With the release of the highly anticipated prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, many fans of the show are revisiting the cultural artefact that is The Sopranos. Often cited as the best television show of all time, The Sopranos played an immensely important part in the evolution of TV storytelling. Not just that, it had a seminal impact on popular culture, which ushered in the so-called “golden era of television”.
In ways more intimate and effective than before, James Gandolfini defined the true potential of the antihero by silently making the audience complicit in every single transgression he commits. Just the premise of a depressed gangster who has to attend regular therapy for his recurring panic attacks is completely revolutionary, forcing us to rethink the facile glitz and glamour propagated by the mobster films.
Of course, the writing team of The Sopranos is one of the most formidable of its kind in the history of television. Gandolfini has acknowledged that himself: “In reality, I’m so boring that I don’t want people to get close to me, because they’ll realise how boring I am, and they won’t want to watch anymore. I’m just a normal guy. It’s the writing that is interesting, and the characters. The less said about me, the better.”
However, leaving it at that would be a great disservice to the enormous achievements of Gandolfini. The Sopranos is held in such high esteem by critics as well as fans not just because of its occasional brilliance, but its uncanny ability to maintain the momentum of its devastating investigations over the course of six long seasons. It is tenacious in its determination to fulfil its enormous ambitions, never letting a single purposeless moment enter its realm.
Gandolfini is at the very centre of the show’s extensive universe, playing the role of Tony Soprano – a mob boss in New Jersey. Unlike other memorable additions to the genre that focuses on the external world of crime, The Sopranos engages in the subversive act of looking inwards. We are presented with the domestic life of an organised crime leader who is more afraid of the women in his life than actual threats to his own life.
Even after all these years, Tony retains his position as one of the most memorable creations in TV history because of Gandolfini’s endlessly intense performance. Oscillating between outbursts of murderous rage and moments of actual vulnerability in which he talks about being traumatised by his mother as a child, Gandolfini’s Toni Soprano might just be the logical conclusion of what it means to be unabashedly human.
The combination of the show’s writing and Gandolfini’s masterful rendition makes sure that Tony transcends all moral judgement from the audience. He is a flawed, racist, misogynistic, homicidal piece of shit, but Gandolfini pulls off an impossible magic trick by letting us believe that he is our piece of shit. It is because of this slow but effective sleight of hand that Tony Soprano became immortalised as a cultural icon.
Gandolfini confessed: “There were many nights during that first season of The Sopranos where I felt completely overwhelmed by the amount of work… For The Sopranos, I’d work fourteen or fifteen hours on the set. I’d come home and eat. Then my friend would come over to run lines. Then I went to bed. It paid off because we worked hard.”
Despite the fact that Tony is an overweight, balding middle-aged man, he also managed to become a sex symbol somehow by combining fleeting moments of vulnerability with bouts of problematic anger. Tony attacks a bowl of food with more violence and dedication than anything else in his life but Gandolfini’s subtle, subtextual gestures successfully transform that banal act into a reflection on gluttony, greed and the human condition.
More than anything else, Tony Soprano paved the way for other morally problematic antihero figures to dominate the landscape of contemporary television. Ranging from Don Draper to Walter White, Tony handed the blueprints for the widely used archetype. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, admitted it too when he said: “Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White.” Unfortunately, he never had the makings of a varsity athlete.