There’s nothing like an anniversary to make you feel old. Thirty years since Tim Burton’s Batman, 25 since Pulp Fiction and the start of Friends, 20 since Futurama and Family Guy debuted. Every week, another film or album is getting a deluxe anniversary reissue. It’s starting to feel like the film and music industries have devoted entire subdivisions to reminding people of their own mortality. The Sopranos turning 20 somehow feels more incomprehensible than any of 2019’s other impending anniversaries, and that’s not even because of the untimely loss of its star James Gandolfini. Watch the pilot now and it has aged better than any other show from 1999, while its impact on the TV landscape, even today, can’t be overstated. Despite my fondness for lists, I don’t generally approve of ranking art. Can you really compare Bob’s Burgers with Deadwood and decide which is better? That said, if you find a “Best TV shows ever” list that doesn’t have The Sopranos in its top five, you can immediately discount it as utter nonsense. Even ranking it outside the top three is questionable.
The Sopranos changed the way we think about TV without ever trying. Edie Falco has said that upon learning the show was renewed for a second season, James Gandolfini told her “I don’t know what we did, but we gotta do it again.” Once they’d finished the pilot, creator David Chase asked his exec producer Robin Green how he thought the show would fare. “It’ll either change the face of television forever or sink like a stone,” she replied. Chase said he was aiming for somewhere in the middle. Once they’d wrapped the final episode of season one, the cast and crew were saying goodbye as if it was all over. Nobody for a second thought they were making history.
It’s hard to remember a time when there weren’t infinite shows to binge over a rainy weekend. Prior to The Sopranos, long-running shows such as The X-Files, Law & Order and E.R. had storylines that might play out over a season, but they mostly worked in an episodic fashion, where a situation was introduced at the start of the episode and concluded by the time the credits rolled. David Chase’s vision was to use the length of a season to delve into characters and tell stories in the kind of minute detail that film running times just didn’t allow.
Nowadays, that’s a pretty standard approach, but at the time it was revolutionary. Six seasons delving into the psyche of Tony Soprano allowed a real man to emerge, a complex, contradictory character who could be loved and hated in equal measure. Without him, there’s no Walter White, no Al Swearengen, no Nucky Thompson, no Don Draper. The critics were so effusive that Saturday Night Live ran a segment making fun of the reviews.
It wasn’t just TV drama that Chase saved. In 1999, the mob genre was played out. The show arrived just as Jane Austen’s Mafia, Mickey Blue Eyes and Analyse This were reducing wise guys to comedic figures, undermining the terrifying likes of Tommy DeVito by ramping up the clichés until the very idea of mafiosos seemed ridiculous. Suddenly, the four years since Casino seemed like decades. What’s even more surprising about The Sopranos success in that climate was how its plot mirrored Analyse This (mafia boss has a breakdown and goes into therapy), but Chase was smart enough to see how the concept was much better suited to drama than one-note comedy.
Another area where The Sopranos’ influence is often overlooked is in the lost art of the theme tune. Sitcoms have always loved opening credits with a catchy number, but The Sopranos set the tone beautifully right from the word go. A tunnel blurs past, a harmonica wails and Alabama 3’s Rob Spragg sings “You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun”. We get brief glimpses of a cigar-smoking Tony Soprano as the urban and industrial landscape slowly changes to the suburban one of Tony’s hometown. It’s a wonderfully shot and paced opening that sums up the violence and the family drama that’s about to unfold, and the drain that those two factors inflict on poor old Tony.
If you’ve never watched The Sopranos or blitzed through it a decade ago, take this 20th anniversary as the ideal time to stop putting it off. There are some things everyone should do in their lifetime: tell someone you love them, see Bruce Springsteen live, eat a meal you cooked yourself from scratch, swim in the ocean at night, stand next to a large animal and feel its heat and its heartbeat, create something. You can go ahead and add “Watch The Sopranos” to that list.
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