To describe the brilliance of David Chase’s The Sopranos within a few hundred words is an insurmountable task. The iconic crime drama amassed over a hundred awards and is universally adored by critics and viewers alike. Yet this show isn’t just exceptional – it’s a revolutionary, astonishing achievement that defiantly stands tall over a decade since its conclusion. Even if The Sopranos is not your favourite show, one of its many offspring probably is.
A string of narrative choices makes the plot both original and compelling from its outset. The decision to explore American organised crime through the eyes of New Jersey boss Tony Soprano between the years 1999-2007 is a vital narrative choice for two key reasons.
Firstly, the golden age of the mafia has long since passed. This isn’t the age of speakeasies, tommy guns and hopelessly ill-equipped law enforcement. The FBI, armed with wire taps and bolstered by huge budgets and advanced tactics, are more than capable of foiling the plans of even the mightiest wise guys.
Worse still, the Soprano regime may have a decent grasp on their home patch of Jersey, but in the eyes of their close neighbours – the infamous Five Families of New York – they are little more than a glorified crew. These two circumstances combine to ensure that nothing is ever certain. The characters we hold dear are far from invincible, instead they are always vulnerable to treachery and assassination at any moment.
But what this gangster show gets right is that it is more than just a gangster show. It’s why, decades later, this particular mafia series towers above its imitations. Because yes, the food, the wine, the jokes, the poker and the gun fights are all important; but they never become the focus. This is a tale about a man struggling to balance the needs of his family with his (criminal) family, and the array of conflicts he falls victim to as a result. Tony Soprano is a father first, and a gangster second. Christopher Moltisanti is as much a ruthless young soldier as he is a lost soul desperate for recognition. Beneath Paulie Gualtieri’s fierce exterior is his constant need for validation and acceptance. These individuals feel believable, not senseless hitmen hungry for blood.
Dozens of creators since haven’t learned the key lessons of this classic and fill their shows with more explosions and gruesome deaths without developing their characters properly. What Chase and his colleagues realised all those years ago is that scenes detailing the relatable, ordinary and yet no less emotive are more important than all the car chases you could ever hope for. For every action sequence there are a dozen conversations that make up a relentlessly funny, heart-breaking and intricately crafted script. Yes, it’s a show about a group of gangsters, but The Sopranos is the definition of substance over style.
This approach is coupled with an astonishing thematic breadth. For me to list all of the themes central to the narrative would be exhausting and tedious for both of us. It delves into the personal, with constant explorations of love, friendship and loyalty coupled with a specific focus on subjects such as addiction, loss, and betrayal. The daring decision to expand from the Shakespearean themes inherent to every crime drama and depict societal issues such as the role of women, the war on terror, immigration, and the American dream is what helps solidify it as a show fit for anyone remotely interested in television, not just people who adore Goodfellas.
All of this ensures that the show towers above many of its counterparts, but what truly sets this drama apart is that Tony Soprano is the archetypal anti-hero within television. Fiercely loyal to his loved ones and yet simultaneously a deeply flawed, self-warped character, the audience defies their own instincts and roots for him regardless of his shortcomings, forcing them to question their own sense of morality and justice. Much of Chase’s genius was to bring the concept of the tragic hero to episodic television, a potent formula that has been reproduced over and over again.
To put it bluntly, if Anthony Soprano never existed, there may never have been a Walter White and no Breaking Bad. Certainly, you could kiss goodbye to more obvious reincarnations of James Gandolfini’s iconic anti-hero such as Thomas Shelby, the ruthless mobster at the heart of Peaky Blinders. Its legacy is not just that it is an astonishing drama in its own right. It is also responsible for much of the brilliant television we enjoy today.
Image: Carl Lender via Flickr