The Sopranos prequel highlights the path from Newark neighborhood to suburban McMansion

The Sopranos’ McMansion is a key part of the original show. The new prequel movie might help explain how the family ended up in a New Jersey McMansion:

Photo by Dhyamis Kleber on Pexels.com

By the 1990s, the mob was operating out of detached villas with swimming pools in upstate New Jersey, but if you want to learn precisely why the adult Tony Soprano lives in a gilded McMansion rather than a clapboard house with a stoop in Newark like his mother’s, The Many Saints Of Newark has the answer.

As Harold’s fortunes rise, black families move onto the same streets as Italians, causing much angst to the latter, including Tony’s parents, Johnny Boy and Livia Soprano. It makes Tony’s racism that much more obvious when, 30 years later, his daughter, Meadow, brings home her mixed-race college boyfriend. “I think there was talk, back in the day, about ‘Were black people getting short shrift on The Sopranos?’” says Odom Jr. “Was our story being told? I think David had a desire this time to look at an arc that really didn’t get explored the first time, at how the two communities intertwined and where they butted up against each other.”

This sounds like a white flight story line: as the population of Newark changed, as more Black residents moved into what were exclusively white neighborhoods, white residents moved out. This happened in numerous cities across the United States (as my own research on religious groups in the Chicago area adds to). In The Sopranos, Tony and cronies make money off housing programs in the city.

At the same time, this narrative could say more about a general move to the suburbs and less about the specific move to the suburban McMansion at the heart of the show. Tony Soprano presumably used his wealth to purchase a big home in a quiet subdivision to hide his work and give his family an opportunity at a more normal suburban life. But, did he go straight from Newark to the suburban McMansion? Did his journey include a more modest suburban starter home or a suburban apartment (as it did for other characters on The Sopranos)? Did a young adult Tony Soprano make his moves from a suburban split-level or anonymous apartment off a major suburban road?

The housing path of Tony Soprano is not an inconsequential part of the story that is being developed here; it highlights his family history, his success, and his goals in life. If I see The Many Saints of Newark, I will be keeping an eye on the residences depicted within the film.

Defining sociology in the pilot of “All in the Family”

The 1971 pilot of All in the Family included Michael, son-in-law of Archie Bunker and a college student, as a main character. After the first commercial break, Michael and Archie go at it about Michael’s study of sociology (with some input from Gloria, Michael’s wife and Archie’s daughter):

Michael: What do you want from me anyway? I don’t have time to do anything. I’m studying six hours, I’m in class six hours. You know it’s not easy going to college, it’s hard work.

Archie: For you it’s like building the pyramids. I’ll tell you it’s all that sociology and studying that welfare stuff. I don’t call that no hard work.

Gloria: Oh Daddy, leave him alone. I think it’s beautiful that Michael wants to help the underprivileged.

Archie: Listen, if he wants to help the underprivileged let him start with himself. He’s got no brains, he’s got no ambitions, if that ain’t underprivileged, I don’t know what is.

Sociology does not feature on television shows very often. While it had a spot on the popular All in the Family, the way it is set up here provides two opposite views of the discipline.

On one side, sociology is the discipline of a younger generation interested in social change and improving society. Sociology can help the disadvantaged and provide for the better distribution of resources.

On the other side, sociology is a waste of time. It is a liberal enterprise composed of people who should themselves focus on working hard and not stirring up trouble.

Fifty years later, are these two reactions to sociology common? Given that sociology does not always get much attention on television or among the general public, have we advanced much in our public understanding of sociology?

This is the focus of the opening stages of my Introduction to Sociology courses: how does sociology view the world? What are its methods and theories? What do we hope to see? This takes more time than television sitcoms can provide.

The Chair is about a unique role and some bigger issues facing higher education

The Chair follows a new English Department chair as she navigates crises and pressure from administrators and faculty. On one hand, it is about a unique academic position where the department chair is caught between the interests of the institution and the interests of faculty. On the other hand, the six episode season considers some of the large issues facing higher education in 2021. These include:

Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

-Hiring, retaining, promoting, and celebrating female faculty and faculty of color.

-Responding to student interests amid faculty and institutional expertise and will that might or might not line up with those interests. This can come out in discussions about attracting students and majors or whether programs and faculty are contributing to or harming the school’s brand.

-The personal lives of faculty juggling family, teaching, research, and other commitments.

-Generational change within departments and institutions.

