Many TV shows have tried, but none have been able to fully replicate the cultural impact of David Chase’s HBO drama The Sopranos. The mobster drama was a huge hit for the network, putting a unique spin on gangster tropes by examining the psycho-social impact of living a life of crime. Starring James Gandolfini as gangster-in-therapy Tony Soprano, The Sopranos both revitalized and finalized the crime genre, but it also proved to be a cultural turning point for television drama
It’s fair to say that shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad wouldn’t exist without The Sopranos, as it redefined the medium for decades to come. For example, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had made a name for himself as a writer of some of The Sopranos’ most acclaimed episodes, such as season 6, episode 18, “Kennedy and Heidi,” in which Tony Soprano killed Christopher. As well as providing a valuable training ground for future showrunners, The Sopranos also disproved a common misconception about television drama protagonists in the US.
Why The Sopranos Was Perfectly Timed
As a subscription service, HBO was less bound by the stringent restrictions around sex, violence, and bad language that hampered other network dramas. As a brutal and sociopathic gangster who disrespected women, Tony Soprano embodied everything that network television stood against. American filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola had been exploring morally complex and unlikable characters since the 1970s, but television only caught up when Tony Soprano appeared on screens in the late 1990s. The Sopranos owed a debt to The Godfather, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and similar movies – and this more cinematic approach swiftly established HBO’s reputation for exceptional TV drama.
While HBO has now become a cultural shorthand for prestige TV, the network was better known for its comedy output in the 1990s. Shows like The Larry Sanders Show and Mr. Show with Bob & David, both of which starred Bob Odenkirk, who would go on to star in Better Call Saul, another show that wouldn’t exist without The Sopranos. Before The Sopranos premiered in 1999, the network had just one other drama series on the air. Oz was a prison drama that similarly focused on characters who, in a network TV show, would be the antagonists rather than the lead characters. This shift in perspective would have a profound effect on the future of television drama in the US.
The Sopranos’ Formula Still Works (It’s Just Not As Surprising)
The Sopranos‘ secret weapon was how it humanized these characters who were usually two-dimensional villains elsewhere on TV. David Chase, his writers, and the peerless cast of The Sopranos proved that characters don’t have to be “good guys” to be compelling. In fact, stories could become even more compelling if they challenged their audiences by presenting them with characters that they weren’t supposed to root for. This formula has defined TV drama for the two decades since The Sopranos ended. Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men focused on Don Draper, a charismatic, but deeply flawed and unpleasant ad man.
Meanwhile, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad revolved around an embittered chemistry teacher with a terminal illness who became a drug lord to provide for his family. Audiences weren’t necessarily supposed to sympathize with Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, but the character was so human and well-drawn that it was often difficult not to. While these are great shows, they don’t have the shock of the new which greeted The Sopranos‘ more complex characters when they debuted in 1999. The Sopranos continues to pave the way for multiple other tales of moral corruption and the human condition, and will always hold the distinction of being the show that popularized such a winning formula.