A few episodes later, in the show’s penultimate scene, Tony visits the care facility where Junior languishes alone. “You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey,” Tony reminds him. “We did?” Junior replies. “That’s nice.” The mob is deteriorating along with the men who run it, a theme that reappears in Martin Scorsese’s new movie “The Irishman.” The gangster movie canon is filled with tales told in hindsight, where nostalgia is the only thing keeping the mob alive, but the memory is waning.
The opposite seems true in our culture of remakes and reruns, where memory is total and nostalgia is a dominant force. In the 12 years since the screen infamously went black on the series’s final episode, Sopranos fandom has endured and even expanded. Its viewership has transformed into multiple distinct, but parallel subcultures, from Long Island small-business tyrants to suburban wine moms to ironic online leftists. The weekend before Thanksgiving, all those types and more gathered here to “remember when” at the first-ever SopranosCon, celebrating with graying cast members, superfans and one special horse.
I arrived on Saturday to men in FBI costumes ushering fans through the Meadowlands Exposition Center entrance, which was decorated to look like the New Jersey turnpike toll gate where Tony snatches a ticket in the show’s opening credits. Inside, the Sopranos’ extended universe unfolded. Rows of vendors selling mob fan fiction and memoirs, “Made in New Jersey” T-shirts, knives for uses unspecified, loving portraits of Tony Soprano and “Luxury E-Cigars.”
Booths offered cannoli, pizza, soppressata, “gabagool,” Bada Bean “cawfee,” and “What, No F-in Ziti?”-brand ziti, a callback to a memorable first-season line by a babyfaced A.J. Soprano. (Some of the cast members in attendance accept boxes of ziti in exchange for autographs.) There was a “Win a Free Trip to Florida” table and a tattoo artist ready to ink Christopher Moltisanti’s face on your bicep. This was more than a celebration of the show. It was a spectacle of the Sopranos lifestyle.
My first stop was at a re-creation of Dr. Melfi’s office, where Tony worked through his mother-shaped demons episode after episode. A group of 30-something men in head-to-toe velour stood around trading Tony one-liners in put-on Jersey accents, most of them too riddled with expletives to print here.
These guys, childhood friends from Long Island, summed up the average convention-goer — somewhere between Sopranos aficionado and Sopranos character, fans who analyze Tony vs. those who identify with him. The crowd wardrobe could be described as casual cosplay. Parody and authenticity overlapped among the leather jackets, cheetah print pants and bathrobes. A couple wearing VIP badges and matching Adidas asked me to take their photo on the chaise longue. It had only been a couple of hours, but the tracksuit count was already at 30.
Jeremy Wolff, a Jersey-born, Manhattan-based pop artist, displayed his Sopranos-themed paintings across the aisle. “My generation, people in their 30s and 40s, are getting their first real salaries. The lawyers and accountants are getting their money and want that nostalgic feeling of when they were in the ’90s,” Wolff explained. “I like to say I have the pulse of the people. Everything I do relates to what I liked back then.”
The neighboring wall was covered in Sopranos memes, images sourced from the Facebook group that started it all. SopranosCon co-founder Danny Trader started “The Sopranos — Time Immemorial” page 11 years ago. It now boasts over 200,000 followers. “ ‘Sopranos’ came in at the dawn of the Internet, so it didn’t get that Internet treatment the way shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ did,” Trader says. “The Twitter conversations, instant recaps and reviews . . . that’s the main reason there’s still such a hunger for new content.”
Trader organized the two-day event with fellow superfans Joe Fama and Michael Mota, both of whom he met online. Mota was able to help wrangle a roster of cast members for meet-and-greets through his friendship with Federico Castelluccio, the actor who portrayed Furio, the ponytailed Italian hunk who had an almost-affair with Carmela.
The lines to meet Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior), Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy), Vincent Curatola (Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni) and Drea de Matteo (Adrianna La Cerva) ran from their tables all the way back through roped-off displays of the show’s bullet-pierced cars and blood-spattered costumes, the Bada Bing stage and Bobby Baccalieri’s beloved train set. Tony Sirico (Paulie Gualtieri) zipped in on a golf cart, dressed like an old-money yachtsman, and was immediately swarmed by iPhone-wielding fans.
