The Sopranos, the legendary HBO mob drama laced in the world of pulp fiction yet containing some of the greatest television literature ever penned, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. The program was a cultural phenomenon during its peak, with a finale that remains controversial, but it was just part and parcel for an entire series that was controversial throughout its original run from 1999 to 2007, usually in the best possible of ways.
Upon its premiere on January 10, 1999, The Sopranos had its own look and definition in a television world that was still rather insecure and pedestrian, as sitcoms and legal dramas were the order of the day, some of them of course rather worth a glance. But while it took a few episodes to really tighten its belt and consistently and for the most part jaw-droppingly become stellar and superb television.
From the pilot onward, there was something instantly special about The Sopranos. Whether it was the milieu of the classic mob exposition and narratives — some which stood on the backs of the classics of the past, like the original 1932 Scarface, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas — or the constant and superbly clever and shrewd usage of pop culture — all in episodes that ran like a roller coaster with three wheels, veering from jarring comedy to brutal violence to surrealism and silly absurdity right back to square one — The Sopranos was an Italian-flavored jambalaya of what we had seen in iconic television and film before it, but with a dazzlingly fresh stamp as well, or maybe dazzlingly fresh bloodstain would be a more apt metaphor.
The program was spearheaded by David Chase, who had already cut his teeth on shows such as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure which in hindsight acted as great training grounds for his work as head chef on The Sopranos. He led the lightning-in-a-bottle talents of a writing staff that created some of the best late 20th century/early 21st century dramatic literature ever written in any medium in any time and shepherded a cast of actors that gave new meaning to the word “ensemble” and created a synergy usually reserved for the greatest of the greatest in the history of television or theater.
It’s no fluke that a few years ago the show won the top spot when the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos the best written television program of all time. To put that into context, any program you can think of in the history of American television, any program you can think of, no matter how wonderful or incredible or thought-provoking or inspirational in all four corners it was, the episodes of The Sopranos stand as the best. And stalwart fans of the show, who have been there from the very beginning, eagerly and sometimes frustratingly waiting a week for Sunday to arrive, to hear the HBO “whoosh” at 9 o’clock before the latest episode would be aired, know that there is a cachet of “all-time classic episodes” within The Sopranos.
The show was equal parts literature, pulp, classic Mafioso, potent drama, and detailed comedy, and all parts well written, directed, and acted, while headed by the late great James Gandolfini as the head Mafioso/patriarch Tony Soprano. The Sopranos not only set the stage for how television in essence would become, if done correctly, elevated to the highest art and apex, but also set the stage for a high bar standard of episodic television, a blueprint that scores of shows to this day have followed, templates laid forth by David Chase and co.
It’s been well documented that Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan have said what an influence The Sopranos was on Breaking Bad and its main character, Walter White. Breaking Bad, of course, is also in the pantheon of all time greatest television shows, sitting shoulder to shoulder with The Sopranos arguably in many ways. But you realize the influence with usage of music, end blackouts, unexpected twists, jarring sequences, and surefooted direction consciously or unconsciously when one watches Breaking Bad, and it’s just a prime example of the impact The Sopranos has had and continues to have on the way television is presented.
One of the last shows of the “old television generation,” before the days of streaming and the Netflixes and when HBO in a way stood alone in the higher league of regular television with their programs, The Sopranos set the stage and tone for many HBO shows that followed it. Some were successful and some were not, but were all programs that had a push the envelope merit to them and took risks, dares, and chances, never underestimating its own audience or ever pandering to them, guidelines that were set forth with The Sopranos schematic. The network knew the audience voraciously ingested The Sopranos no matter what the genre or style presented within each episode, and each episode had a certain class to it, something that was always expected and was always delivered with the series. The cable network’s wildly popular Game of Thrones continues to uphold this HBO/Sopranos tradition, and even though it has surpassed The Sopranos as the most watched/successful HBO show of all time, it’s still like The Beatles to Buddy Holly: you might surpass the teacher in outreach, but you’ll never surpass the teacher in overall influence.
The Sopranos taught everyone in the industry and in the television landscape a lot, and in fact, that school remains in session for all time in a way. 20 years on, the program still vibrates with the hum of a ferocious tiger loose in the city. It still crackles with an energy only it could muster up and harness, like an eternal flame spitting blood, sweat, and tears, adjectives that are prevalent on the show, the behind the scenes of the show, and what the viewer feels like they are experiencing when they are watching it. The series never needs an excuse to watch it: just ask the still millions of legions of fans who have run the shows 86 episodes again and again and again, like a perpetual hamster wheel, still finding new things to glean from the show with each viewing, but with the 20th anniversary at hand, it’s a perfect time to revisit once again or discover for the first time, the brutal beauty of comedy, tragedy and unabashed, uncensored drama, that is The Sopranos. Especially since, a prequel film is on the way, providing the last power and allure of The Sopranos.
Thanks to David Chase and company, no matter what your race, religion, or background, we are all paisanos at the table when we watch The Sopranos, 20, 40, 60, 100 years on. A raise of the Calice filled with Sambuca and a toast to one of the most extraordinary programs ever made. Ayy, you got a problem with that? Didn’t think so, my friend.