“What exit are you?” is a relatively frequent response when I tell people I’m from New Jersey. The exit joke, used most often by New Yorkers, refers to the New Jersey Turnpike, which runs the length of the state from New York City to Delaware. Another dirty lie about the state is that it is, well, dirty. Both of these gags are represented in the opening credits of HBO’s The Sopranos, as Tony leaves the Lincoln Tunnel to drive into New Jersey in his Chevy Suburban to the tune of A3’s ragged “Woke Up This Morning” (it begins, “You woke up this morning/ Got yourself a gun”).
For locals, a big part of the draw of watching The Sopranos is the “I know where that is!” factor. There are few places I can go in New Jersey that don’t involve passing the Satin Dolls strip club (Bada Bing on the show) en route. It becomes a game to see how many places New Jerseyans can identify. We watch the show to see small pieces of our lives reflected on the television.
To wit, a scene in which a garbage truck exploded was filmed across the street from my father’s factory. Sopranos executives inquired if the “boss” was at the factory in order to get permission to film someone getting whacked on the loading dock. Unfortunately, the manager was not in and the scene never got shot. Tony Soprano beat someone about the head in an industrial park right off the ramp of Exit 160 of the Garden State Parkway, another fine Jersey roadway.
Some New Jerseyans insist on pressing the point that just because the show is filmed at authentic New Jersey locales doesn’t make it authentic. “People drive the New Jersey Turnpike and think it’s full of factories and oil refineries. They think the mob is apparent in everyday life. The Sopranos is a caricature of New Jersey. That lifestyle might exist, but we never see it,” says my dad, Michael Blanchfield.
But good caricatures are grounded in experience. The Sopranos succeeds on the strength of its believable characters. Meadow and Anthony Jr. could just as easily be substituted for anybody I went to high school with, except their father is a mob boss. Carmela’s accent works because most of my family talks like that, too.
A, uh, mutually beneficial relationship exists between those who provide New Jersey backdrops for filming and those who film. Local organizations appreciate the business the publicity can bring them, and counties vie for a piece of the action. The County of Passaic Motion Picture and Television Film Commission believes The Sopranos “increases the positive image of the county.”
Well… OK. But even if you don’t think watching Chris-tah-fuh slap his coke-snorting girlfriend Adriana around, or seeing Tony and crew whack Big Pussy or pushing a drug dealer over the Great Falls will add to a county’s “positive image,” there is a certain allure that the show confers. The Sopranos may or may not glorify the mob but it certainly makes New Jersey life seem darker and more interesting.
Because Tony & Co. are not hardened city-slicking thugs but mushy suburbanites, the show whets the imagination of Garden Staters. The guy running the pizza place around the corner probably doesn’t have mafia ties, but, then, maybe he does. And how does Susie’s dad, the coach of your daughter’s soccer team, make his living again? The Sopranos succeeds with New Jerseyans because it makes us wonder what’s going on next door.