-Addressing social change, new ideas, and controversies when expertise takes time to develop and research cycles are long.

These may not be new questions in academia but relatively few television shows, movies, or other cultural products grapple with issues in what might seem to outsiders to be a strange world.

How a fictional psychiatrist turned radio host lives in a swanky Seattle condo

Television residents do not always match reality. One writer set out to find how Frasier Crane lived in such a large and well-appointed residence in Seattle:

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

While characters living in unrealistically spacious apartments is a sitcom mainstay, the extravagance of Frasier’s apartment is central to the show, rather than an incidental. Frasier, ever class-conscious, takes great pride in furnishing his condo in the Elliott Bay Towers because it’s how he expresses his refined sensibilities. What better way to show off his yuppie bona fides than an Eames chair and a Wassily, a Le Corbusier lamp, a Chihuly vase, many questionable global artifacts, and, as he brags in the pilot, a couch that is “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? As a 1994 Chicago Tribune article points out, the decor choices were extremely deliberate—and extremely pricey…

From the available numbers, I learned that in 1989, the average salary for a psychiatrist was $117,700. Though Frasier likely would have made less starting out and more by the end of his tenure, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s say he worked that job at that salary from 1983 through 1993. If he saved the recommended 20% of his income during this period, he would have $235,400 stashed away at the end of that 10-year period—of course, this is before taxes…

“We talked about, ‘If anybody wonders how he can afford this it’s because Frasier has an investment income,’” Keenan told me. “He made a fair amount of money in Boston as a private therapist and he lectured and he wrote articles and he just invested very well. And at one point somebody said, ‘He’s from Seattle, maybe he got in on the ground floor of Microsoft.’ Little dividends arrived to augment what he was making in the station.”…

Keenan also pointed out that Frasier wouldn’t have seemed as wealthy compared to Niles, who lived in a “preposterously baronial house” thanks to Maris’s money. Plus, to an unfamiliar audience, “radio host” would have probably seemed like a pretty impressive and well-paying job.

In other words, the viewer should not ask so many questions. Just enjoy the show.

Seriously though, I could imagine a few additional points of explanation:

  1. Perhaps there was some unusual circumstance around the acquisition of the condo. Given the strange circumstances Frasier could get himself into, this is not hard to imagine. A short sale. Some gift or reduced price from a thankful client. He used his dad’s pension money from working as a cop. There could be lots of ways to explain this given the hijinks of the show.
  2. Frasier might have saved some money from good investments or had some extra earnings. At the same time, his character is not exactly one who makes wise long-term decisions. Was he smart enough to employ a good investment fund manager? Did he fall into some money (such as Microsoft stock as hinted above)?
  3. Frasier needs this condo as part of who he is. The expensive items, the preening tastes, the haughtiness are all tied to a pattern of conspicuous consumption. He likes to show off and does so with what he owns, including his residence. And the running gag with his father’s old chair does not work without everything attesting to Frasier’s acquisition habits.
  4. What other residence would suit Frasier? A single-family home in the suburbs? A tacky show of impressiveness like the home of his brother? A smaller city bachelor pad?

Taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the (sitcom) suburbs

The new television show WandaVision is set in the suburbs portrayed on earlier sitcom TV:

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

With “WandaVision,” Feige said that he had wanted to honor the complexity of the title characters and Wanda’s reality-warping abilities but also to leaven the story with tributes to sitcom history…

The series finds Wanda and Vision — now somehow alive — residing in suburban bliss, not entirely sure of why they are cycling through various eras of television history and encountering veteran Marvel performers like Kat Dennings (as her “Thor” character, Darcy Lewis) and Randall Park (reprising his “Ant-Man and the Wasp” role of Jimmy Woo) as well as new additions to the roster, like Teyonah Parris (as Monica Rambeau) and Kathryn Hahn (playing a perplexingly nosy neighbor named Agnes)…

“You enter a sitcom episode with the understanding it’s going to make you feel good and it’s all going to be OK at the end,” said Schaeffer, who also worked on “Captain Marvel” and “Black Widow.”

What “WandaVision” adds to this formula, she said, is an element of “creepiness — the idea of shattering that safety in a calculated way.”

In a recent post, I summarize scholarly work on television depicting the suburbs. It sounds like this new show tries to do something new but it might just fall into already existing patterns.

The suburban sitcoms of the 1950s are often portrayed as providing a common image: the white nuclear family living happily in a single-family home. The episodes revolve around relatively minor issues that are resolved at the end of the show.

