Like everyone else, including James Gandolfini’s own son, Michael, in preparation for his role in the prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark (as cited during his interview with Simon Mayo for Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review) I used lockdown to start watching The Sopranos – a show that needs no introduction as one of the all-time greatest series ever to have been made – no small reputation but completely earned. Existing now as a time capsule into the 1990s and the mid-2000s, almost now, so far removed from everything at hand – retrospectively turning into a period piece and a reminder that the 1990s were over 20 years ago (if that doesn’t make you feel old, what will?). If you’re one of the few unaware already – the show ran for six seasons on HBO and accumulated classic status to the point where it needs no introduction – chances are, you watched it before I did – with it acting as a forerunner to every modern peak TV show featuring a dark anti-hero type lead. You wouldn’t have Breaking Bad without The Sopranos first, you wouldn’t have The Wire. You wouldn’t have Boardwalk Empire or most recently, perhaps – Ozark, Snowfall and Peaky Blinders.
The Sopranos’ legacy is as incomparable as its plot – cantered around The Soprano family living out the end of an era for the mafia where their glory days have long since passed them by. Even shows beyond the genre have The Sopranos’ influence at its core – Deadwood and Game of Thrones share writers and directors. Many Saints of Newark director and series regular Alan Taylor even has a Marvel Cinematic Universe entry in Thor: The Dark World, even if by and large – his television credits are where his strengths lie: you don’t get to do Lost, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones unless you’re very good at your job.
What makes the show so relevant and so special is that it’s about the end of an era. Over the years that it runs you see the protagonists – Tony Soprano and his wife Carmela, and their children AJ and Meadow – go through a seismic change that comes with the end of an era, both personal and externally. There are whole essays to be written on the relationship of Tony Soprano, his son AJ, and his personal heir – Christopher, an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter – as the series echoes other gangster epics in scope and personal depth. It feels like the last act of Goodfellas where everything comes tumbling down around Henry Hill stretched out to a six series show. The sense of loss and growing mortality as the characters realise that their glory days are behind them is one of the series’ strongest and most prevailing themes – the good times are over and the FBI is knocking on their door – what happens next?
Little Italy is getting smaller and smaller as the series progresses – and the cold open that illustrates it the most is when, trying to collect protection money, two mobsters go to a chain store and ask the manager to cut them in. He claims that if they get a cut, corporate will axe him and just replace him with the new guy – and any profits will instantly go missing. It’s not a world that these characters can operate in anymore – and whilst most don’t immediately realise this at the start, their outdated traditions quickly catch up with them. Tony himself is a deeply flawed character and certainly no sane person’s idol – a serial womaniser, racist and murder – he’s not exactly a traditional Hollywood leading man material. But it’s the strength of James Gandolfini’s charismatic, multi-dimensional, extremely nuanced performance that keeps Tony human regardless of whatever action he commits on screen – it’s the one-in-a-generational- kind of performance that feels as incomparable as the show itself to the point where few other members of the series’ sprawling cast can rival him.
And he relishes such a rule as a deeply tortured character who spends much of the series in therapy – not content with his life and his place in it – where the show’s relationship with therapy and how it affects characters being one of the most important depictions of it on screen. Lorraine Braco’s Jennifer Melfi, his therapist – explores Tony’s difficulties that come with balancing his role as the leader of a criminal organisation with his family life – and how that affects his relationship with Edie Falco’s Carmela, Tony’s wife. Both Melfi and Falco deliver performances every bit as memorable as Gandolfini – two of the greatest television performances of our time would receive ten times more acclaim than they already do were they not under the shadow of the greatest.
The in-built familiarity that some of the cast members meant that they went into The Sopranos with little need to adapt and as a result can hit the ground running. In total, 27 actors are shared between it and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the two works of art forever linked as hallmarks of a crowded genre. The Sopranos feels like the end of the end, the changing nature of society that is starting to leave its principal characters behind.
Multiple episodes focus on the Sopranos and their immediate family struggling to come to terms with the world around them – and as real-world events take place you see them slowly incorporated into the series, right up to and including the publication of Dan Brown’s one-time sensation The Da Vinci Code. Pop culture is as ever-present in the show but every reference favours the character – for example, in a crucial scene towards the end of the show’s run – Christopher plays The Departed soundtrack straight from the disc and Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb kicks in in the car. Anything else, this would feel forced – or unearned; a cheap reference to a well-known movie. In The Sopranos – it’s perfectly in character for someone, who at this point in the series – has had dinner with movie stars, and even met Ben Kingsley, who cameos in delightful form as ever as an exaggerated version of himself. Hollywood’s ever-present connection to The Sopranos and its world highlights that the characters are just on the edges, on the fringes of society – almost breaking into the big time but never quite there.
Standout episodes are too many to name – favourites include Pine Barrens, from Season 3 – where Paulie and Christopher find themselves on the wrong end of a standard collection job in South New Jersey, and College, from Season 1 – where Tony and Meadow travel to Maine to visit College and talk about what Tony does for a living.
Across the six seasons, The Soprano children Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and AJ (Robert Iler) grow up under Tony’s wings and the show explores the psychological effect of what it’s like to live as children of a mob boss superbly with the damaging effects that the lifestyle has on both characters; especially AJ in Season 6 – doubly resonate given one of the themes of the late-game series is Tony contemplating his legacy after a near-death experience of his own – recognising that both Meadow and AJ are their own people with their own stories. The Sopranos remembers that each and every character has a world that operates without Tony Soprano in it, and it’s a densely packed, sprawling one.
The series is so boiled into the prestige TV that creator David Chase’s show has been used as a launching point to describe what television looked like before and after. Before The Sopranos, TV was largely – with few exceptions like Twin Peaks – a series focused on loveable characters who experienced precious little growth and often fell victim to the reset button at the end of every episode. If you missed one or two episodes you could jump straight in with the latest and not lose anything of value.
The Sopranos ushered in a whole new world of brilliance – moving beyond the safe haven of network TV and into a world of HBO where violence, swearing and sex could be unfiltered on television. Without The Sopranos, would we even have HBO as we know it today? Probably not. The show’s structure almost feels comparable to a novel – the more you watch Tony the more you understand how deeply flawed he is as a character – and although there is violence it is always important to remember that the show itself exists as a dark comedy – even some of the more violent moments are played for laughter.
The ability to balance tone and not feel a need to shock for shock’s sake is one of the biggest strengths of The Sopranos and a lot of what post-The Sopranos era television can often fail to remember. Make decisions that are built into the character and your viewers will follow. It’s a testament to how well the show has aged that even all these years later – when many have spent the past couple of years discovering the series fresh in and out of lockdown – that they’re still saying that it’s one of the greatest series on television; in a medium where so many shows from its era have aged poorly The Sopranos, as ever – is leading the way.