As the godfather of TV Antheroes Tony Soprano has changed television forever


American actor James Gandolfini, like Tony Soprano, smokes a cigar while he sits by the pool, still advertising for the HBO cable series

(Photo by Anthony Nesta / LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images)

In 2019, it seems like there's a new TV drama series or streaming that gets rave reviews and compliments from the critics that stretches every week. But in 1999, the small-screen landscape was very different. Cable channels were a place where syndicated programming and reprises of tent movies reigned supreme – even The Sopranos.

David Chase's Mafia series had an immediate impact when it debuted 20 years ago, officially putting HBO in the original programming game and changing the way TV stations do business, how the audience consumed content, and how key characters were portrayed in small screen. While writing and production values ​​put the series into its own category – winning the series 16 Emmy nominations in its first year – the alchemy that led to the show's ultimate success can be attributed to one important factor: Tony Soprano.

The troubled mafia boss was both the leader of the series and his emotional base, and the acting of the star James Gandolfini as a man of the mafia family was enigmatic, courageous and addictive to see. The paper quickly catapulted the actor from small parts to the Hollywood status of A-lister. Meanwhile The Sopranos easily changed Gandolfini's life – and the rest of the cast as well – the show introduced a new trend in television entertainment: the anti-hero of TV.

Before we see Tony on the sidewalk to get the newest edition of The star-bookTV was a place where the public sought reliable, low-risk stories. It was a place where the good guys gave their heroic moments, week after week, while the bad guys stayed in their predictable villain tracks. But the turn of Gandolfini drew immediate attention when The Sopranos premiered, and his Emmy nomination in 1999 marked the first time an actor in a cable drama was recognized for the awards. He ended up earning three Emmys during his run as the patriarch of New Jersey.

At first, Tony Soprano's colleagues were Martin Scorcese's film mafia. Goodfellas – with which the series shared 27 actors – and Harold Ramis – directed Analyze this. But while the HBO drama and the comedy Billy Crystal-Robert DeNiro featured a mob boss looking for psychiatric help, Gandolfini's exploration of Tony's decaying interior was not funny. This not only helped change the way mental illness was portrayed in popular culture, but it also showed how deep and crude the actor was willing to go to tell the story of this complex man.

The role put Gandolfini's brilliance as a full-screen actor and, in the process, inspired big-screen filmmakers to make the leap to television – a move that was unheard of before The Sopranos & # 39; debut – as a new influx of long-form narrative programming began to surface.

It was not an immediate change, although the change may be slow in Hollywood. After the series pilot finished, Chase bought The Sopranos for the four large transmission networks.

"No one went to the end, certainly not to pay for the cable. In that time ER was selling for an extraordinary amount of syndication money, and I wanted to make a lot of money, "Chase told Vanity Fair. While trying to follow in the footsteps of the medical drama, he was rejected every step of the way, while executives continually complained that the series was "too dark" and "too risky."

"Television is really a consequence of radio," the creator told the publication, further explaining his negative outlook for the medium. "And radio is just yak-yak-yak-yak. And that's what television is: yak-yak-yak-yak. He's a prisoner of dialogue, a film of people talking. Flashy words.

Fortunately, HBO was about to change all that.

(Photo from HBO)

The network originally began to dip their fingers in the world of drama drafted with prison drama of 1997, Oz. But as morally ambiguous as this show was, his late-night schedule and mature themes kept him firmly attached to the radar of the masses. The show was filled with anti-heroes, but none of them really hit a tie with the audience. The SopranosHowever, he took the baton of the prison drama and ran with it.

Gandolfini, who was best known for his role as the tough guy of the Virgil mob in True Romance, set the standard for how anti-heroes would work on advancing TV. With each cowardly act of Tony committed on the screen, Gandolfini compensated his evil with an imperfect feeling of hopeful humanity that the public could relate. His performance, however vindictive and empathetic, turned the script into the small screen formula of how dramas could work.

Right, The Sopranos was a show about a mafia boss – who came from a family and was embedded in a world of crime and murder – but stepping back to see the bigger picture revealed many facets of the character and story that the public could see. This was a story about his ordinary, mediocre American man doing his best to keep his business successful while struggling to keep his family life intact in fractures.

Former HBO programming director Chris Albrecht saw the relationship on Chase's show.

"I told myself that this show is about a guy who's turning 40," Albrecht said, according to The Independent. "He inherited a business from his father. he has a domineering mother. Although he loves his wife, he had an affair. He has two teenage children … he is anxious; he is depressed; he is searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought: The only difference between him and everyone I know is that he is the gift of New Jersey. "

Just three years after the Chase Mafia drama hit HBO, The New York Times stated The Sopranos was the third most watched cable program since 1994. It was at this time that David Simon The wire, which was inspired by the showrunner's time as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, landed in the net. This series set out to explore the impact that the crime had on the city and its inhabitants – from drug dealers on the streets to the highest echelons of government – bringing an unexpected anti-hero rooted in the iconic performance of Michael K. Williams as a notorious stick man Omar Little.

Taking a hint from HBO, 2002 found FX Network emerging as a source for the original edgy programming as well. Up to that point, the network acted as the home of syndicated Fox shows how Married to children and The file x. The network's first foray into the arena was Shawn Ryan's police drama. The shield. The move not only showed what kind of programming was possible on the basic cable, but also brought another iconic anti-hero to the small screen in the form of Strike Team leader and corrupt police officer Vic Mackey. The career of Michael Chiklis, like Gandolfini before him, gained a new life, since its performance earned him two emmy victories throughout the series.

As The Sopranos aging, a series of anti-heroes began to appear on television. Suddenly, as more actors in the movie made the leap to television, where richer narratives and complex roles were quickly becoming the norm, audiences were being treated with a multitude of morally ambiguous characters to both insult and cheer at the same time.

Like Gregory House, Hugh Laurie made his medical decorum sarcastic and indifferent a pop culture phenomenon, and Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) continued to bite the necks of terrorists in the name of freedom. Characters such as Charlie Hunnam's Jax Teller, Michael C. Hall's Dexter Morgan, Jon Hamm's Don Draper, and Bryan Cranston's Walter White explored the extent to which networks of ethical holes were willing to go. Whether it was a serial killer who murdered the worst criminals the society had to offer or a drug master who had become a drug teacher, the public surely followed.

Each of the characters mentioned above carries with it a personality trait in the style of Tony Soprano: Jax's desire to leave his life of crime in Sons of Anarchy, Dexter's constant struggle to gauge his moral compass about Dexter, The Constant Infidelity of Don Draper Mad Men, Walter White's descent from suburbanite in amiable ways to head of murderous crime in Breaking Bad.

James Gandolfini in The Sopranos. Photo Credit: HBO

(Photo from HBO)

Every anti-hero who has appeared on TV in the last 20 years can find something in common with Tony Soprano in one form or another. With the help of The SopranosImpeccable writing and cinematic style-changing gameplay, Gandolfini's iconic Mafia boss not only helped put HBO on the map, it also changed the way the characters were written, pictured and portrayed on TV.

Without it, it is possible that we were now living in a time when the term "Peak TV" may never have been uttered. Luckily, Tony came along when he did.

The Sopranos The pilot is available for free broadcast on HBO's website, and the series is available to watch in full with HBO Now and HBO Go subscriptions.


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