Twenty years after it first aired, The Sopranos is everywhere.
No, I’m not talking about the show’s vast expanse of YouTube clips. The Sopranos’ influence can be felt throughout television since the series premiered two decades ago, from network programming choices to villains disguised as heroes.
Calling The Sopranos the greatest television show of all-time isn’t a hot take. It’s almost cliche, especially coming from an Italian North Jersey native. But sometimes consensus exists for a reason.
A good television drama introduces its audience to a new, interesting world. A great television drama immerses the audience in its world, and The Sopranos world felt eminently hospitable. It portrayed the mafia, but unlike classic mob movies like The Godfather or Goodfellas, it juxtaposed gangster life with unflinching despair about life in the modern world.
The dozens of cable drama anti-heroes, from Walter White to Dexter, owe a debt to The Sopranos. Tony Soprano is an unrepentant monster. He murders, extorts and robs and we see it all. Still, it’s impossible not to feel for him because he’s such a rich character that we know so well. The same is true of the entire Soprano crew. Sylvio, Christopher and Paulie are murderers and sociopaths. They do bad things to good people yet we can’t help but laugh along with them.
Once HBO made a hit out of a show with so much violence and sex, television programming changed forever. The Sopranos led directly to The Wire and other HBO dramas that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years before.
But perhaps The Sopranos’ greatest gifts were James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, two all-time actors at the peaks of their powers. If there’s one detraction from the show, it’s that outside of a few main characters, the acting is pretty brutal. But Falco and Gandolfini were generational talents playing the roles of their lifetimes. They carried the show from beginning to end. You could feel the stakes in every argument, embrace and stubborn standoff. Falco and Gandolfini made the Soprano marriage relatable and real.
Today, television shows are slaves to internet reaction. The Sopranos had the good luck to exist before all that online chatter. Creator David Chase didn’t care about show superfans or message boards. Viewers still lament how he ended the series on a smash cut to black and the myriad tiny loose ends he left dangling. Think about the Russian from “Pine Barrens,” perhaps the series’ best episode. Paulie Walnuts shot him in the head, but he ran off and was never found. What came of that? Nothing, and that’s okay. The show didn’t service its fans or wrap up its stories in little bows. It was loose and rambling, and felt more real as a result.
The Sopranos was masterfully written and shot. Its drama was at times unbearably heavy. Its jokes were uncommonly sharp. And its portrayal of Italian family life (and slang) was frighteningly accurate. There’s been plenty of amazing television since. None of it would have been possible if not for what happened in North Jersey in the late ‘90s.