The Sopranos helped revolutionize television. There’s no doubt about that. It helped usher in a new wave of TV and helped define what TV could become. It gave rise to the anti-hero protagonist (a concept that would become enormously popular throughout the 2000s), it helped popularize the idea of a serialized story, and it introduced more gritty and mature aspects to TV.
That said, it still owes a lot of debt and gratitude to what came before. Maybe no other TV show combined forward-thinking with popularity quite like The Sopranos, but it’s still a stepping stone on the path of great TV. These are ten shows like The Sopranos (you didn’t know came out before it).
The Sopranos owes a lot to Oz. Oz first debuted on July 12, 1997 – about eighteen months before the premiere of The Sopranos in January 1999. Like The Sopranos, Oz contains a cast full of criminals and lowlifes, as it chronicles the people and events within Oswald State Penitentiary, a highly dangerous maximum-security prison.
Like The Sopranos, it also aired on HBO, and because of that, many people started seeing HBO as a place for high quality, mature storytelling.
Hill Street Blues (1981-87)
Police procedurals are a dime a dozen. But none are quite like Hill Street Blues. Hill Street Blues debuted on NBC on January 15, 1981 – a full eighteen years before The Sopranos – and it chronicled the lives of a police force.
Unlike other police procedurals of the time, Hill Street Blues were grim, violent, and gritty, which helped influence the more mature TV dramas of the 2000s. It also helped revolutionize the multi-episode story arc, which of course heavily influenced the more serialized nature of future television productions.
The Last Don (1997)
It’s impossible not to compare The Last Don with The Godfather (and subsequently The Sopranos). It’s a sprawling gangster epic adapted from a Mario Puzo novel of the same name – the same writer who penned The Godfather.
Airing throughout May of 1997, The Last Don ran for three episodes and four hours, and it starred the likes of Kirstie Alley and Daryl Hannah. It’s no Godfather, but it’s a good little gangster drama all the same.
NYPD Blue (1993-2005)
NYPD Blue is yet another police procedural, but like Hill Street Blues, this one takes a different approach from the norm.
NYPD Blue aired on ABC from 1993 to 2005, and it was co-created by Steven Bochco (who also created Hill Street Blues) and David Milch (of future Deadwood fame). Two titans of television combined their minds to create what is arguably the greatest police procedural ever made and one of the most influential dramas of the 90s.
Homicide: Life On The Street (1993-99)
You don’t see shows like Homicide on network television anymore. Homicide is the spiritual precursor of The Wire, as it was based on David Simon’s nonfiction crime book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
David Simon would both write for Homicide and eventually create The Wire, which itself is often touted alongside The Sopranos as the greatest television series ever made. Without Homicide, there would be no Sopranos.
East Side/West Side (1963-64)
The early 60s saw the debut of East Side/West Side, which is arguably one of the most influential dramas ever made. Shot in black and white and airing on CBS throughout the fall of ’63 and winter of ’64, East Side/West Side generated controversy for its grim storylines concerning urban life.
The first two episodes alone deal with a prostitute mother battling for custody of her child and a father suing his daughter’s boyfriend for statutory rape.
The Untouchables (1959-63)
Even before televisions were an everyday household commodity, TV studios were pumping out hard-hitting action dramas.
Long before the iconic 1987 film with Sean Connery and Robert De Niro was this TV drama, which aired on ABC for four seasons and 118 episodes from 1959 to 1963. The Untouchables is widely considered a landmark TV series, giving rise to countless imitators and proving that TV could do action and drama just as well as the movies.
Like The Untouchables, Wiseguy is a monumentally influential television show. Airing on CBS from 1987 to 1990, Wiseguy followed an FBI informant named Vinnie Terranova. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the Adriana subplot from the fourth and fifth seasons of The Sopranos.
Wiseguy helped popularize the concept of multi-episode story arcs, as various chunks of episodes would devote themselves to a specific group, cause, or villain.
Crime Story (1986-88)
Wiseguy wouldn’t have existed without a drama called Crime Story. Crime Story primarily concerns two Italian Americans – Lieutenant Mike Trello, head of the Organized Crime Strike Force, and Ray Luca, the powerful gangster that Trello is constantly pursuing.
Crime Story also employed episode-spanning story arcs, many actors that appeared on Crime Story later appeared on Wiseguy, and Martin Scorsese cited Crime Story as a major inspiration for Casino.
EZ Streets (1996-97)
EZ Streets admittedly sounds a little corny, but it’s quite a dark drama reminiscent of The Wire. Like The Wire, it’s set in a decaying urban city, and like The Wire, it explores the interconnected lives of its citizens, from the police force to the criminals to the powerful politicians.
It also stars Joe Pantoliano, who would later famously star as Ralphie in The Sopranos. Unfortunately, the show was canceled by CBS after just eight episodes.