It’s worth acknowledging that without James Gandolfini’s star-making turn as Tony Soprano the New Golden Age of Television we now enjoy may never have happened.
The Sopranos was not HBO’s first stab at original programming: there were horror anthologies (Tales from the Crypt), comedies (Arli$$), and kids programming (Fraggle Rock). Some programs had received critical acclaim but little public love (The Larry Sanders Show). There had even been ambitious, multi-character dramas featuring terrible people doing despicable things, redemption nowhere nearer each week (Oz).
But The Sopranos was the first series to break through to the mainstream. It sparked water-cooler conversations, prompted buzz, won awards, racked up viewers, and made HBO a must-have for the cultural elite. The success of The Sopranos inspired HBO to take chances on questionable projects that dealt with hot-button social issues (The Wire) and moribund genres like the western (Deadwood). And its critical and commercial success drew other networks into the game: FX and AMC used the proof that original programming could sell to build their brand and turn into powerhouses in their own right.
“The Shield couldn’t have existed without The Sopranos,” wrote Alan Sepinwall of FX’s flagship drama in The Revolution Was Televised. “Everyone involved in its unlikely origin story … have honored and would continue to honor the debt Vic owed to Tony Soprano.”
Without The Sopranos, there’s no New Golden Age of Television. And without James Gandolfini, there’s no Sopranos.
It’s impossible to imagine anyone else inhabiting that role. What other actor could deliver his combination of menacing bulk, soulful eyes, and naked sociopathy? Audiences were drawn to Tony’s charisma, his way with women and his family and his capos. They sympathized with his domestic struggles even when they were repelled by, say, his racism when daughter Meadow brought home a black boyfriend. They cheered for him to kill all the other bad men because, hey, he’s our bad man.
The anti-hero became an archetype because of Tony Soprano and the stunning work that James Gandolfini did. He showed what a great actor could do in a heretofore-disreputable medium. He spawned an entire generation of memorable characters, sympathetic creeps like Vic Mackey, Al Swearengen, Walter White, and Don Draper. It’s telling that since 2000, when Gandolfini won for the first time, eight of 12 best actor Emmys have gone to guys working on a cable network (and one of the four who didn’t worked on a series that was a co-production between NBC and DirecTV). It’s where the talent is pooling.
I mourn Gandolfini’s passing. But his children live on. And for that we should be thankful.