Created By: David Chase – Not known for much before The Sopranos, he did some writing jobs for TV in the 80’s and 90’s. He was most noted for his producer credit on the Rockford Files. Since The Sopranos finished he has been pretty quiet too. Although to be honest I’d have probably retired on a high note having created and showrun one of the most important TV shows ever made.
Network: HBO – Before there was Netflix there was AMC and Showtime. But before any of them HBO was redefining what television drama could achieve.
In A Nutshell: Modern day morality tale about New Jersey native Tony Soprano who having inherited a business from his Father, and from under the overbearing weight of his Italian Mother, must work through the pressures of raising his kids, supporting his family, hiding his infidelities and all of the pressures of modern life. Just like so many average Americans. Except they aren’t also the figurehead of a Mob family.
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini): The patriarchal head of two families: his blood family; and his Mafia “family”. Weighed down by the pressures of both he begins experiencing anxiety attacks and secretly seeks out therapy. It’s a bold move in a community where asking for help is a sign of weakness. On top of all of his own pressures he has to deal with his band of mafioso misfits who all seemed determined to make his life harder.
Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco): The long suffering wife of Tony and mother of his children, she embodies hypocrisy. While she never condones what he does she enjoys all the spoils his business brings and never asks where the money comes from. Battling her own demons Falco and the writers developed Carmela into a beautifully complex and multi dimensional character, never allowing her to become merely the put upon wife.
Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco): While Tony may have many physical infidelities, his relationship with his therapist Dr Melfi is his most complex. Being privy to weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Tony that Carmela never sees she is the constant “other woman”. She is also the only woman that Tony wants and can’t have. As the narrative outlet for Tony’s neurosis, she is also never allowed by the writers to merely be a plot device, with her own professional and moral conflicts at treating a man she knows to be a criminal being constantly tested.
Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli): Tony’s nephew and constant bane. Over the course of his time in The Sopranos he battles drug and alcohol dependency on and off, leading to a series of “unfortunate incidents” usually involving someone becoming an ex-someone. Undergoes a brilliant story arc in later series involving him trying to break Hollywood and meeting Sir Ben Kingsley.
Adriana La Cerva (Drea De Matteo): Christopher’s long suffering partner and unrequited apple of Tony’s eye. WIthout the trappings of wealth that Carmela and the other wives and girlfriends enjoy she dreams of a better life. The Jersey life is in her blood though and she soon finds herself in a bind that constantly tests her motivations and loyalty.
Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese): Tony’s uncle and former mob heavyweight. Under house arrest while the FBI investigates him on RECO charges, he struggles to deal with his nephew leading the business and trying to take it in bold directions. Chianese brings much needed humour to some dark situations, but is also involved later on in a heartbreaking dementia storyline. I always liked that Chianese also turned up in Boardwalk Empire, which is essentially the Sopranos in the 1920s.
Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt): Tony’s right hand man, confidant and strategist, Silvio is a the consistent voice of reason in a sea of hot heads and loose canons. Unlike others close to Tony, if he has aspirations of power he never expresses them and plays his role as Tony’s Consigliere with integrity. One of the few people able to tell Tony when he is overstepping.
Originally conceived in the early 90’s as a feature film about a mobster visiting a therapist to work through his issues, Chase was persuaded to develop it into a TV series. In 1995 he scripted the pilot episode. As a native New Jerseyite, Chase had grown up around the mob families that dominated the area. When writing the Soprano family dynamics he based it around his own experiences. He also applied the same approach to Tony’s relationship with his therapist Dr Melfi.
Chase pitched his pilot script to several networks in 1995/96, including Fox, but all passed. Eventually in 1997 HBO, at that time not producing a huge amount of original material, gave Chase the money to produce the 45 minute pilot episode. After sitting on it for 18 months they eventually ordered 12 more episodes for a 13 episode season. Airing on 10th January 1999 it marked the beginning of one of the most captivating, cinematic and important television series of all time.
Why Was It So Important?
