How 'The Sopranos' paved the way for must-see TV
Published Thursday, January 10, 2019 2:57PM EST
Although “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO 20 years ago today, its impact on television today is unmistakable.
The story of the New Jersey crime family and its boss Tony Soprano was groundbreaking for its examination of family, depression, and violence.
After spending two decades as a TV producer, creator David Chase developed the idea of a mafia family drama but initially envisioned it as a movie.
However, specialty channel HBO eventually aired it as a TV show on Jan. 10, 1999 and it went on to win critical acclaim and ran for six seasons.
Television columnist Bill Brioux called it “the greatest drama ever” and said its impact on future storytelling is a large reason why.
Examination of the anti-hero
Actor James Gandolfini portrayed the sociopathic mobster in a way that had audiences rooting for him, Brioux said.
At the time, it was revolutionary to show a television character who had “good qualities, despite the fact that he killed people.”
Richard Crouse, CTV News film critic and host of Pop Life, agreed and said the show “took characters who did terrible things and made them the star of the show.”
“The Sopranos” writers went to great lengths to show that Tony wasn’t a one-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain: He struggled with being a husband and father; he felt inadequate and even had panic attacks.
This complex, character study format was taken up by show writers Matthew Weiner and Terence Winter, who went on to create the TV shows, “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” respectively.
“These guys came into it knowing that they could go into the darker places they couldn’t on network TV,” Brioux said adding “The Sopranos” ushered in a new golden age for television.
The mafia show introduced viewers to the slow-burn style to storytelling.
Crouse said the show was like a “big puzzle” and gave gravitas to serialized storytelling -- a format largely only seen in soap operas.
“But what ‘The Sopranos’ proved is you can show complex emotions and do it over the course of years and people will stay with you,” he said.
HBO’s “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones,” as well as AMC’s “Breaking Bad” have flourished with the television format because writers can truly examine character, Crouse said.
“Game of Thrones” creator George R.R. Martin even cited “The Sopranos” as the template in which his own characters could be fleshed out in a way that wasn’t possible in film.
This gave way to shows like ABC’s “Lost”, HBO’s “Deadwood” and “The Wire” which could sometimes take years to pay off a storyline.
In fact, video-streaming platforms like Netflix have built entire business models around binge-able serials like “House of Cards,” “Narcos” and “Stranger Things.”
TV is not second-rate to films
Long-form, cinematic-level drama on television was a relatively new concept when “The Sopranos” aired in 1999.
Crouse said there used to be a “lowest common denominator feel to television … with stories dumbed down, in a way to make everyone feel included.”
But the mob show made stories feel “more grander, more epic, more cinematic.” He added that the show started the idea that seasons can feel like “10-hour movies.”
“There was psychological underpinnings to everything which hadn’t been explored on mainstream TV,” Crouse said.
Brioux gave credit to HBO which “just ran with it” and allowed the show to push the envelope in a way network channels like NBC, CBS or FOX wouldn’t.
“David Chase took full advantage of that,” he said. “I don't think he would have gotten away with showing a guy this ruthless on network shows.”
Channels like Showtime, FX and AMC even began to specialize in unorthodox stories which couldn’t be told on the silver screen.