Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s a crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes it’s just a stick of dynamite with two smaller sticks of dynamite stuck on the side—lit and served up as Wild Turkey Surprise. Eating can advance or even upstage a plot. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable food in the history of storytelling.
“Family” is the familiar theme of hundreds of shows, but few TV series seem as real—populated by actual, complex, multi-layered people—as Roseanne and The Sopranos. Both shows mixed drama and comedy, and could regularly punch the audience in the gut as well as the heart.
The problems these two families encountered unwound naturally from season to season, as if they were actual events unfolding in real time. Years after their finales, these series stand out as being particularly effective at documenting the central challenge of family life: struggling to deal with those we don’t completely understand, can’t control, occasionally resent, and are expected to love.
As it happens, characters on both shows spend a lot of time in the kitchen—talking, cooking, snacking, chatting, or cleaning. And on both shows, the kitchen is where we see the characters coming together while trying, and often failing, to be a “normal” family.
In the dining room, the conversation is constricted by etiquette, or by expectations for everybody to behave and play an appointed role. In the bedroom, arguments start and move unresolved into the rest of the house, or couples come to an agreement (which is often to disagree).
But in the kitchen, conversations emerge while people are distracted by preparing food, or washing it down the drain, or sneaking it, or pulling it from grocery bags, or pinching it by the fingerful while leaning against a counter because there’s no time to eat a meal. In the kitchen, pretensions dissolve like grease in high-quality dish soap. Nobody in the kitchen is pretending the turkey is a glistening symbol of warmth and togetherness, the serving of which is an apex of family tradition; no, in the kitchen, it’s a dead bird.
Families fight in the kitchen. They deal with ambiguous feelings and the suckiness of reality. In the presence of food that’s not ready for presentation, characters can work through how they’re going to present themselves in complicated situations out in the wider world—where Roseanne and her sister confront the logistics of dealing with their father’s death, for example, sitting amid sympathy food on table and counters where it’s been set temporarily in the chaos.
For those who aren’t familiar with these characters, a brief background: Roseanne describes the struggles of the blue-collar Conners of fictional Lanford, Illinois—somewhere south of Chicago—as they cope with every heavy personal issue a family can encounter. Dan and Roseanne actually appear to be friends who love each other, and Roseanne depends on her sister Jackie even though initially we assume it’s the other way around. The Conners and their kids understand that cruel-sounding jokes are actually a playful way to dispel fear and uncertainty.
Several states away, the apparently well-off Sopranos of New Jersey are perhaps a little too thin-skinned to joke with one another as harshly as the Conners. The dad, Tony, works as a mob boss while living as typically as possible in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, straddling those two worlds less than gracefully. Carmela is Tony’s wife, strong-willed and sensible, but both are so stubborn and fierce that their love is constantly threatening to immolate itself. Tony and Carmela’s two kids feel privileged, and are, while his crime family needs Tony to assert his leadership—which is all too much for a morally compromised upper-middle-class dad.
As in any mob story, the alliances between characters determine their fates, but The Sopranos blends in the alliances between non-mobster family members: In the early seasons, Tony’s scheming sister deploys various shades of outrage and concern as a sort of chess move in the game of dealing with their dead mother’s inheritance. One morning, in Tony’s kitchen, a family argument erupts just after we watch Tony performing the same brain-dead act some of us may have kicked off our day with—intently reading the back of a Honeycomb box and shoving cereal in our mouths at the family breakfast bar. That familiar brand helps us suspend our disbelief, but it does even more than that. Starting that moment with the dad eating the same kids’ cereal we might have in our own cupboard helps us place ourselves into the sleeveless T-shirt of a mobster, and feel more at home in the unfamiliar world of the New Jersey mob.
