Why ‘The Sopranos’ Met With Such a Backlash in Season 3

When the early returns came in for The Sopranos, critics didn’t have trouble coming to a consensus. They loved the show, and reviewers handed out the word “masterpiece” like you would fun-size Snickers on Halloween. Creator David Chase described the feedback as “terrifying” when he went to work on season 2.

“It just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century,” Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times. And while Chase and his writers felt petrified, they delivered on an even higher level in season 2.

At the end of that second season, the crew of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) rid itself of two pests. In the penultimate episode, Richie Aprile (David Proval) departed. Then, in the season 2 finale, the crew offed Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), who’d been informing on the family to the FBI.

But those mob-world murders were part of the code, Sopranos fans could still argue. In season 3, that changed when a rape, a brutal beating, and the savage murder of an innocent woman happened over the course of three episodes. That led to a legitimate backlash.

‘The Sopranos’ got especially ugly in the middle of season 3

Joe Pantoliano as Ralph Cifaretto
Joe Pantoliano as Ralph Cifaretto acts in a scene in HBO’s “The Sopranos/” | HBO

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If you need a refresher on the darkness of season 3, it starts with the rape of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in “Employee of the Month” (episode 4). Though she has the chance to sic Tony on her attacker (who’s been set free by the police), Melfi accepts the results of the botched investigation and tries to move on.

That episode was followed by “Another Toothpick,” which brought Bobby Baccala Sr. (Burt Young) out of retirement to whack a hothead named Mustang Sally. Baccala gets the call to hit Sally because he pummeled Bryan Spatafore, the civilian brother of Vito (Joe Gannascoli), with a golf club. Bryan ends up in the hospital in a coma.

If that wasn’t enough, things got a shade darker in “University.” In that installment, viewers watch Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) humiliate his stripper girlfriend repeatedly before he beats her to death outside the Bada Bing. Taken together or separately, these episodes might make you sick to your stomach. That seemed to be the point.

Viewers, critics, and even politicians joined the ‘Sopranos’ backlash

James Gandolfini and Burt Young in 'The Sopranos' season 3
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Burt Young as Bobby Baccalieri Sr. act in “The Sopranos.” | HBO

Though it’s nearly 20 years later, the signs of the backlash still remain. In Entertainment Weekly, Ty Burr wrote that the show would stand “to lose […] squeamish, fair-weather viewers.” An item in the New York Post noted “women viewers” who were turned off by the stripper murder.

Ariel Kiley, who played the stripper, told the University of Vermont paper, “A lot of HBO subscribers canceled their service because of these episodes.” Meanwhile, members of the New Jersey State Legislature boycotted a film fund Pantoliano was promoting.

Indeed, it qualified as a backlash. Compared to the record ratings in its season opener, the season 3 finale didn’t pull half that many viewers. Overall, though, the show averaged more viewers in season 3. And season 4 improved on those ratings. The Sopranos writers made their point, and some viewers made theirs. In the end, it was a TV show, and it ended there.