HBO’s multi-award-winning series The Sopranos is arguably the best dramatic television show in history, with an influence that has spread across the globe over the years. The writing is intelligent and the acting first-rate, introducing iconic characters centring around Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. Soprano is the head of a conventional nuclear family consisting of his wife and two kids but is also the boss of a New Jersey Mafia group. Tony is a womaniser and deeply aggressive and scary individual but is also a genuinely identifiable and likeable man.
The show is not all viciousness and violence. In “Sentimental Education” the sixth episode of the show’s fifth season which aired on 11 April 2004, Tony B (Steve Buscemi) is helped into work by Tony Soprano, but then Tony B finds USD12,000 discarded by fleeing drug dealers. He would have done well to check out bestcrapsstrategy.net, but instead announces “I just took a beatin’ at craps” to those who are also in the casino with him, a popular setting used in the Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas and Casino movies.
Gandolfini does not have to carry the cast with him. The performances by Tony Sirico, playing Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri and Joe Pantoliano as Ralph Cifaretto are just as memorable. The cast is helped by the sublime writing and the risk of taking on a conventional drama series with long dream sequences, powerful symbolism and metaphorical imagery as well as scenes of violence more shocking than previously seen. Yet all this is counterbalanced with the themes of love, honour and respect for family, which stops the characters becoming simply cold-hearted or the violence gratuitous.
Other anti-heroes would never have existed before David Chase’s creation was bought to life by Gandolfini. In Mad Men, Don Draper is more sharp-suited than Gandolfini’s brutish character but is similar in being a complex character that we get to know slowly across many seasons, being both loathsome and likeable.
It could be argued that the Showtime thriller Dexter about the eponymous serial-killer was able to reach a broad television audience only after The Sopranos had proven that audiences were willing to swim in very murky moral waters.
The Shield, with the lead character a detective in the LA police department, is an intense drama in which Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) plays the lead. In 2008, the series creator Shawn Ryan acknowledged his debt to The Sopranos for “breaking the mould” to give FX the courage to take the show.
The sprawling crime saga, Boardwalk Empire, features Sopranos veterans, with Steve Buscemi leading the cast and Terence Winter, a writer and executive producer on The Sopranos, writing or co-writing 25 episodes as well as directing season six’s ‘Walk Like a Man’ in which the character of Nucky Johnson is one of the first organised crime bosses in the US, whilst Tony Soprano was one of the last of his type.
Finally, Breaking Bad has Vince Gilligan as the villain and central figure who is as compelling and magnetic as any character in The Sopranos, yet more than two decades from when it first aired in 1999, the reinvention of the genre has still not been bettered and though David Chase wanted to be the next Scorsese and his idea for The Sopranos script was for it to be made into a movie, he was persuaded to try out at HBC, which was looking for cutting-edge, high-quality TV. It was an instant hit, drawing record audiences only surpassed by Game of Thrones.