“Network television is all talk. I think there should be visuals on a show, some sense of mystery to it, connections that don’t add up.” – David Chase
Often regarded as the television show that revolutionised the genre, The Sopranos has received critical as well as commercial success and it continues to be hailed as the greatest TV show ever made. With several awards to its name, including 21 Primetime Emmy Awards, and five Golden Globe Awards, The Sopranos is a must-watch for anyone who wants to understand how the norms of television have evolved through the years because the show set the ball rolling for the “golden era of television”. More than 13 years have passed since its last episode aired but what makes The Sopranos so special even after all this time?
The creator of the show, David Chase, had not planned to work in television when he first started his career. He dreamt of making avant-garde films like the European masters. Still, it did not pan out that way, and he was stuck working as a television producer for almost 20 years before he came up with The Sopranos, making his television directorial debut in an episode of the iconic series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Considered to be radical at the time, Chase wanted to make a feature film about: “a mobster in therapy having problems with his mother”. However, Chase was convinced by his manager to focus on adapting it to the format of a television series instead.
Chase cited an eclectic mix of influences for his work, ranging from American playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to the Italian maestro Federico Fellini. Going against the voyeuristic expectations associated with the mobster genre at the time (at least when it came to television), The Sopranos deconstructed the mythical status of the criminal life. They revealed the anxieties and the neuroses operating in the mind of a criminal. Chase said of his intentions, “I want to tell a story about this particular man. I want to tell the story about the reality of being a mobster—or what I perceive to be the reality of life in organised crime. They aren’t shooting each other every day. They sit around eating baked ziti and betting and figuring out who owes who money. Occasionally, violence breaks out.”
Filled with humour, drama, and some complex storytelling, The Sopranos can be seen as the most influential TV series in recent history which paved the way for the inevitable rise of HBO. At a time when video rental stores were immensely popular, The Sopranos gave people a unique reason to subscribe to a pay network like HBO. Quite unlike the skin-deep mobster shows available on other broadcast networks, Chase’s masterpiece went beyond the spectacle of the genre and questioned the readily accepted clichés that offered no greater revelation. Combining issues about mental health and the socio-political landscape of organised crime, The Sopranos focused on the damaged psychology of the protagonist — Tony Soprano, played exquisitely by the late, great James Gandolfini.
Tony is a major reason why the show is still so popular even though it came out in 1999; he is a deeply flawed character who cannot control his impulsive paroxysms but is humanised because of those very flaws. This particular trope would be reused in The Sopranos’ many iconic successors, including Breaking Bad and Mad Men. The creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, once said: “Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White.” Structured as a character study of Tony Soprano which branches out to grapple with some universal questions, The Sopranos transformed HBO into a platform for truly masterful shows including big-budget hits like Game of Thrones as well as critically acclaimed series like Six Feet Under and The Wire.
With the great American novelist Norman Mailer comparing it to the television equivalent of “The Great American Novel”, The Sopranos retained its ability to shock and amaze viewers right up until the series finale in 2007. Over the course of the show, the writers took the time to explore seemingly inconsequential plot points and delved deeper into the characters’ psyches to lace the narrative with a continuous, coherent artistic exigency. As media consumption habits changed in the 21st century, and more and more viewers took to the internet, The Sopranos remained relevant because the discourse surrounding the show shifted online. Video essays, forums and blogs were frequented by fans who wanted to engage in dialogue with like-minded people worldwide and, for the first time in human history, they could do that with just a click.
Last year, new viewers tuned in to watch the iconic show as the world came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to GQ, The Sopranos was the hottest show of 2020 with a 122% increase in the UK viewership an a 200% increase in the US viewership as a staggering number of people flocked to the HBO NOW streaming service during the lockdown.
The legacy of The Sopranos is being re-evaluated at this stage with a newer generation of viewers interpreting the iconic show through their own frameworks. With a prequel film coming out this year called The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase is returning to his magnum opus as a writer along with Lawrence Konner. It will star James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, as a younger Tony Soprano. Although it isn’t clear how well this latest addition will do, it is safe to say that the vastly influential original series will remain a work of importance for decades to come.