boss? Nope, he's interested in American history. And not anything mob related, either. Tony is interested in the Consitution. He mentions the History Channel told him about the sacred document and how it ensures him the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The mob sells black market cigarettes. Every movie, every TV show, every kind of media about the mob has a scene with those precious cartons getting sold off the back of a truck. Henry Hill, the main character in the iconic film Goodfellas gets caught selling cartons of cigarettes as a kid. In this day and age, with smoking not so trendy anymore, there are other addictions that need a fix. Although cigarettes were originally in the script, this time the weekly heist in Season 2, Episode 12 consisted of a shipment of Pokemon trading cards. The characters constantly mispronounce the word as "pokey man."
7 Chicken Soup for the Soul and Other Books
Self-help books have always been a pop culture phenomenon. This is closely tied to the psychotherapy angle of the show. In Tony's time it was Chicken Soup for the Soul, and today we have other popular titles like Eat Pray Love that preach the same message of reflection and improvement. Tony talks about this book and others in his conversations with Dr. Melfi. Other popular books that are referenced in The Sopranos include Angela's Ashes and Gail Sheehy's Passages.
6 Popular Music
The music is important when it comes to getting a scene right. A lot of the music you'll hear in The Sopranos is from famous mob movies. One character has a car horn that plays The Godfather theme song. Contemporary popular music appears in the background constantly, a smart way to connect real life with fiction. The characters in The Sopranos listen to the same music the audience does. A similar tactic was used in another movie about organized crime that is constantly referred as well: Goodfellas.
5 Movie Stars and Fictional Mob Figures
Al Pacino, who played the head of the Corleone crime family in The Godfather movies, is constantly referenced on The Sopranos. Silvio, one of Tony's closest companions, is often asked to do impressions of him and other stars playing their scenes as famous mobsters. In one particularly hilarious scene, Silvio does the closing scene of the original The Godfather film and also does Barbara Hershey's voice as the distressed wife Katherine along with Al Pacino's closing lines. Famous people that get worked into the conversations include Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and many others.
4 The Last Supper
This was actually part of a series of promotional images that were produced for Season 2 of the show. The classic Da Vinci painting is one of the most recognizable in the world and has gone through several similar treatments for a variety of TV shows and movies. The original painting is a depiction of Jesus and his 12 Apostles having a last meal together before the crucifixion of Christ. In The Sopranos version, Tony takes the place of Jesus. He is the central figure with the crime family sitting at his left and his biological family on his right.
3 Famous Landmarks
The dichotomy between the mob of New York and the family in New Jersey is important to the context of the story, which is why we see a lot of famous buildings and other landmarks prominently featured in the show. The World Trade Center is prominently shown in Tony's rear view mirror during the show's opening in the first two seasons but was moved after 2001 for obvious reasons. The bridge he travels across and the neighborhoods he drives through aren't sets but real neighborhoods.
2 Mob Movies
The Godfather, Goodfellas, and other films about life in the Italian mafia are referenced constantly, and Silvio's Al Pacino impression is just the tip of that iceberg. Characters throughout the show seem to embrace stereotypes created by popular culture as much as they struggle against them. We hear about "the Moe Green Special" a reference to a famous murder in the original The Godfather movie. Several of the scenes in The Sopranos are structured to look like scenes from mob movies like Scarface, Goodfellas, and of course, The Godfather.
1 Real Life Mobsters
The mob itself is a real entity, so naturally, the characters of The Sopranos draw some inspiration from real life. To impress some friends during a golf game, Tony claims that he knew John Gotti personally. Gotti was known as the Teflon Don until he was finally caught and is considered to be the last old-school mobster. His capture and arrest was the end of an era that Tony and his "family" are trying to preserve. This reference is an ominous one, as time eventually catches up with the New Jersey crew in a similar fashion.