The role of a hero in a typical story is to present a character that the audience looks up to, who displays the ideal traits that all society universally looks to as admirable and worthy of emulation. Whether the audience can relate to the hero in their personal life is largely irrelevant to the characters role as a hero in the story.
An anti-hero therefore displays traits that the audience looks at (or should look at) as despicable, and worthy of rejection as a role model. What distinguishes the anti-hero from a plain villan is the audience's ability to relate to the character in some way that makes him/her likable; in a way that makes the audience root unexpectedly for the person do succeed in their dastardly en devours, or perhaps in spite of them.
Tony Soprano clearly fits these criteria. Like many movies where a mob character or criminal is the protagonist, we are supposed to understand better their point of view and the rationalizations for their actions, even though we despise their choices.
Questions generate questions!
Is Tony a sociopath (as his shrink had been warned), or is he a man who is trapped in a way of life he inherited (the family business)? Can a sociopath be an anti-hero?
Television shows are filled with villains and heroes, characters we love and love to hate. Tony Soprano is neither all villain nor all hero. There's plenty about him to hate and plenty to like, but few want to emulate him. So what's left? Anti-hero. Good call!
Tony Soprano is the essence of the antihero. He has few redeeming qualities and no remorse for his crimes. His love for his family notwithstanding, Tony Soprano is a thief, a liar, and murderer. He makes no apologies for his choice of life work. It is for this reason that he can neither be classified as a hero nor as a tragic hero.
Being the leader of a mob, he was expected to make certain decisions that were not very moral. After all, that is how he was raised to be. Many things he did throughout the series were very unethical and wrong but that is why he was such a powerful character. While he did many horrible things, he also loved his family and did what he needed to do to protect them.
I believe that Tony Soprano can deifnitely be identified as an anti-hero. Contrary to what some of the previous posts say, I think that whether or not Tony is a "relatively good fella" is beside the point. My understanding is that, simply, an anti-hero can be defined as a protagonist who lacks the attributes of a traditional hero. According to this definition, I don't think there is much of a question about whether Tony is an anti-hero; he is indeed the protagonist and he does not have characteristic heroic qualities.
Whether or not Tony is a relatively "good" guy is another question, and one that is certainly debatable.
I agree with the above posts that Tony fits the anti-hero tag. Despite his obvious villainous nature, he has some positive traits. He attempts to be a family man, he occasionally does favors without profit being the primary motive, and some of his misdeeds are against others deserving of punishment.
I think part of my problem with Tony as antihero is that he never actually proves himself to be a "relatively good fella". He claims to want to improve himself, but every time he has an opportunity to do the decent thing he chooses instead to act selfishly. When he does behave in a seemingly selfless manner, he generally has an ulterior motive. I agree that he endures situations that allow the audience to sympathize with him, but does he ever truly behave heroically?
#3 is key in placing strong emphasis on the word "identification". Anti-heroes seem to be much more real characters than your stock heroes in that they are much more rounded individuals who are not to sickeningly good. Tony Soprano is a character who the audience definitely empathises with through the situations that he has to endure and get through, which do not distance him from the audience.
The previous post did a nice job in identifying Soprano as an antihero. Indeed, I think that any gangster who is shown to have a "human side" is representative of an anti- hero. They kill people, but in showing them to be "relatively good fellas," they possess heroic qualities. I think that the therapy sessions are probably where we see Tony Soprano as being the most human because he is able to explore the complexities of his life. Through this, we can see that he endures the same trials and agonizing moments as most other heroes do. Having to deal with betrayal, familial frustrations, as well as other conditions that allow audience members to identify with Tony as a heroic character despite his activities which resemble the best of villains.
I'd say Tony Soprano is the perfect example of an antihero. He's a mobster, has a violent temper, has killed and extorted people for profit, and committed any number of other crimes, not to mention he is continually unfaithful to his wife. These are the characteristics we usually find assigned to villains in literature.
In Tony's case, though, the viewer likes him, his sense of humor, his love for his family and his tough guy persona. The audience cheers for him in both his role as mobster and every time he tries to improve himself or his disposition. We want him to be better, but we cheer for him even when he isn't, which is most of the time - the perfect antihero.
Tony is a a very anti-social character, there is no doubt. His crimes are extensive and terrible. But we like him. He IS a nice guy on some levels. If you remember the first episode, it starts with him feeding the wild ducklings in his swimming pool, and when they grow up and fly away, he collapses with a major panic attack and siezure. Why?
This is where we meet Tony. Having a major mid-life crisis; vulnerable, tired, lost.
As the show continued perhaps they ran out of top quality ideas and broadened the brushstrokes and the characterisation was not so detailed. But the first couple of series where he battled with his glamourous shrink (and his own demons) are fabulous and we see a very human side to Don Soprano. I think he is tragic in some ways. His crimes are no more terrible than Macbeth's afterall.