Prior to The Sopranos, criminals and mobsters had always been portrayed as fairly two dimensional characters. With the exception of very high watermarks such as Goodfellas, Casino, Heat and of course The Godfather trilogy, we always saw the brutality but rarely the humanity. Because whilst what mobsters and mafiosos do is reprehensible, they are at their core still men and women with normal people problems. They suffer anxiety, stress and depression like the rest of us. More so probably. Who wouldn’t feel stressed knowing your competition wanted to riddle you with bullets and give you a new pair of concrete boots.
James Gandolfini portrayed Tony Soprano in such a way that for all of his brutality, narcissism, machismo and arrogance you couldn’t help but love him. He was the anti-hero with a heart. It was a model that many tried since and a few have re-created. Without Tony Soprano you’d imagine there might not be a Vince Mackey or a Walter White. David Chase, James Gandolfini, the writers and principal cast showed that TV didn’t have to be good guys and bad guys. That the beauty is often in the quagmire of grey uncertainty that lies between the extremes.
HBO also showed the world how TV could be done with the right budget and creative minds at the helm. At the time of the Sopranos going to air in 1999 the only other one hour show developed by HBO was the equally brilliant and dark Oz. Under the guidance of Chris Albrecht, then Head of Original Programming, HBO developed itself into a name synonymous with the best TV could offer. Without the constraints of advertisers dictating what they deemed as tasteful or not, HBO was free to give their audience what they wanted. it was a liberating environment for writers as well. If writers were chickens then the networks were KFC and HBO was Oaklyn Plantation; a place for them to develop their characters in a free range environment, with all the grain they could eat (ok, that analogy got out of hand, but you get my point). The result was a narrative full of rich, complex and conflicted characters, all delivered with cinematography that wouldn’t have felt out of place on the big screen
Within a couple of years of The Sopranos going to air it had paved the way for a slew of programming that would set the standard for television and force the big three networks to adapt or die. When HBO gave us Six Feet Under, Sportsnight, The Wire, Band of Brothers, Deadwood and Entourage, the networks were forced to fight back with The West Wing, The Shield and Lost. It also pushed other cable networks like Showtime and AMC to emerge with content like Dexter, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and the American version of The Killing.
Without the complex yet loveable anti-hero that James Gandolfini so brilliantly painted for those 8 years, a number of shows that we so dearly love now may never have come to be. Can you imagine Walter White and Breaking Bad without Tony Soprano first? I can’t.
As you would expect of something as culturally important (in the popular sense, calm down art and history lovers) as The Sopranos, several of it’s themes and motifs were replicated to great effect. A number of TV shows have used the iconic opening and logo in parody. The below Simpsons parody is a great example of how highly regarded it was. Also who can hear Alabama 3’s Woke Up This Morning and not smell the cigar smoke circulating around the inside of Tony’s SUV?
With the continued proliferation of shitty reality TV and 24hr sexualised, sensationalized, commercialised news broadcasting, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that lovers of quality TV have never had it so good. The loss of such a great talent, and so early, is always hard to bear. What James Gandolfini left behind though was a performance and character that redefined what could be achieved in 1 hour television episodes. Even if you didn’t like The Sopranos, I can guarantee that somewhere along the line you’ve invested yourself in a story that owes something to what David Chase and co did for those 8 years.
High Point (SPOILER)
It’s hard to pick out specific high points from a series that had so many long running and overlapping arcs. I guess a favourite of mine though would be the short run of episodes immediately following Tony being shot where the writers got to explore his neurosis from a new and unique angle. It was almost Lynchian in it’s approach and showed how diverse the show’s style could be. A quick second would be the story arc involving a mob boss outed as gay who finds himself starting a new gay life on the run in New Hampshire.
Did it end too soon?
All good things must come to an end and The Sopranos was no exception. By the time it concluded it felt like a natural end. Within those 7 seasons they explored pretty much all they could and anything more would have felt unnecessary. The final episode famously gained a lot of hate for failing to wrap things up. Personally I think it was a great open ended way to let the viewer finish their own version of the Soprano story.
One of the defining TV series of our time, on repeat viewing it doesn’t feel dated or outdone by the programmes it has subsequently inspired. Watching it again, or for the first time, is a fantastically enjoyable way to remember, in James Gandolfini, one of the most talented character actors of his generation.
Verdict: Defines the term Must See TV