From the moment the opening credits for The Sopranos started rolling, I knew I was watching something unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Backed by the infectious and moody “Woke Up This Morning” by English band Alabama 3, the visual cues of the New York/New Jersey area -intercut with a stogie hanging from the lips of a portly and hot-tempered man we all would come to know as Tony Soprano – the titular antihero in a mafia epic that was every bit about personal growth as it was about goomahs, baked ziti and mob hits – introduced the world to perhaps angriest and most sensitive television character ever constructed.
I was 16 years old when the show debuted in January 1999, and to a teenage kid, HBO was still a platform that in the light of day represented their “Home Box Office” motto – with uninterrupted movies of yesteryear chock full of stock good vs. evil narratives – and later at night, when no one was around, glimpses at the taboo and erotic world encapsulated in Real Sex.
HBO’s original programs at that time certainly didn’t warrant added analysis and conversation like with current genre favorites, Game of Thrones, and past greats like The Wire.
But The Sopranos changed all that.
The sensation I felt when watching the pilot and beyond was new and exciting – like taking a slug of booze and feeling the disorienting effects for the very first time.
I liked it, but was I only catching the parts that appealed to me as a teenager like the violence and T&A at the Bada Bing?
I decided to rewatch the first season with a TV-watching palette that has since matured so I could more adequately recognize if The Sopranos was indeed the “good stuff” rather than the dregs.
Seventeen years later, the first season of The Sopranos not only holds up, it’s aged with the grace and full-bodyness of cask-strength bourbon.
Much has already been written about the so-called “Golden Age” of television which shows no signs of wilting away since The Sopranos controversial cut to black in 2007.
However, when the show was merely pie in the sky – lost in the clutter of creator David Chase’s mind who had toiled away in the business for 20 years doing turns for The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure – he famously thought to himself, “I hate television.”
It wasn’t an uncommon feeling in the late 1990s. In terms of reputation, television was viewed as a bastard stepbrother to feature film’s homecoming king image.
“I could not cross that line, from TV to features, to save my ass,” Chase told Vanity Fair. “Television is really an outgrowth of radio. And radio is just all yak-yak-yak-yak. And that’s what television is: yak-yak-yak-yak. It’s a prisoner of dialogue, film of people talking. Flashy words.”
Even when an executive remarked, “You know, we believe you have a great television series in you,” Chase still felt that being stuck in the medium was a death knell for his career, stating “It wasn’t something I was really dying to hear, because my response in my head was: I don’t give a fuck—I hate television.”
What had registered with Chase was that the production company in question, Brillstein-Grey, was adamant that they didn’t want to do a show that could be seen on network television – like Frazier or The Practice – which had won awards for best comedy and drama at the 50th Primetime Emmy’s the year before the show aired.
That simple ethos – show ’em something they can’t see anywhere else except in the theater – would change the TV landscape forever.
If you whittle away the genre fare of the first season of The Sopranos, at its essence, it’s a show about people refusing to tell the truth to one another. Tony can’t come clean with his wife, Carmela, and in turn, seeks out help from a therapist, Dr. Melfi. But in their sessions, his line of work dictates that he can only tell her so much, so often, he must lie to her. Almost every relationship is built on lies; Tony and Artie, Tony and his crew, Tony and Junior, Tony and Livia.
If lies were like chopping onions, everyone would be weepy.
“On network, everybody says exactly what they’re thinking at all times,” Chase said of the decision to lay a groundwork based on half-truths and deceit. “By and large, my characters would be telling lies.”
If you examine other great TV shows that appeared after The Sopranos like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mad Men – or as I like to call them, friendship barometers – dishonesty is a hallmark of the trifecta.
In their assessment of Don Draper’s behavior in Mad Men, Huffington Post stated, “He lies and cheats, and while he’s not a murderer like Tony Soprano, it would be a leap to call him a pillar of righteousness.”
TV Guide called Breaking Bad’s Walter White, “Television’s all-time greatest liar,” which was reinforced by Skyler White’s own demand of her husband, “Shut up and say something that isn’t complete bullshit.”
Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan, shared a similar view of Walter White.
“I didn’t set out with that in mind, but when you lead a double life, you have to lie constantly,” he said, adding, “The bloodshed does not stick with me as much as the lies Walt tells.”
One could make the argument that all of the aforementioned shows examine how the “American Dream” is one big lie.
Following James Gandolfini’s passing in 2013, Bryan Cranston honored his memory by stating that his portrayal of Tony Soprano informed Walter White’s own journey.
The Sopranos was a show about a man who wanted to change but never could, while Breaking Bad was a show about a man forced into change that didn’t want to change back. The common thread; providing for their family. Not many can identify with being in the mafia or cooking meth, but the idea of earning a dollar based on the best tool in one’s toolbox is as universal an emotion as any.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution from The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, explored what author Brett Martin described as the “Third Golden Age of TV,” based on a template of TV characters all shaped by Tony Soprano.
“My title, Difficult Men, really refers to this new kind of hero — or anti-hero — what [James] Gandolfini brought to Tony Soprano, making him, not just sort of a monster, which he is in many ways, but a person that we rooted for and cared for despite his monstrosity,” Martin told NPR. “That became the model for the next 10 years of television and beyond, right to where we are now … so you started to have Tony Sopranos all across the dial, whether it was narcissistic adulterer on Mad Men, the serial killer on Dexter, and so on.”
Conventional wisdom in Hollywood prior to The Sopranos debut is that films were where people went to seek out morally conflicted characters; robbers, gangster, corrupt politicians, etc. But at home, that’s where you got the unflappable purveyors of justice and virtuous heroes.
“Americans might appreciate, or viewers might be able to accept, difficult characters — complicated characters — when they went out to the movies, but that there was some magical thing that happened when you came home, that you didn’t want these men in your living room, that it was too intimate, and that turned out to not be true, because we invited Al [Swearengen; Deadwood] every day, we invited Tony every day,” Martin stated.
HBO’s risk paid off for the network. Following its debut, The Sopranos was racking up 10 million viewers per week, unheard of in cable TV at the time.
Time Warner president and COO Jeff Bewkes, then chairman and CEO of HBO, recalled, “For us, it was a real stretch just to pay for The Sopranos, because even in its first year it was going to be the most expensive drama that I think anybody had ever made, $2.5 to $2.7 million per hour.”
At the time, HBO reached only 25 million homes (broadcasters reached 99.4 million). The sixth season of Game of Thrones alone garnered 25.1 million viewers – surely signaling how the network had built its platform on morally questionable characters over the last decade.
It was completely unheard of to produce a television series for $30 million USD at the time.
ER – a proven winner for NBC – was produced for $1.9 million USD per episode for the majority of its run before undergoing a massive spike after The Sopranos debuted.
The Sopranos’ success paved the wave for HBO to continue to pump money into creator’s passion projects and set a precedent that higher budgets could attract major talent to television.
Vinyl ($30 million USD pilot), the historical epic Rome ($10 million USD per episode), Deadwood ($4.5 million USD an episode), Game of Thrones ($10 million USD per episode), Boardwalk Empire ($5 million USD per episode), and Westworld ($25 million USD, with an overall $100 million USD budget) all are examples of “The Sopranos effect.”
“It was so respected by the creative community that all kinds of people—writers, directors, and actors—wanted to work at HBO who previously had said, ‘I only want to work in feature films,'” recalled Bewkes.
The Sopranos didn’t seek to become simply another mafia story with tired tropes. Fox reportedly turned down the pilot because it wasn’t violent enough.
This storytelling restraint was best realized in season 1 when Tony finds out that Meadow’s soccer coach has been molesting girls. He puts a hit out him, but ultimately calls off the hit man. As he stumbles into his house and collapses, he manages to tell Carmela, “I didn’t hurt nobody.”
It took four episodes until Tony did murder someone after taking his daughter on a college visit and discovering a rat living in the witness protection program.
