There’s no denying that The Sopranos helped revolutionize television in many ingenious ways. It helped launch the antihero boom of the 2000s, it helped give rise to a more serialized form of storytelling on TV, and it helped legitimatize TV as a “serious” form of entertainment. In many ways, the TV landscape wouldn’t be what it is today without The Sopranos.
With that said, it’s not like The Sopranos is the first esteemed drama ever made. Decades worth of TV had come before it, and various shows helped mold and shape its creation. Many shows owe a lot to The Sopranos, but The Sopranos also owes a lot to other shows.
Revolutionized: Serialized Storytelling
Various shows attempted a form of serialized storytelling well before The Sopranos – including a gangster drama called Crime Story that undoubtedly helped influence The Sopranos.
However, it was The Sopranos that helped launch the concept into the mainstream, and soon after, every show was attempting to tell a serialized story. Even network TV stations – which often favored an episodic approach to storytelling – began telling serialized stories that required constant viewing and knowledge of past events (like Lost).
Took From Others: Serialized Storytelling
As stated above, The Sopranos didn’t invent the serialized approach to TV storytelling. It just made it popular. Various TV shows had been experimenting with long-form storytelling long before The Sopranos came about, including the aforementioned Crime Story, Doctor Who, and even popular soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty.
This often causes people to label The Sopranos as a soap opera, albeit an exceptionally well made and exciting one.
Revolutionized: Subject Matter On TV
Before The Sopranos, television was often considered a “safe” and “family-friendly” medium. Yes, various shows were exclusively made for adult audiences, but even those never really contained any inappropriate or troubling content (lest the kids were still awake and watching with mom and dad).
However, The Sopranos changed all that through its constant swearing, explicit sexual content, graphic violence, heavy drug use, etc. It was a show made for adults, and it was made explicitly clear that children should not be watching.
Took From Others: Antiheroes
The Sopranos was and is widely acclaimed for its cast. Part of that is down to the brilliant writing and performing, as no character is portrayed in a clear “good” or “evil” manner (minus a few very rare exceptions).
And while The Sopranos launched the antihero craze of the 2000s, it was by far the first show to feature antiheroes in its primary cast. Crime Story contained gangsters, Oz contained violent criminals, and even All in the Family (one of the most popular sitcoms ever) starred a racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic bigot as its main character.
Revolutionized: Academic Writing
The Sopranos is widely studied in both television circles and academia. That’s because The Sopranos is so much more than a basic gangster drama. Put simply, The Sopranos uses its gangster trappings as an entry point to explore a wide array of heavy and academic topics, including human psychology and morality.
The Sopranos was a “serious” show, and in many ways, it serves as the 21st century’s Great American Novel (or TV Show). It legitimized television as a serious form of artful and academic storytelling.
Took From Others: The Gangster Genre
Of course, fans can certainly ignore all the heavy academic topics and just enjoy The Sopranos as a straightforward gangster drama. It works wonderfully in that regard as well, leading to its status as one of the greatest TV shows ever created.
That said, The Sopranos was nowhere near the first TV show to center around organized crime. The gangster genre has been popular for decades, and some of the first TV dramas belonged to it – including The Untouchables, which ran on ABC from 1959 to 1963.
Revolutionized: Cinematic TV
While The Sopranos wasn’t the first TV to feature organized crime, it was the first to film it in such a “filmic” and cinematic manner. Before The Sopranos, it was very easy to spot a TV show, as they often looked cheap, the production values were flat and unimpressive, the cinematography was bland, and the camera often remained static.
However, The Sopranos was filmed in a far more cinematic style (especially in its later seasons) – the camera moved, the budget was clearly bigger, the editing was fancier, and the cinematography and lighting were of a far more professional and cinematic grade.
Took From Others: Swearing
Characters often swore on The Sopranos – a fact that majorly diverged from the more family-friendly material on network TV. At the time, network TVs imposed extremely tough restrictions on things like sex and swearing, and even the most basic of curse words were fiercely prohibited.
However, this was never really the case with cable TV, and various HBO programs (like its numerous stand-up comedy specials) had included graphic swearing for years. It sounded fresh and exciting when The Sopranos did it, but it was nothing new.
Revolutionized: Cable TV
With that said, The Sopranos certainly helped legitimize HBO, and cable TV in general, as the place for great TV content. Immediately following The Sopranos, HBO released a string of stellar dramas aimed at adult audiences that earned widespread acclaim, including The Wire, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood. FX got on the train with the antihero cop drama The Shield.
AMC eventually followed and gave TV lovers two of the greatest dramas ever made – Mad Men and Breaking Bad. This tradition continues today, as cable TV and streaming networks are near-guaranteed to have better content than network channels.
Took From Others: Shortened Seasons
The Sopranos also seemed revolutionary thanks to its thirteen-episode seasons. While this is standard practice today, it was near-unheard of back in 1999 when network shows dominated the airwaves and guaranteed viewers 20+ episodes a season.
However, The Sopranos wasn’t the first drama, or even the first HBO drama, to feature short seasons. Just a few years earlier, Oz debuted on HBO with eight-episode seasons.