What if HBO picked up Winnie Holzman’s show instead of ‘The Sopranos’?

This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if…?

In the late ’90s, HBO executives had to decide what original drama series would be selected to follow the prison series “Oz.” According to HBO executive Carolyn Strauss, the choice came down to two ideas: David Chase’s New Jersey mob drama “The Sopranos,” and a drama about a female business executive from “My So-Called Life” creator Winnie Holzman. HBO picked “The Sopranos,” which became an enormous commercial and critical hit, transformed the way we watched and talked about television, and inspired a wave of classic dramas set in a criminal world and/or about middle-aged male anti-heroes.

What if HBO had chosen Winnie Holzman‘s idea instead of “The Sopranos”?

Three things that might not have happened:

1. Since TV shows traditionally don’t survive through multiple development cycles, “The Sopranos” (which had already been rejected by several broadcast networks) wouldn’t have existed. Chase might have quit TV the way he always threatened to, and James Gandolfini might have remained a hard-working character actor rather than an unlikely leading man.

2. No “Sopranos” means no “The Shield” (Shawn Ryan and the executives at FX have said they were specifically inspired by that show’s success), no “Mad Men” (Matthew Weiner quit writing sitcoms to take a staff job in “Sopranos” season 5) and no “Breaking Bad” (Walter White is absolutely a spiritual descendant of Tony Soprano), among others.

3. Not nearly as many thinkpieces would have been written in the last few years about why cable drama is so focused on angry middle-aged white guys and the women who stand in their way and are hated by the audience as a result.

Three things we predict might have happened:

1. If the Holzman show was a hit on the level of “The Sopranos,” then the DNA of the cable revolution becomes very different. There aren’t nearly as many shows with complicated male protagonists – with Holzman‘s show and “Sex and the City” existing at the same time, in fact, HBO becomes known as a haven for female stories – nor as many about crime. More movie actresses of a certain age make the move to television, and faster, and perhaps a writer like Shonda Rhimes (who first made a splash with “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”) stays at HBO rather than going to ABC to create “Grey’s Anatomy,” et al.

2. If the Holzman show wasn’t a hit – and if later HBO shows like “Six Feet Under” therefore didn’t get any kind of halo effect from being on the same channel as a “Sopranos”-sized monster – perhaps HBO decides to abandon dramas and go back to comedies exclusively. “Arli$$” could still be on the air!

3. Without “The Sopranos” to overshadow it, the “Analyze This” franchise is at seven films and counting.

Did history work out for the best?

Yes. “My So-Called Life” is perhaps the best series of its type ever made, and Holzman’s recent ABC Family show “Huge” had a lot to recommend it as well, but it’s hard to imagine one of her shows becoming a popular success like “The Sopranos” – which attracted both highbrow viewers who were there for the psychology and others who were just there to see people get whacked – and therefore hard to imagine a similar but estrogen-driven revolution happening as a result. The rest of the industry didn’t just imitate “The Sopranos” because it was great, but because it was a big damn hit. And though those imitations eventually led to too many derivative bastard sons of Tony Soprano like “Ray Donovan” and “Low Winter Sun,” I wouldn’t want to live in a timeline without the many great shows that directly followed.