"The Sopranos" first aired on January 10, 1999. We dive into how it changed the TV landscape.
The reddit board for The Sopranos is still going strong. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume that the show is still on air for all of the activity and debate. Certain debates never die— like the one about the final scene. Other debates fixate on the likability of characters or the ‘deservingness’ of certain deaths. These fictional characters are dissected as if they are historical figures and the effort that Sopranos scholars put into proving their correctness is often doctoral worthy.
A great number of the posts are simply admiration and appreciation. Watching the show to examine its craft is a very different exercise than watching it for enjoyment, but it’s an exercise that is duly rewarded. It was just a few weeks ago that someone pointed out how talented Michael Imperioli is for being able to do such a convincing job ‘acting badly’ as Christopher. I returned to the "Acting for Playwrights" scene and, sure enough, I was impressed anew at the incredible quality of the show. If you watch closely, you’ll always be rewarded.
Michael Imperioli and Drea De Matteo pose in 'The Sopranos' press image - Hulton Archive/Getty Images
It’s remarkable that twelve years after the finale aired audiences are still discussing the ins and outs of the series. This type of staying power in a world where shows come and go, hardly making a ripple, speaks to scale of the series’ achievement. The Sopranos wasn’t just a landmark in quality—it changed television’s stature in the media landscape. The way television pervades culture today is in large part due to what The Sopranos proved a TV series was capable of doing.
One of the most graspable changes in television culture is the vast amount of journalism produced on the subject. The Sopranos’ nationwide fandom proved that there existed the kind of interest and enthusiasm in a television series that could support what would eventually evolve into an entire industry of television journalists. The amount of TV coverage we’ve come to expect is a direct consequence of the Beatlemania-evel of obsession with The Sopranos: there is recap, opinion pieces, analysis, and even theory. The level of investment that audiences poured into a work of fiction was unprecedented and their consumption of journalistic coverage was greedy.
James Gandolfini shooting 'The Sopranos' on location, 2007 - Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images
The same way that sports journalists specialize by following certain teams in-depth, culture journalists now watch television shows as part of their jobs. I was faced with an embarrassment of riches when I wanted to understand why Westworld was such a big deal (without watching it). There existed episode recap guides from virtually every entertainment hub. I had the luxury of picking the guide by the writer whose voice I liked most and then I got to enjoy the show in prose form until it bored me and I had the intrusive thought, “Not as good as The Sopranos.”
The Sopranos is an unfair bar, though. It struck a balance between commercial and high-brow that made it irresistible. On the commercial end there’s a steady diet of mob fare: murder, blackmail, violence, toxic masculinity. On the high-brow end, there’s the degradation of Tony’s integrity from questionable to unforgivable and complex moral questions every single character must grapple with. But under David Chase, even the commercial is not really commercial. After reading a number of Chase’s interviews, I don’t think it was out of a generosity of spirit or faith in audiences that guided him to create something heartier than your average mob story. He simply didn’t care if audiences didn’t get it or if execs thought it was too intellectualized.
HBO execs tried to talk David Chase out of having Tony murder someone in the season 1 episode “College.” Chase held his ground despite the huge fear that the episode would make Tony too ‘unlikeable’ and doom the series. “College” went on to become one of the most lauded episodes in the entire show. By not pandering to the audience, by not hewing blindly to tried and true formulas, the writers demonstrated that good storytelling trumps all else.
It’s not just that The Sopranos has "something for everyone," but that it converts you on the topics you may have believed you didn’t care about. Maybe you went into the series thinking that violence repelled you or that domestic squabbles were uninteresting. The series made you just as invested in Tony and Carmela’s marriage as in who’s talking to the FBI. You were invested in the status of Meadow’s soul. In Chrissy’s fate. It’s difficult to be indifferent to any of the characters because all of their problems are presented as equally important and rarely does anyone’s conflict feel like “B” story.
Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Edie Falco attend the 'The Sopranos' 20th Anniversary Panel Discussion - Mike Coppola/WireImage/Getty Images
The Sopranos has ushered in an era where television is such a force that is constitutes a pastime. Not only is it extremely normal to ask what shows someone watches, but is it a common practice to list shows amongst Interests in dating profiles. Think about how strange that is for a moment. Television shows have become part of our identities to such a degree that we include them in mini-biographies of ourselves. Alongside “fitness”, “trying new restaurants”, and “music”, you could easily find The Sopranos.
It’s a testament to the greatness of the show that people claim it as their favorite in an effort to showcase their tastes. Taste is something to be shown off and by declaring partiality to The Sopranos, it says something about one’s artistic inclinations. It speaks specifically to an affinity for a certain brand of dark humor and an appreciation of sophisticated storytelling. Shows with equal thoughtfulness are often considered alienating or "slow." People criticize The Wire for being too indifferent to the natural attention span and effort that audiences are willing to put in to a new show.
The Sopranos is definitely rewarding more quickly, but I believe the heart of its success can be summed up by something that a professor once explained to me. He said the difference between a commercial book and a literary book is that the commercial one gives the reader what she wants, whereas the literary one provides something that the reader did not realize she wanted. The Sopranos avoided falling into mob clichés and predictable plotlines by ignoring what focus groups might conclude and what audiences would claim to want. By disregarding whether or not a plot would ‘perform well’ in a viewership sense, writers could prioritize craft. What they created was something that surprised and captured an enormous audience and television writers have been striving to recreate the magic of The Sopranos ever since.
Post-Goodfellas and The Godfather, the golden era of mafia stories seemed to be over. But The Sopranos reinvented the genre by modernizing and dimensionalizing it. The Sopranos fueled imaginations and demonstrated what television has the potential to be. It was challenging, provocative, moving, and unflaggingly entertaining.