Kitchen talk is intimate; it’s revealing. The kitchen is where writers send characters who have to tell each other the truth (here, Roseanne and Jackie literally move from the couch to the kitchen). Showrunners and directors can trust that the audience will interpret whatever is said in the backstage-like space of the kitchen as sincere or intimate. In this territory of recipes and prep, spoilage and possibility, viewers can work through subtexts and get the relationships exactly straight. Maybe the presence of the unserved, unfinished, or thrown-against-the-wall food somehow helps us feel the characters are being honest, whether the moment is funny or sad, profound or goofy. Or all those things mixed together.
American television had endured a zillion sitcoms by the time Roseanne showed up, and God knows the mafia is a go-to backdrop for storytelling. But these two shows’ creators convince us these people know each other too well, and live together while they fight, tell the occasional lame joke, and go through messy situations.
Watch as the Sopranos happen to run out of mocha mix while Tony misses a chance for a meaningful connection with his daughter. Then, join the Conners in a realistic conversation about losing weight.
Mocha mix. Mallomars. The distance between the Conners and Sopranos can be measured by their name-checked chocolate treat of choice.
That mocha/Mallomar differential describes the main difference in these two families: They couldn’t be farther apart in their choice of consumer packaged goods, buying their families the chocolate treat their income levels and social status would dictate. But strip away those eco-social reference points and they’re more similar than different when it comes to characters and storytelling. Neither show stays within in its genre. Technically, one’s a comedy and one’s a drama, but there’s comedy in the drama (the microwave calling for Tony as his daughter bares her feelings) and drama in the comedy.
Dangerous emotions (not just physical danger, as you’d expect in a mob story, or in a blue-collar family whose men are willing to throw down) threaten both households constantly. The bluesy Roseanne harmonica that opens each episode or the percussive synth intro of Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” running under the worlds-spanning introduction of The Sopranos both create a Pavlovian thrill: “I don’t know what they’re going to throw at me, but I know it’s going to feel like I’m actually experiencing it myself.” Artificial-intelligence programmers could use almost any episode (except for episodes from the lottery-warped, weirdly off-brand final season of Roseanne) to teach robots about the illogical joy of complicated, unresolved emotions.
What makes these difficult families such a particular joy? Some of it is in the gestures, the looks across tables, the spaces left for the audience to fill in its own emotions, the acting. Most comes from the writing, the playing with expectations and refusal to take a single easy route out of a complicated situation: Roseanne’s and Tony’s tangled traumas are taken on in the inelegant, imprecise, make-it-up-as-you-go way we’d have to face the same problems down in our own life.
Acting and writing are clearly the main ingredients, but from the Conners’ long-corded kitchen phone and exposed pantry to the Sopranos’ fabulously thought-through fridge contents, those kitchen sets aren’t merely decorated. They’re ripped from a house next door to someone you went to school with. We all recognize those kitchens. We’ve eaten and argued in them ourselves. Both shows get the details right: The parents drink Budweiser on Roseanne, while the kids drink generic cola (leaving us to infer the budget priorities of the Conner household). The white-paper-wrapped cold cuts of Italian meat that Tony pulls out of the fridge for a snack seem to have the scribbly handwriting of a butcher and, in some cases, use non-Americanized spellings of “cappicola” and other specialty meats. The prop department went to great lengths to get the correct pencil and the exact type of person to write on those meat packages. And it makes a difference.
In interviews, anyone involved behind Roseanne’s or The Sopranos’ sceneswill typically dwell on how picky the prime movers of those shows were. Evidently it wasn’t always pleasant on set as the details were attended. But the alert, meticulous producers and directors and art departments responsible for those kitchens—those intimate settings where truths are exchanged, secrets are revealed, confrontations erupt, conspiracies hatch, and the action rises and falls while turkeys are stuffed and fridges are scoured for trays of leftover ziti—sure managed to imitate life with their art.
And now we can choose whether to sit down and share a meal with our real family, or their totally made-up families (who feel just as real).
Upcoming: Have you tried the strudel here, Quentin? It’s not so terrible.