“David Chase left this incredible legacy for us. He created a show that was never seen on TV before, a benchmark that other shows needed to follow,” Castelluccio told me. “The show absolutely holds up today. We’re still getting new fans. A great work of art is always great.” In addition to acting, Castelluccio is a talented painter. Some of his prints, including one of Tony and Carmela, were being sold at the merch booth.
Autographs from Diana Lynn (“Bada Bing dancer”), Mike Memphis (Elvis impersonator from Season 2, Episode 4), and Jayson Ward Williams (in the iconic role of “coffeehouse manager” from Season 6, Episode 8) were not as sought after. It’s hard to determine what was driving their attendance after such brief involvement with the show. Overly ambitious agents? Boredom? An elaborate joke? Performance art?
“I heard about the convention from a huge fan,” Williams told me in an email. “He felt my character was important to the change of the mafia years ago compared to now. I decided to attend because to date, it is the only show I’ve appeared on that I actually watched.”
Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano), Michael Imperioli (Moltisanti) and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi) were not present at the convention. And James Gandolfini, the formidable Tony Soprano, died in 2013. But Tony and Ralph Cifaretto’s racehorse from Season 4, Pie-o-My, was more than ready for fan photo-ops.
Back at the barber chairs, I recognized a large bearded man with a ponytail sprouting out of his shaved head. Josh Ostrovsky, better known as “@FatJew,” otherwise known as “that guy everyone got mad at for stealing memes but now he has a wine company or something,” kept halting his haircut to take pictures with fans. He used soppressata as a prop — sticking the sausage in his mouth, holding it over his crotch, pretending it was a phone. Williams, the coffeehouse manager from Season 6, hadn’t seen this much action all day.
Ostrovsky rose to Internet fame for compiling and sharing the most widely relatable content he could find online. The charitable name for this kind of work is “meme curation,” though others have called it “plagiarism.” As these things go, he made a public apology, started crediting the original meme creators and launched a brand of canned rosé. He looked surprised when I didn’t ask him for a picture and told me I could pass for a “young Dr. Melfi.” Maybe he was here to get in on the ground floor with some Sopranos memes.
“This is my Super Bowl. This is my Coachella. This is my Oscars. This is my everything,” he told me. “It’s not about nostalgia. I’ve been in a mode where I’m eating edibles, like weed-infused scones, and re-watching shows. And a lot of shows are really bad! Even ‘Breaking Bad!’ ”
Ostrovsky was oddly charming and surrounded by a small posse of friends with whom he grew up. One of them was Will Janowitz, who played Finn, Meadow Soprano’s least-annoying boyfriend. “Your character inspired me to become a dentist!” someone yelled at Janowitz.
“Sopranos captured a time in a pure honest way. We pine for that sentiment again. But people like Tony still exist. They’re here today,” Janowitz mused. “I wonder about some of the fans. Are they understanding all the show’s levels? Are there homophobic racists, like, cheering Tony on when he murders people?”
But the fandom spreads further within and outside of the convention center. A stereotypical Sopranos fan doesn’t exist, partially because the fandom doesn’t necessitate over-involvement or full identification with it, unlike, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We can let “The Sopranos” exist to be enjoyed without turning Carmela into a Khaleesi. There isn’t a totality to the fanhood, there is a critical distance. A respectful appreciation.
“The Sopranos has something for everyone,” de Matteo said, fighting back tears when I met up with her on the convention’s final day. “People who want to watch a mafia show? They have a mafia show. Gunshots and all. People who want a family show? They have a family show. It was a critic’s darling because it spanned every genre.”
Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critics and co-authors of “The Sopranos Sessions,” echoed this sentiment during their panel, speaking to a room of card-carrying Soprano nerds. “The human personality is key to understanding every strength the show has. I remember it being colder and more ironic when I first watched it,” Zoller Seitz said. “Now I’m struck by the compassion of its characters. They can’t see what’s right in front of them. Change is possible, but human beings are too lazy to change.”
The panel ended and transitioned into a cannoli-eating contest. The audience didn’t budge.