I wouldn’t argue that abstaining for murder for three hours of television prior made Tony saintly, rather, it proved to audiences that there was calculation in his cold-bloodedness.
“That was a truly big flap,” Chase recalled about the decision to have Tony get his hands dirty. “We’d gone four episodes, and I thought, If this guy really is a mobster, come on, he’s gotta kill somebody.”
HBO executive, Chris Albrecht told Chase, “You know, you’ve created one of the best characters in the past 20 years, and you’re gonna destroy him in one fell swoop.”
Ultimately, Chase got his denouement for Tony when he used a length of wire to strangle the rat. The episode would go on to win an award for Outstanding Writing on a Drama Series the next year.
When explaining his own relationship to the usage of violence, Breaking Bad’s Vince Giligan stated, “There are moments we’re not going to shrink from. We don’t try to shock, but it is our intention to show in a very adult and realistic way the consequences of bad decision making.”
Similarly, Boardwalk Empire’s Terrance Winter, shared his own sentiments, saying, “If there’s an increase in violence, it’s due to the circumstances on the show, where everybody is under pressure. In terms of how we show violence, it’s meant to be disturbing and jarring. There has to be a point where the audience says, ‘These are horrible people. They’re not supposed to be likable. They’re killers.'”
Violence on television wasn’t a new phenomenon. But The Sopranos chose to show the reality of how it was executed – eschewing images and sounds of the “bang” of a gun followed by a guy clutching his stomach.
As The New York Times noted, “The Sopranos, with its superb level of accomplishment, has used extreme violence to a profound artistic end. But as some increased violence has crept into network shows, partly because viewers have become accustomed to such scenes on cable, the result has been unnecessary gore at best and dreadful copycatting at worst.”
For better or worse, The Sopranos gave creators and networks permission to explore extreme levels of depravity without fear of being labeled snuff artists.
Unlike other popular dramas of the era like The Practice and ER – which relied on more episodic elements with some longer story arcs – The Sopranos was serialized and reflected a change in how we consumed things. While it relied on patience and often 13 weeks to find resolution to larger problems during the season, audiences managed to stay the course.
TV critic, Ryan McGee, argued in 2012 that The Sopranos style of episodic television actually hurt the medium, stating that their “patient approach that rewarded sustained viewing” resulted in a format where “HBO doesn’t air episodes of television, it airs installments.”
The Sopranos created television mythology where audiences became more concerned about where we were going instead of where we were in that precise moments. Instead of relying on “aha” moments, instead, we were rewarded with “don’t you see now?”
This was not a happy accident. David Chase set out to make hour long movies that didn’t necessarily adhere to the conventional three-act structure.
“I didn’t want it to be a TV show,” he said. “I wanted to make a little movie every week.”
Even contemporary hit, Game of Thrones, has been criticized for moving in a similarly slow manner, with one writer penning, “As in all Game of Thrones episodes, dozens of characters made incremental progress towards their inevitable fate, a few one-liners were delivered and the political field shifted slightly in one direction or another. Some dudes were stabbed and some characters were disappointed by their choices. We ended, like usual, with a towering image evoking some great storm to come. When will it come? Oh, you know, later.”
Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between “surprise” and “suspense,” by using a bomb metaphor. In the former, the audience is surprised when it goes off, but everything up to that point was ordinary. But in the latter, we the audience are aware the bomb is there, thus, worried the entire time.
That’s what made The Sopranos – and specifically the first season – so damn entertaining. Tony himself was the bomb. Whether it was his panic attacks, destructive relationship with his mother and Uncle, or the very nature of his work which put him in the crosshairs of law enforcement, we were always aware that he could explode at any minute. Each week we tuned in to see if he would absorb the blast, or if it would maim those around him.
After rewatching the first season, new things continued to strike me. When viewed underneath a “binge’ model, there were no seams or creases. It’s flawless; stretched silk, pulled taut over the course of 13 episodes that took television from boob tube to wonder box.
As Rolling Stone put it so succinctly, “The breakthroughs of the next few years – The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad – couldn’t have happened without The Sopranos kicking the door down.”