David Chase’s brainchild The Sopranos is often cited as one of the greatest television programmes ever made, alongside greats like The Wire and more recently Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. It’s easy to see why. Truly a landmark in television entertainment, it dealt not just with the duality of Tony Sopranos two families, but with other complex social and political issues, including depression and therapy, adolescence, drug addiction, race relations and national identities in America, homosexuality, and the (failures of) the United Sates’ justice system, to name but a few. What is also astounding is with how much dignity and how little prejudice this was done – and if the latter was used at all, it was for the exact purpose of exploring such ideas.
Equally, whilst these stories and concepts in the show were groundbreaking, so too were the stylistic and thematic trends it helped to mainstream. One such trend was that of the multi-layered, cross-season, ‘longitudinal’ storyline. The Sopranos was certainly not the first T.V. show to delve into having a number of storylines that were explored in something more than a two-parter (just look at shows like NYPD Blues), but The Sopranos was different. It not only perfected this formula, setting the bar for other series to come, but used it to (unlike the shows before it,) reflect a genuine passage of time, used to develop all of its characters – as a result it was closer to reality. This was, and is, an effective tool that really helped to immerse and remind the audience that they were watching something more than just a soap opera. Interestingly, this trend arguably began with soap operas, but in the serial drama world The Sopranos kicked them in the teeth. It was, after all, a case of quality over quantity, despite its 6/7 season run. Furthermore, because of these cross-season plotlines, each could fluctuate seemingly naturally, when in reality it was the result of a careful weaving of stories from the showrunners. We can see the long-term effects of this by example – look at the comparison of the growing-up of the Soprano kids and the growing-up of the Starks, from another HBO great, Game of Thrones. Of course the books Game of Thrones is based on preceded this, but The Sopranos proved that it could be done successfully in the T.V. sphere.
Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, upon hearing news of Gandolfini’s death in 2013, said that there would have been no Walter White without Tony Soprano.
David Chase, via the late great James Gandolfini, also brought about a resurgence of what was previously a film-only trend – that of the antihero protagonist. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, upon hearing news of Gandolfini’s death in 2013, said that there would have been no Walter White without Tony Soprano. Similar statements were made about Deadwood and Mad Men. These have undeniable merit. The Sopranos remind T.V. audiences that you did not have to necessarily like a character (and in some cases, absolutely hated them) to be enthralled and entertained by them. In fact, it reinvigorated the “characters you love to hate” trend in modern television as much it did with antihero protagonists – Mikey, Janice, Richie, and Ralphie were all making audiences shout for painful deaths long before Joffrey and Cersei came along. Not necessarily a legacy the creators of The Sopranos will readily boast, but an important one nonetheless. Indeed this again helped to reflect more of reality – sometimes you loved characters and what they did, whilst on other occasions you hated them and their actions. Things were never black and white, and it was to the series’ strength, as this lack of cleanly cut, over simplified character development paved the way for many great things including genuinely strong female characters. Not in the typical, almost equally objectifying fashion of being made to be better-in-some-way than the male characters artificially and clunkily as many films today do, but by giving audiences real characters that were as flawed as they were strong, male or female. Its characters were always more human than character – they seemed like real people, regardless of the gender.
The Sopranos also had a knack for cleverly used, and cleverly directed dream sequences and ‘artsy’ filmmaking. It created an atmosphere that was just surreal enough for you to be unsettled in finding out about a character’s thoughts in this way (whilst in turn helping to subtly progress the story), but just real enough to have you on the edge of your seat, puzzled, trying to make sense of some of the powerful imagery that stayed with you long after the credits had rolled. This can be seen in almost every dramatic serial since The Sopranos aired – even in miniseries like Band of Brothers and The Pacific, or the attention to detail replicated in shows like Sherlock and American Horror Story.
The ending of the penultimate episode of the fifth season stands out as to date, one of the most shocking, cold, and disturbing deaths in T.V. history.
Finally, even before Game of Thrones’ notorious reputation for killing off characters came about, The Sopranos was busy whacking left, right and centre. Each was more violent and shocking than the last, and whilst one might think that killings in an organised crime drama would be expected, Chase always said that he wanted to reflect the reality of mafia life – a lot of sitting around, eating and getting angry, but very rarely were killings of members and associates close to the family actually done. This also helped to increase the intensity of these moments, being the culmination of expertly crafted dialogue and plot twists before them. The ending of the penultimate episode of the fifth season stands out as to date, one of the most shocking, cold, and disturbing deaths in T.V. history – even with Game of Thrones nipping at its heels.
With its high production values, excellent dialogue, superb acting, and wonderful blend of style and realism, it’s easy to forget what else The Sopranos did for T.V. It not only made stars of its cast (and indeed started the trend of film actors making successful T.V. careers – Goodfellas, anyone?), but, amongst all else, it showed that television could be just as cinematic as cinema.
By Oliver Rowe