In 2019, it seems like there’s a new TV or streaming drama series garnering accolades and high praise from critics premiering every week. But in 1999, the small-screen landscape was vastly different. Cable channels were a place where syndicated programming and tentpole-movie reruns reigned supreme — until The Sopranos.
David Chase’s mafia series made an immediate impact when it debuted 20 years ago, officially putting HBO in the original-scripted-programming game and changing how TV broadcasters did business, how audiences consumed content, and how lead characters were portrayed on the small screen. While the writing and production values placed the series in its own category — earning the series a whopping 16 Emmy nominations in its first year — the alchemy that led to the show’s ultimate success can be traced to one major factor: Tony Soprano.
The struggling mob boss was both the series’ lead and its emotional foundation, and star James Gandolfini’s performance as the mafioso family man was enigmatic, gritty, and addicting to watch. The role quickly catapulted the actor from bit parts to Hollywood A-lister status. And while The Sopranos easily changed Gandolfini’s life — and the rest of the cast’s, too — the program ushered in a new trend in television entertainment: the TV antihero.
Before we first watched Tony walk down his driveway to fetch the newest issue of The Star-Ledger, TV was a place where audiences went for reliable low-stakes stories. It was a place where the good guys delivered their heroic moments, week in and week out, while the bad guys stayed in their predictable bad-guy lanes. But Gandolfini’s turn drew immediate buzz when The Sopranos premiered, and his Emmy nomination in 1999 signified the first time an actor in a cable drama was ever recognized by the award show. He ended up winning three Emmys during his run as the New Jersey patriarch.
At first, Tony Soprano’s counterparts were big-screen mobsters from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas — with which the series shared 27 actors — and the Harold Ramis–directed Analyze This. But while the HBO drama and the Billy Crystal–Robert De Niro comedy both featured a mob boss seeking psychiatric help, Gandolfini’s exploration of Tony’s crumbling interior was anything but funny. It not only helped change the way mental illness was portrayed in popular culture, his performance showed how deep and raw the actor was willing to go to tell this complex man’s story.
The role put Gandolfini’s brilliance as an actor on full display, and in the process, inspired cinematic performers from the big screen to make the jump to television — a move that was unheard of prior to The Sopranos’ premiere — as a new influx of long-form narrative programming began to surface.
It wasn’t an immediate shift, though, as change can be slow in Hollywood. After the pilot for the series was finished, Chase shopped The Sopranos around to the big four broadcast networks.
“Nobody went to cable, certainly not to pay cable. At that time ER was selling for an extraordinary amount of money in syndication, and I wanted to make a lot of money,” Chase explained to Vanity Fair. As he attempted to follow in the medical drama’s footsteps, he was rejected every step of the way as execs continually complained that the series was “too dark” and “too risky.”
“Television is really an outgrowth of radio,” the creator told the publication, further explaining his negative perspective of the medium. “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.”
Thankfully, HBO was down to change all that.
The network originally began dipping its toes in the world of edgy scripted drama with 1997’s prison drama, Oz. But as morally ambiguous as that show was, its late-night time-slot and mature themes kept it firmly stuck under the radar of the masses. The show was chock full of antiheroes, but none of them really struck an empathetic chord with audiences. The Sopranos, however, took the baton from the prison drama and ran with it.
Gandolfini, who was best known for his role as mafia tough guy Virgil in True Romance, set the standard for the way antiheroes would work on TV moving forward. With every dastardly deed Tony committed on screen, Gandolfini offset his evil with a flawed sense of hopeful humanity that audiences could relate to. His performance, as villainous as it was empathetic, flipped the script on the small-screen formula of how dramas could work.
Sure, The Sopranos was a program about a mob boss — who came from a mob family and was embedded in a mob world of crime and murder — but taking a step back to view the bigger picture revealed many facets of the character and story in which audiences could see themselves. This was a story about your average, run-of-the-mill American man, doing his best to keep his business successful while struggling to keep his fracturing family life intact.
Former head of original programming at HBO Chris Albrecht saw the relatability in Chase’s program.
“I said to myself, this show is about a guy who’s turning 40,” Albrecht said, according to The Independent. “He’s inherited a business from his dad. he’s got an overbearing mom. Although he loves his wife, he’s had an affair. He’s got two teenage kids … he’s anxious; he’s depressed; he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought: the only difference between him and everybody I know is he’s the don of New Jersey.”
Just three years after Chase’s mafia drama hit HBO, The New York Times claimed The Sopranos was “the third-most-watched show on cable television since 1994.” It was then that David Simon’s The Wire, which was inspired by the showrunner’s time as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, touched down on the network. That series set out to explore the impact crime had on the city and its inhabitants — from drug runners on the streets to the highest echelons of government — bringing an unexpected root-worthy antihero to the fore with Michael K. Williams’ iconic performance as notorious stick-up man Omar Little.
Taking a cue from HBO, 2002 found FX Network emerging as a source for edgy original programming as well. Up until that point, the network acted as the home to syndicated Fox shows like Married… With Children and The X-Files. The network’s first foray into the arena was Shawn Ryan’s gritty cop drama The Shield. The move not only showed what type of programming was possible on basic cable, it brought another iconic antihero to the small screen in the form of Strike Team leader and crooked cop Vic Mackey. Michael Chiklis’ career, like Gandolfini’s before him, took on new life as his performance garnered him two Emmy wins throughout the run of the series.
As The Sopranos grew older, a whole slew of antiheroes began to pop up on television. Suddenly, as more movie actors made the leap to television, where richer narratives and complex roles were quickly becoming the norm, audiences were being treated with a plethora of morally ambiguous characters to both revile and root for in the same breath.
As Gregory House, Hugh Laurie made his snarky, uncaring medical decorum a pop-culture phenomenon, and Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) continued biting through terrorists’ necks in the name of freedom. Characters like Charlie Hunnam’s Jax Teller, Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, and Bryan Cranston’s Walter White explored just how far down the ethical rabbit hole networks were willing to go. Whether it was a serial killer who murdered the worst criminals society had to offer or a cancer-stricken teacher-turned-drug lord, the audiences surely followed.
Each of the aforementioned characters carries with them a Tony Soprano-esque personality trait: Jax’s desire to leave his life of crime on Sons of Anarchy, Dexter’s constant struggle to calibrate his moral compass on Dexter, Don Draper’s constant infidelity on Mad Men, Walter White’s descent from mild-mannered suburbanite to murderous crime boss on Breaking Bad.
Every antihero who has graced TV in the last 20 years can find commonality with Tony Soprano in one way or another. With the help of The Sopranos‘ impeccable writing and game-changing cinematic production style, Gandolfini’s iconic mob boss not only helped put HBO on the map, he changed the way characters were written, acted, and portrayed on TV.
Without him, it’s possible we now would be living in a time in which the term “Peak TV” may never have been uttered. Thankfully, Tony came along when he did.