I’ve been recently rewatching The Sopranos and three seasons in I’d say this is still the best TV show of all time. Part of what’s so enjoyable about watching this show is drifting back such a short time ago when woke TV had not nearly the strangle grip on the throat of popular entertainment as it does today. Still, even in this great show you can still see signs of things to come.
Probably the most glaring area for this tension is around attitudes to race. There are certainly moments when a character says something that seems pretty indisputably racist. And it seems pretty clear that the show creators intend us to recoil from such statements. However, there are other moments where there are criticisms or mockery of affirmative action and widespread attitudes of entitlement. In those moments, I don’t have the sense that they intend us to recoil. Indeed, it seems that maybe the creators are suggesting those criticisms might be warranted. This is obviously a bit complicated in the interpretation and open to projection. There are some interesting dynamics at work, though, for sure.
What really struck me about the foreshadowing of the progressive saturation of entertainment culture though was a little more nuanced. This goes to an odd paradox which I’ve frequently noticed but rarely heard culture critics comment upon. There’s an irony in that conservatives tend to regard human nature as inherently flawed. Call it original sin if you want, but one needn’t be religious to hold such a view. The assumption is that humans are not perfectible. This is in stark contrast to progressives, who imagine that through their grand policy programs and earnest social engineering, somehow a better, even perfected human may be molded.
The paradox or irony is that in spite of their assumptions about human nature, it is conservatives who seem to prefer stories of individuals rising above challenges, of other humans and nature, and achieving some kind of greatness. So, those who believe human nature is inherently flawed prefer narratives in which a hero rises above that flawed nature. On the other hand, progressives who assume humans are perfectible, seem to prefer narratives about the wretched nature of human beings. They consider the narrative of the great hero to be simplistic, jingoist and threatening. Instead, they prefer antiheros and indeed even stories in which everyone is displayed as flawed.
I don’t claim to know why this is. Jordan Peterson has a credible story of why conservatives may prefer the hero: an evolved psychological ideal as role aspiration. And it isn’t hard to speculate on why progressives prefer stories of widespread social and moral corruption. To begin with, I suppose stories of heroes might fly in the face of the idea that humans can only be made heroic through collective action and state power. Still, I don’t claim to know the reasons at work, but the preferences have been clear to me for a while.
And it’s in this way that The Sopranos really is a progressive narrative. As well written and gripping as the stories are, there are no characters for us to cheer for in this show. Everyone turns out to be deeply flawed. And, worse than that, they’re actually nasty people. They all end up doing pretty bad things. Not to suggest a moral equivalency. Some are certainly worse than others. But there’s no one that I can honestly say it would be terrible if things didn’t turn out well for this character. They all have some nastiness coming to them. And that seems to me to be the heart of the progressive narrative. The fact that the criminal family is the ultimate Wild West, free marketer adds to all this perspective. This kind of criminal capitalism gives rise to such pathological individualism, which can only be redeemed by the progressive agenda. Or something like that.
So, as much as I enjoy the show, I must confess, already back there at the very beginning of the century, even the elite TV was creeping toward the kind of progressive propaganda that inundates us all today. As I say, I’m only halfway through. If, after the final three seasons, I have more to report I will then.