By the 1960s, there were some twists to this theme. Lynn Spigel writes of new television characters who provide an edge to the typical suburban image. Think Samantha on Bewitched who with her magic powers and odd relatives provides a new angle to the suburban sitcom.

In the late 1990s, more shows looked to push the suburban sitcom in even further – and often darker – directions. Take The Sopranos: from the outside, the family has the look of a successful suburban family living in a large McMansion in an upscale community. But, of course, the secret is that the gains are ill-gotten and the attempts to find happiness in this suburban lifestyle never coalesce.

Indeed, this darker approach to the suburban sitcom has an extended history in other mediums as well with novels, films, and other narratives suggesting something similar: the suburbs are not what they seem. These products offer a critique of the the suburbs where the American Dream is not what it seems, where all the suburban striving does not amount to much or falls apart spectacularly.

While I have not seen WandaVision, the narrative arc may then fall into familiar territory: the suburban household with a twist or dark secret is already an established genre. These may be new characters in the suburbs and it may be an expansion of the Marvel Universe but it remains to be seen how much new suburban ground it really treads.

Miming playing an instrument is not an easy task

My academic department recently put together a lip sync video of “Blue Christmas.” For part of my time, I played the alto saxophone.

I first took up the instrument in middle school and played regularly through college in band, marching band, and pep band. Even with this familiarity, miming playing a song was difficult. I did not know what key it was in. I could move my fingers to the music and go up or down when needed but this does not mean I was close to the right notes. As a musician, it felt strange. (Yes, if I had a little more time I could have figured out the key of the song and transposed for the saxophone.)

I have thought about this numerous times before with television shows and movies when they depict people playing instruments. Since I play piano and can strum a few guitar chords, these performances especially catch my attention. For piano, they often show separate shots of playing the keys and the person sitting at the piano with their hands hidden. For guitar, you can sometimes see which chords are being played or see the strumming patterns. But, this too can be hidden or obscured.

All of this reminds me that musicians like the Beatles sometimes had to mime playing their instruments on television because of particular rules. In these situations, I assume professional musicians with all of their training could play without sound. In music (and much of the rest of life), practice makes perfect, even if it is not a full performance.

Perhaps the normal viewer does not think about this much. This may matter more in films where music is at the heart of the story but if you do not watch too closely or the shots do not really show much, any issues may not be noticeable. The music generally sounds fine, regardless of what the musicians on screen is depicted as doing. And if people want to see musicians play, there are many fine music videos and recorded performances available for viewing. Still, this ended any dreams I might harbor of adding saxophone to numerous lip syncing videos – I will need to leave that to the professional musicians and cinematographers.

The Simpsons portrayed a (rare?) comfortable working-class family life

If television helps provide viewers reference groups to compare themselves with, The Simpsons suggests working-class Americans can have a decent life:

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Pexels.com

The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s…

The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.

Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?

The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.

This critique hints at broader patterns of how television depicts the working class. The 2005 documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class discusses how television tends to minimize the difficulties of working class life. The Simpsons fits some of these patterns: Homer still somehow keeps working despite his mistakes and anti-intellectualism, the family does not really get ahead, and the family seems happy-go-lucky. Shows with working class characters rarely challenge the economic and social systems that constrain working class Americans.

Similarly, The Simpsons falls into the mold of many sitcoms in television history where there are happy endings and the characters end with good relationships. Despite all the controversy about the show in its early years, the show is at its heart a typical sitcom. While the show does poke fun at many people and aspects of American life, at its basis is a loving nuclear family living in a single-family home with Homer having a steady job. The Simpsons is not a critique of working class life in the United States. Perhaps the portrayal of Mr. Burns best critiques the systems that keep the Simpsons in place.

One place for wiggle room in this critique may be the location of Springfield. The show has been very careful to not reveal where Springfield is within the United States. Homer’s income might be meager but cost of living does differ by region.

When television shows help interpret history

What responsibility do television shows have to accurately depicting history? Take the case of The Crown:

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

Historical dramas might similarly warp our attitude toward history, encouraging us to expect that cause and effect are obvious, or that world events hinge on single decisions by identifiable individuals. Academics have been trying to demolish the great-man theory of history for more than a century; television dramas put it back together, brick by brick.

