‘The Sopranos’ Made Today’s Best TV Shows Possible, But Is Still Better Than All of Them

Credit: HBO

The Sopranos is praised — and rightly so — for being revolutionary, for being unlike anything that had come before it. It shattered all expectations of what was possible on television and cemented the idea of an antihero for the viewing public. Without Tony Soprano, critics and audiences alike concede, we wouldn’t have the likes of Walter White, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Stringer Bell, and so many others today. But adulations of James Gandolfini and David Chase’s seminal work usually fail to mention that the series is also unlike anything that has been created since. 

The Sopranos was on the air from 1999-2007 — during which time I graduated middle school, then high school, and then headed off to college (taking me the closest I had ever been to New Jersey). The timing was such that many of my peers were able to grow up with the Soprano family — we were nearly the same age as A.J. My boyfriend, who was raised in New Jersey, would watch the series with his parents — his mom covering his eyes during scenes that took place at the Bing — and as a result, feels the Sopranos to be a second, more violent, deeply twisted family. I, however, came late to the game. 

Tony, Carmela, Christopher, Sil, and the rest of the gang entered my life just last year, when I finally embarked upon the monumental journey that is watching The Sopranos. I had somehow managed to avoid learning anything about the series while it was on the air and in the myriad discussions that followed, barring that it was about a New Jersey mob family and ended in a controversial cut to black. I came to the series unspoiled, just a bit late. 

While I knew nothing of the show’s plot or characters (minus, of course, Gandolfini as the family’s patriarch), I wasn’t blind to the show’s reputation or legacy — in my industry, with my friends, how could I be? I was aware of The Sopranos‘ accolades as well as the discussion surrounding its historical place in television, and as such I was eager to sink my teeth into the series that paved the way for my current favorites, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Needless to say, my expectations were high. But, in large part due to Gandolfini, the series easily surpassed all of them. 

Credit: HBO

A year after I popped in that first DVD, I had cried, laughed, and gasped my way through all six seasons. And, once Journey cut off mid chorus, I wanted to talk about what I had seen. But the conversation I was eager to join was not the one that looked at The Sopranos in a greater, historical context. It was not the one that thanked David Chase for creating the bravest character on television and Gandolfini for bringing him to life. I wanted to talk about the specifics of the show: the scenes that left me in tears and that took my breath away, the shocks and twists and heartbreaking moments I had just seen. And I wanted to talk about it with fellow devotees on Twitter and in line at Starbucks, like rabid fans of Game of Thrones  are able to do every Monday morning. 

Because, 14 years after the pilot aired and six years after the series went off the air, The Sopranos still offers things I’ve never seen on TV before. It hasn’t become dated or passé, its disciples haven’t eradicated its originality in their emulation of its tropes. It is still the best television show I’ve ever seen. And I’m not sure James Gandolfini’s performance will ever be topped.  

When news of Gandolfini’s passing reached me Wednesday evening, I was affected in a way no celebrity death has affected me before. I felt — and continue to feel — a loss for not only a great man and a talented actor, but for someone I have welcomed into my home (by way of the television screen) and who has become my friend. And a new friend, at that. Tony Soprano and I don’t go way back; I’ve only recently made his acquaintance. But I envisioned a long and happy fandom for Mr. Gandolfini all the same — one in which I flock to his films, root for his pilots, and proclaim the virtues of The Sopranos for years to come. But on Wednesday night, in a hotel room in Italy, he was taken from me too early. From all of us. And we are all left pondering what could have been. What happened after Tony Soprano’s final scene cut to black? We’ll debate the question for decades.

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