Rest in peace, James Gandolfini. In Tony Soprano, you brought to life the most complex character in the history of television. He was both kind and brutal. Loving and selfish. He was at war with himself, and that may be why so many of us identified with him. But let's face it: he was a liar, a thief, and a murderer. He was evil. And that, I suspect, is the real reason we watched.
Why are we so fascinated with stories about evildoers? What is it about the adventures of people doing the wrong things that keep us so enthralled? They tap into the fantasy many of us have of being completely free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and with (or to) whomever we want. These stories portray characters who are concerned first and foremost with satisfying their own desires, no matter what the consequences are. Who wouldn't want to live this way, free of the constraints imposed by the principles of ethics, the laws of civilized society, and the standards of basic human decency?
Consider not just Tony Soprano but the protagonists of The Godfather saga, Scarface, and GoodFellas. It may seem that Michael Corleone, Henry Hill, and the two Tonys (Montana and Soprano) enjoy a liberty that the rest of us only dream about. But if you look at what actually happens to these characters, they all end up worse off as a result of the choices they consistently make. Whatever thrill existed during their rise to power gives way to fear, isolation, and the loss of their closest friends and family members (sometimes by their own hands). On their face, these stories -- and plenty of others like them -- celebrate or glamorize the life of gangsters. But if you step back and consider the wide arc of each one, it's clear that these are moral fables, tales that vividly portray the dangers of living an immoral life. Their message is not an encouragement to live the way their characters do but just the opposite: when you focus primarily or exclusively on your own needs and desires, and you're willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy them, you'll pay a heavy price and might not be able to undo the damage you've caused.
In other words, Tony Soprano and the rest are role models. They show us, if we're willing to look closely, how not to live. And for this reason they play a crucial role in our lives.
While developing a documentary about fans some years ago, I got to know the nice folks associated with The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club. One of the things I learned is that when faced with an ethical dilemma, particularly one involving parenting, some fans would ask themselves, "What would Andy do?" They recognized that Andy Taylor was a character, not a human being, but because he showed how to sensitively handle some of the difficult situations we all face, Taylor served -- and continues to serve -- as a role model in the traditional sense. He was someone you could look to for guidance and about whom you could say, "I want to be like that."
But because Griffith's character solved problems nonviolently -- he was, after all, known as "The Sheriff Without a Gun" -- there are those who prefer to get life lessons from characters at the other end of the moral spectrum. And you can't find anyone closer to it than Tony Soprano.
Andy Taylor was a good man who more often than not made the right decisions. Tony Soprano wanted to be good but couldn't or wouldn't be. As an example of how not to live, there has never been, and may never be, an exemplar as great as Tony. For that, we should all be grateful.
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Some of this material appears in my book, Ethical Intelligence.