What matters here is that we are having the right arguments about these ethical and dramatic decisions, not lobbing grenades at each other from opposing trenches of the culture war. Reasonable people can disagree over artistic license and the writer’s duty of care to her or his subjects. And none of this would be an issue if so many people didn’t love The Crown. Dowden is right to argue that the show is so popular that its interpretation of history will become the definitive one for millions of viewers.

That is something Netflix could mitigate, if it wanted to. Not with a pointless disclaimer, but with an accompanying documentary, rounding out the stories told in the drama. (There is a Crown podcast, featuring Morgan, but I mean something packaged more obviously alongside the main series.) There is certainly an appetite for one: Three unrelated Diana documentaries now clog up my Netflix home screen, and newspapers have published multiple articles separating fact from fiction.

Ultimately, it is not illegitimate to create narratives out of real lives. In fact, a good historical drama has to do so. But when we talk about the monarchy, modern Britain, and the legacy of divisive politicians like Thatcher, The Crown should be the start of a conversation, not the last word.

Television, and mass media more broadly, has the potential to shape how people udnerstand the world. This is not only because people find it a compelling window to the world; the sheer amount of time Americans spend watching TV on a daily basis means that television depictions have at least some influence.

Given this, it is interesting to consider whether Netflix and other producers and distributors of television should do more to depict history accurately. How possible is this? Here are a few problems that might arise:

  1. Balancing a historical drama with an accompanying documentary might help. But, documentaries are also told from particular points of view. And how many viewers will watch all of both?
  2. History is an ongoing narrative. The Crown comes from a particular point of view in a particular time that may or may not with other depictions before and after. Imagine some time passes after Queen Elizabeth dies and another director with a different vision comes along – how different is the story in facts and tone?
  3. Other mediums could present different realities in different ways. History often requires working with a variety of sources, not just visuals. How about at least giving viewers additional resources to consult?
  4. How much should TV viewers know or be expected to know about particular phenomena they observe?

Public understandings of history, academic understandings of history, and other interpretations of history have the potential to interact with and shape each other. How exactly The Crown helps shape the ongoing conversation about the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth, and all the involved actors remains to be seen – and studied.

Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Considering what we know about the broad sweep of suburban TV shows

An Atlas Obscura piece on Levittown begins with a summary of suburbs on television:

gray scale photo analogue of television

Photo by Andre Moura on Pexels.com

From the air, the homes fan out like intricate beadwork. For decades, America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows, from Leave It To Beaver* to Desperate Housewives, chronicling entertaining trivialities against the backdrop of meticulously shorn lawns, the drifting smoke of barbecues, the infrastructure of cars and roads: a pleasantly domestic—but fraught—version of the American dream.

There is no doubt about the claim in the second sentence: “America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows.” Today, television viewers can still find new suburban sitcoms that play with the 1950s formula (actually begun in radio) of a happy nuclear family with plenty of resources working through entertaining yet relatively low-level issues. And as noted at the end (and developed by numerous scholars – I would recommend starting with the work of Lynn Spigel), the television image of suburbs was too pleasant and reinforced a well-off white image of the suburbs.

At the same time, I have published two articles on television in the suburbs and they contribute to a more complicated story of suburbs on television. In my article “From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007,” I find that suburban-set shows never dominated the most popular American TV shows. Although such shows might be familiar, common, and live on in memories connected to a different era, they are not the only places Americans see on television. Take as one example the Brady Bunch: it may have been watched for millions in syndication, it may have particularly influenced younger viewers, and it had an iconic house but it never was a Top 30 television show. The suburban TV show is well-known but how influential they are is debatable.

Similarly, more recent suburban TV shows have truly tweaked the format. Lynn Spigel points out that twists to the typical format started early on while more recent shows feature suburban lifestyles from a different point of view (thinking of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and American Housewife off the top of my head). I wrote “A McMansion for the Suburban Mob Family: The Unfulfilling Single-Family Home of The Sopranos” and considered this critically-acclaimed and popular show set in suburban New Jersey. It has a similar set-up to 1950s suburban shows – the successful white nuclear family living in a big suburban house – but ultimately suggests all of this is an illusion as Tony Soprano’s mob dealings undergird and undercut the family’s attempts to live a normal suburban life. The Sopranos is not the only show to do this; others feature other family structures, deviant behavior, and alternative routes into and out of the suburban dream.

At this point, have television shows covered all of the stories of American suburbs? No. Is there still a typical format? Yes. Have creators played around with the typical format to present other stories? Yes.. Do Americans want to watch suburban TV shows? Yes and no.