News

How the Godfather of TV Antiheroes Tony Soprano Changed Television Forever

As The Sopranos turns 20, Rotten Tomatoes looks back on how the award-winning HBO crime series and its mob-family patriarch played by James Gandolfini changed the TV landscape.

by | January 9, 2019 | Comments

American actor James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano, smokes a cigar while he stands in pool, in publicity still for the HBO cable TV series 'The Sopranos,' 1999. (Photo by Anthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
(Photo by Anthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

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.


(Photo by HBO)

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.


James Gandolfini in The Sopranos. Photo credit: HBO
(Photo by HBO)

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.

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

Tag Cloud

Superheroes Fox News History Song of Ice and Fire Heroines elevated horror talk show historical drama X-Men Fall TV Drama festivals TruTV TLC Shudder cops TNT binge Infographic Hulu toy story nature Oscars TCA 2017 Pride Month crime drama Opinion Women's History Month Brie Larson WarnerMedia Black Mirror Mystery Sundance DC Universe MTV golden globes Rocketman MCU FOX Mary poppins romance what to watch Reality Competition Sundance Now Christmas AMC science fiction Election VICE 007 Cosplay justice league YouTube Red zero dark thirty LGBTQ YA El Rey RT21 strong female leads Set visit miniseries Comedy crossover Emmys Kids & Family Warner Bros. Cannes facebook Trailer crime Rocky Masterpiece Nickelodeon adaptation See It Skip It TCA Musical television ratings American Society of Cinematographers Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Year in Review NBC IFC Watching Series Netflix Nat Geo San Diego Comic-Con Sneak Peek witnail mutant GoT Disney Channel Marathons Spike SDCC Countdown SundanceTV VH1 Spectrum Originals Biopics Quiz Marvel Box Office Disney Logo Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dc sequel crime thriller political drama Pop BBC America Amazon 45 Universal social media Music Bravo 2019 YouTube Premium Cartoon Network Columbia Pictures Writers Guild of America transformers zombie Pet Sematary Star Wars unscripted blaxploitation The Witch Superheroe Certified Fresh Sci-Fi 2018 disaster Valentine's Day Awards Tour LGBT Freeform Super Bowl serial killer Captain marvel singing competition CBS ABC Family FXX President green book WGN Star Trek cooking Toys Adult Swim anime true crime comiccon Fantasy spy thriller Film Festival Mudbound RT History Crackle ESPN E! Lionsgate Calendar hist TV Land police drama Paramount Teen ABC Food Network zombies aliens teaser IFC Films doctor who APB USA Network Interview Summer game show cats Showtime GLAAD Epix Tumblr Grammys TCM NYCC psychological thriller technology dramedy Chernobyl OWN streaming Trivia USA finale TBS SXSW Anna Paquin ITV National Geographic Apple Rock Lifetime Vudu Ellie Kemper Schedule Ghostbusters Video Games diversity PaleyFest Martial Arts dragons casting Character Guide richard e. Grant TIFF Emmy Nominations CMT Dark Horse Comics supernatural Amazon Prime Rom-Com Horror CW Seed Nominations Tomatazos anthology Premiere Dates robots Best and Worst natural history Podcast 2017 Britbox Comic Book Reality GIFs Thanksgiving biography DGA Spring TV CNN PBS Western Shondaland HBO spinoff Tarantino Paramount Network Musicals based on movie DC streaming service docudrama DC Comics 2016 boxoffice sports TV war Action composers DirecTV Holidays The Arrangement space Extras animated travel cinemax FX Animation politics Awards Red Carpet 24 frames Winter TV Ovation thriller Syfy Stephen King Trophy Talk Pixar 20th Century Fox theme song BET jamie lee curtis Acorn TV Polls and Games adventure 21st Century Fox HBO Max Elton John vampires Creative Arts Emmys Walt Disney Pictures period drama A&E BBC spider-man MSNBC The CW mockumentary 2015 Mary Tyler Moore Sony Pictures New York Comic Con Starz E3 First Look Photos Comics on TV comic Mary Poppins Returns Mindy Kaling psycho Pirates sitcom CBS All Access discovery dceu cults Winners Country Comedy Central Lucasfilm Esquire award winner medical drama harry potter