‘The Sopranos’, memes and existential nihilism

Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 4:03pm

NOSELL

Leo Krinsky

The content on my various social media timelines has changed a lot in the past few months. I’m sure this is true for anybody on the internet. Political discourse now manifests itself in Instagram stories, recipes for whipped coffee flood the timeline and people just seem to be a bit more sad than usual.

Perhaps this is a stupid thing to point out. The nature of the internet is variation. Of course my timeline looks different than it did before the pandemic. It would be weird if it didn’t. All of those changes make immediate sense to me. But recently there’s been a change that has piqued my interest. In the last few months, I have been seeing a huge influx of screencaps from episodes of “The Sopranos” on my social media accounts. These screencaps are shots from the episode accompanied by text that matches them, and are generally pretty ridiculous given the lack of context. On Twitter, the main culprits of these posts are the accounts Sopranos Out of Context (@oocsopranos) and Sopranos Caps (@sopranoscaps), with 95 thousand and 27 thousand followers respectively. These screencaps are then retweeted, shared on Instagram mood boards and used as memes in group chats. This concept is probably not new to you. It sometimes seems that TV shows nowadays exist for the sole purpose of meme virality (i.e. Tiger King). But this show first aired in 1999, long before anyone knew the power of a meme. So why are these screencaps so popular 20 years later? 

If you’re like me, you’ve been trying to watch “The Sopranos” for many years. Your older brother has told you how it’s deeper than it looks like on the surface, your mother says she doesn’t like it because of the violence and your father has never watched it, but understands that it’s culturally relevant nonetheless. But every time you’ve tried to watch it, you couldn’t get past episode three. Maybe it was because it started too slow, maybe it was because you weren’t convinced you needed to watch another show about the Italian American mafia as it is already such a saturated genre, or maybe it was because you simply couldn’t keep track of the names of all the characters. Whatever the case, it just didn’t click.

And then, suddenly, you were forced inside for a summer. And with nothing better to do, you decided to give it one last shot. And it clicked. This same thing (barring a few specifics, I assume) has happened to many people across the country. WarnerMedia reported that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, viewership of the HBO show has increased by a whopping 179 percent. This increase in viewership has correlated with an increase in followers for these Sopranos screencap accounts. Sopranos Out of Context, for example, saw a 12,415 follower increase the week of June 15, up from 497 the week before, and now averages 3,224 new followers per month. For whatever reason, it’s clear that there is something about still images of Sopranos characters that is resonating with fans right now.

If you haven’t watched “The Sopranos,” I will spare you any and all details, since you probably don’t care anyway. However, for the purposes of this article, I believe it’s important that I address the basics of the show. The main character, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, “Crimson Tide”) is a lying, cheating, murdering mob boss. At the same time, he suffers from anxiety and depression, which he has to hide from the people closest to him in order to maintain his facade as a strong-headed leader. It is this dichotomy that much of the tragedy of the show is built on, and in the case of these screen caps, much of the humor comes out of. As Tony commits crimes and adultery while spouting bigoted rhetoric, he also questions what the meaning of all this is. He lives an extremely unique life, yet at the same time gets bogged down into an unfulfilling, mundane lifestyle. And in truth, there is something extremely funny and aesthetically pleasing about a giant man who garners so much power exploring existential nihilism. He is not the only one who does this. His son AJ (Robert Iler, “Tadpole”) and apprentice Christopher (Michael Imperioli, “Goodfellas”) are both constantly searching for something more. This mindset comes to define much of the show, as most every character looks for a greater meaning beyond the death, betrayal and wrongdoing all around them. 

In this sense, our current world can help to explain what makes these “Sopranos” screencaps so appealing. The show’s characters teach us that no matter who we are or what our job is, we’re all looking for some kind of meaning. I don’t mean this in the philosophical or religious sense, but in the day-to-day pursuit of trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing. And living through this pandemic, it seems that all I’ve been able to do is ponder this exact question. Perhaps this is why Tony Sopranos’s absurd existentialism is so captivating to me and hundreds of thousands of other people right now. To see a man who is, by all accounts, stronger and more powerful than us struggle with the same questions that define our daily lives is a great equalizer. 

Which brings us to the medium of the screencap, or meme, or whatever you want to call it. So much of social media is predicated on irony that, at this point, authenticity on the internet is almost taboo. Rarely do people express outright how they’re really feeling, often even using social media as a way to mask it. This has been a common critique of social media for as long as it’s been around. People therefore have to find another way to get these feelings out into the void, which is where the meme comes in. Memes allow people to say “this is how i’m feeling, but it was made by someone else so not really, but also I’m being serious, but not really.” In other words, they can act as a way for users to safely (meaning not lamely) communicate difficult emotions while simultaneously distancing themselves from authenticity. So when everyone is forced to address existential nihilism together, perhaps it makes sense that they turn to out-of-context screencaps of “The Sopranos.” Because the show rules and it’s ridiculous and it’s funny and the shots are configured well and, at the same time, it resonates right now with real people on real issues. All of these things make the out-of-context screencap the perfect medium for expressing those troublesome feelings behind the guise of irony, aesthetic and humor. 

So next time you see a Sopranos screencap on your timeline, swipe up and ask the person who posted, “hey, is this strictly for vibes or are you questioning the meaning of your existence in this increasingly strange and difficult time?” Likely, both will be true.

Daily Arts Writer Leo Krinsky can be reached at lkrinsky@umich.edu.


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