When television is made properly it has the ability tell sprawling, intricate stories like no other medium. In modern television history the viewer has been blessed with an abundance of series that are so well written and acted that they are amongst the most important pieces of pop culture ever created.
Mainstream popular culture is so saturated with notions of gangsterism that it is impossible to create a world that isn’t at least partially indebted to monolithic mobster movies. It figures then that the commissioning editors at American channel HBO were hesitant when producer David Chase came to them with the idea for a show about a crime boss and his therapist. On the face of it this idea seems a bit hackneyed; like a high concept movie where the premise has been thought of first and the content second. They ran with it anyway, and it spawned The Sopranos: a true American epic about family, race, relationships, capitalism…and gangsters.
Nominally it is the story of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano a man who is simultaneously Fat Tony, the cliched Italian American from the Simpsons, and a robustly human presence for the audience to invest their support in. But really The Sopranos is a lovingly made, beautifully written Greek tragedy. We follow Tony through marital strife, career difficulties and the problems of raising children and making a dollar in modern America. What is so ground breaking is that the Soprano’s are superficially a normal family. Desperate for their daughter to go to an Ivy League college, Tony and his wife Carmella agonise over whether she is studying hard enough while she deals with the suffocating pressure of being a put upon house wife and he makes his money through racketeering and illegal book making.
There is little adherence to the rules of network television from The Sopranos, in much the same as the similarly lauded The Wire. Episodes invariably end in innocuous circumstances with a simple fade to black. Unforseen stimuli is the main force that ignites drama; a drunken call from an ex-mistress to a wife midway through an episode, an unexpected drunken fight between formerly firm friends to kick an hour of the show off – these are the devices that power the story. Ragged strange pieces of human relationships that cause tidal waves of repercussions through communities are what the viewer is demanded to enjoy. There are no neat trajectories or heavily foreshadowed arcs to lean on, just a rich tapestry of, admittedly heightened, human experience is what is on offer.
All of this is acted with such incredible skill and nuance that it is little wonder American TV is so far ahead of it’s British equivalent. James Gandolfini is superlative as Tony, the bullying, brash but flawed boss. Edie Falco is one of the only likeable characters as Carmella, playing her role with a mixture of pathos and New Jersey swagger that it is impossible to at least feel some empathy for. The less endearing characters, who almost universally populate the show, really steal the show. Robert Iler and Jamie-Lyn Sigler as Tony and Carmella’s spoilt, repellent, odious children and are almost entirely without redeeming features. You still enjoy watching them as though powered by some macabre fascination, just as you do for Tony’s sister and mother – actresses Aida Turturro and Nancy Marchand. The two are whirlwinds of malevolent scheming anger, utterly and totally deplorable. Witness the episode where Janice, Tony’s sister, incites the son of a love interest to play a ouja board after the death of his mother so as to scare him and allow her to rush in and save the day, much to the admiration of his mourning father, and try not to shudder.
For every gallingly believable portrayal of those in and around the modern Mafioso, there are some quirky portraits of old school Italian Americans to fill the void. Largely though The Sopranos is a slow, languorous take on the modern American family and the economic pressures and forces that force each constituent member into the roles defined for them. It’s about love, hate, depression, sex – and gangsters. And it’s among the most important, brilliant pieces of television ever made.
Next: Breaking Bad