HBO’s The Sopranos, now off the air for almost 14 years, is a virtually inexhaustible resource for critique, analysis, jokes and allusions. It’s packed with layers of novelistic detail. It has a huge, heavy-hitting ensemble. And some of its finest, most shocking moments remain tantalizingly ambiguous, open to impassioned debate. It wouldn’t have the staying power it does were it not simply a pleasure to rewatch again and again. I have it on whenever I’m cooking.
While the show was a massive success in its own time, not until social media brought younger fans together did it become a kind of language among the most cultishly obsessed. The first-ever SopranosCon was held in the Meadowlands of New Jersey in 2019, marking the IRL debut of a now flourishing internet community. You had the Sopranos Duckposting group on Facebook, Instagram accounts like Time Immemorial and a Twitter account devoted to A.J. Soprano’s nu-metal band shirts. On that last point, I think it’s worth noting the particular attachment millennials have to the series: We’re direct contemporaries of Tony’s and Carmela’s kids, Meadow and A.J., having reached maturity in the aughts. The narrative, too, is uniquely preoccupied with the turn of the century, which for the most part feels like an ill omen.
Arriving in the summer of 2020, the Millennial Sopranos account (which hosts its main following on Instagram) is a relative latecomer to this meme beat. That it struck a chord means it has an appeal beyond the name-dropping of current musicians like Mitski or ancient web cartoons such as Homestar Runner. Instead, it’s this bridging of content that millennials now consume as depressed thirtysomethings and the stuff they watched and listened to in youth — in the era depicted by The Sopranos — which accounts for the time-warp disorientation of these posts. Back then, we were led to believe in abundance and progress as fundamental American truths; today, we are confronted by the dreadful future that was never far from Tony’s restless mind.
At present, a handful of irritating individuals seem to be precipitating a culture war between millennials and the younger Generation Z. Really, though, it’s the traditional kids-versus-adults friction that heats up as one demographic finishes school and enters the workforce, and getting mad at 20-year-olds for dissing Eminem makes you seem even more like the old dork you are. Yet we and the zoomers appear to have an accord where it comes to The Sopranos. Having caught up with the prestige drama, they love it as much as we do, and are equally responsible for keeping it relevant. Although we laugh along with them at one bleak epiphany after another — life is pointless, happiness is an illusion and everything’s already dying — we are also somewhat possessive of the Sopranoverse. Therefore, we plant our unmistakable flag.
A beauty of touchstones like The Sopranos is that nobody owns them. TV can only be timeless if it continues to reach and influence people who were born afterward and may have little experience of the subjects depicted. There’s no claiming it for yourself, so Millennial Sopranos resembles the acquisitive grasping of the mafia itself: Everybody wants a piece of the action. Despite having one personal crisis after another since graduating into the Great Recession, and realizing the establishment that raised us was just a rickety façade, we still cling to the tenets of branding and appropriation. If we can’t be traditional celebrities, we’ll be iconic influencers. If we can’t climb the corporate ladder, we’ll make our fortunes on r/WallStreetBets. We act as if we’re disrupting or reshaping systems in these ways, but we hardly deviate from the usual pattern.
Tony Soprano embodies the frustration that however much you have, it adds up to nothing — but you have to keep grinding anyway. His crew of uninsured, gig-economy workers inhabit every precarity you might name: moral, financial, corporeal and carceral. But knowing you’re in purgatory isn’t an escape. How perfectly millennial to explore the dream-labyrinth of this show until you stumble upon a maze within a maze, where the past and present self overlap. For The Sopranos also gave us characters haunted by their memories, unable to get out from under their choices. Millennials have reached the stage where they, too, can look back in regret. We started out identifying with the children, but we’re starting to understand the grown-ups.