I’ve only had HBO once in my life, and it was about 15 years ago, so I did not see the Sopranos when it was first broadcast. But flipping channels recently I started catching bits of it on A&E. I didn’t want to ruin it by starting to watch it in the middle, so it was off to my local independent video store (sadly closing this summer!) to rent the DVDs. It took a few weeks, but I worked my way through the entire series, from pilot to finale.
It really spoke to me. Not because of the mob thing, or even necessarily because it’s a highly-regarded show, with great acting, a novel storyline, and intriguing characters. For me, it was all about New Jersey.
In interviews David Chase talks about insisting on shooting it there, and to HBO’s credit, they let him. You cannot fake New Jersey on the screen. Everything from the most derelict to the most serene is unmistakable. Its light and its colors are like nowhere else on Earth — not even neighboring New York (and certainly not a set in southern California…).
I should know: I grew up there, in northern New Jersey, at the northern edge of the Sopranos’ world. At least one scene was filmed in my town, and many others in the town next door. At 17 I even took my driving test for my license at the DMV just around the corner from the “Badda Bing” club.
My favorite scenes are at the outdoor parties, like in the “Marco Polo” episode, where as dusk falls and the warm soft evening air captures the sounds of crickets the family continues to splash in the pool. That doesn’t happen in California, where there’s too little humidity to preserve any of the heat from earlier in the day. But it happened all the time when I was a kid in New Jersey.
And yet, despite growing up in this wonderful place, I couldn’t wait to leave it. Something else that resonated for me with the show was the storyline about Meadow Soprano dreaming of moving away to Berkeley. Because that had been my dream too.
I knew from the earliest days of adolescence that Berkeley was the place for me. As I went through high school and prepared to go to college I went through the motions of applying to other schools in other places, but Berkeley was always my first — and only — choice.
So when Meadow Soprano opened that envelope in the second season and saw her acceptance, my own heart raced as I relived the moment years and years earlier when I’d opened my own envelope. I remember exactly where I was when I read it (standing in the dining room on the west end of the table) and how happy I it made me — once I got over my disbelief that it was really true — to realize I was going to get to follow my dream.
But that’s where Meadow and I diverge, because for the sake of future story lines she apparently changed her mind and went to Columbia instead. If I have one criticism of the Sopranos it would be for not exploring that decision, since having so accurately portrayed her drive to go to Berkeley it was a huge oversight never to have dealt with the sea change in emotion that would prompt her to stay. And, believe me, there is a story there. Even I felt it, because as much as I had always been chomping at the bit to move as far away from New Jersey as I could, once it became possible, it suddenly felt a little less important to go.
But go I did, off to Berkeley, where Cal was everything I ever hoped it to be. And then I stayed out there for most of my adult life, in Berkeley for two more years after graduation, Silicon Valley for four more years after that, and now I find myself in Marin County, living on the water in one of the most gorgeous environments in the world.
And yet, after watching the Sopranos, and hearing them talk about running out to the Grand Union and Turtleback Zoo (and Ramsey Outdoor and Route 4 and…) I’m reminded of just how New Jersey feels like home, and just how much I miss it.