As of late, I've been watching The Sopranos, HBO's legendary television series starring the late James Gandolfini. It starts with a simple but exquisite premise: what if a capo in a mob family was depressed and suffered from intense anxiety and started going to a therapist? From there, The Sopranos bellows out family drama of all shades like that one Andrea Bocelli song. Its influence, even on its 20th anniversary this year, can be seen in pretty much any prestige drama you watch on television.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of an iconic moment in an episode that aired early in season one of the series. It's the episode where Tony Soprano's son Anthony (or "A.J.") learns that his father doesn't actually work in "waste management," thanks to bullies at his school and his older sister Meadow. Early in the episode, Anthony is seen with a Nintendo 64 controller, playing Mario Kart 64 before bedtime. Tony walks in and greets his son, sitting down to play the kart racer with him. What ensues is one of the earliest examples of people badly playing video games on film that I can remember.
Tony plays with one hand. One hand! He moves the analog stick forward, and somehow, as the camera cuts to the screen, his Luigi drives onward without acceleration. He's not perfect though: his Luigi is driving against a wall, and Tony laments that it's the game's fault. "This thing ain't steerin' right," he complains. He then puts his hand over his son's eyes, annoying him but securing his own victory of 4th place. His son finishes in 6th.
Over the years, strange depictions of people playing video games have become something of the norm. It even began as early as 1989 with the Nintendo-sanctioned show Captain N: The Game Master, a Saturday morning cartoon show that featured a kid smashing away on a controller in a way that didn't quite translate to the Punch-Out!! being played on the TV. Bill Compton in True Blood spends his off-time playing Wii Golf when not pining over local mortal waitress Sookie Stackhouse. In Rumble in the Bronx, a kid plays a Sega Game Gear that… has no game in it.
Tony playing Mario Kart 64 with his son isn't the only Mario Kart reference in season one of The Sopranos. Later on in episode seven, Anthony is grounded from playing Mario Kart, which he deems as "not fair" as he cries and gets up from the dinner table dramatically. The Sopranos is excellent beyond just its Mario Kart-laced moments though, which encapsulate just how staggeringly long ago the series originally aired. If you haven't watched The Sopranos before, it's streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.