Twenty years ago today, The Sopranos debuted on HBO, and the shape of television changed forever. I mean that literally: Before The Sopranos, televisions looked like triangles. Also, they were completely hollow — viewers were expected to entertain themselves by making up puppet shows they staged inside their magical tri-cornered wedges. And the puppets were made up strictly of rocks, discarded yarn, and — if you were lucky — John Stamos. That’s how different the medium was before the advent of The Sopranos and the dawn of the so-called “golden age” of television.
Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly. But The Sopranos is widely credited with making certain concepts the norm for prestige TV — the cult of the anti-hero, the idea that each season should only be 13 or so episodes and unfold like chapters in a book, the aversion to traditional TV conventions regarding unambiguous morality and straightforward likability that are now regarded, outside of CBS’ primetime lineup, as corny and old fashioned. You have no doubt heard these platitudes repeated in numerous Sopranos retrospectives over the years. Perhaps what’s most impressive about The Sopranos is how well it has held up.
This is where I admit my personal bias: The Sopranos is my favorite TV drama of all time, and possibly also my favorite TV comedy. (It’s just about as hilarious and quotable as any episode of Seinfeld or 30 Rock.) Recently, I started a rewatch of season two, the one that features Richie Aprile (David Proval) and the slow, painful fall of Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore). Other big developments from this season: The trip to Italy where Tony almost has sex with the lady mob boss; the bust-out of Davey Scatino’s sporting goods store; Christopher’s dalliances with acting, screenwriting (You Bark, I Bite), and Jon Favreau (the one from Swingers); the introduction of Furio Giunta; the murder of Matthew Bevilaqua; the almost-murders of Christoper and Tony; the surprise murder of Richie; the dream sequence with the talking fish. If you’re a fan, this laundry list of plot points is no doubt already implanted on your brain like family birthdays and anniversaries.
More than telling a gripping story, however, The Sopranos was first and foremost about creating a world that you wanted to spend time in. No matter the endless, exhausting debate about the polarizing finale, The Sopranos was never designed to be “solved.” When that Russian disappeared in the famous “Pine Barrens” episode, it didn’t set up a mystery that “paid off” later on, as you might expect while watching, say, Westworld or Sharp Objects. At heart, The Sopranos was a “hang out” show — you got to know Tony, Carmela, Tony, Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest as you would your real-life friends. We came to know their flaws as well as their charms, and in the process see our own complicated lives reflected back at us.
“I saw it as a live-action Simpsons,” David Chase tells critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz in their exhaustive new compendium about the series, The Sopranos Sessions, adding that he eventually pivoted from his initial cartoonish vision once the immortal James Gandolfini was cast as Tony Soprano. But The Sopranos can still be likened to The Simpsons in one crucial sense — the cast of memorable characters is incredibly long. Exclude everyone I already mentioned and you still have an uncommonly deep bench: Meadow, A.J., Livia, Dr. Melfi, Uncle Junior, Adriana, Janice, Artie Bucco, Ralph Cifaretto, Johnny Sack, Bobby Baccalieri, Tony Blundetto, Gloria Trillo, Phil Leotardo, Rosalie Aprile, and on and on.
As for the show’s impact on contemporary television, rewatching The Sopranos feels more wistful than familiar. Echoes of The Sopranos continue to reverberate throughout top-shelf TV, but the experience of watching The Sopranos has proven much harder to recreate, in part because of how The Sopranos helped to change what we expect from TV, and what TV expects from us.
Before, when I joked about how TV sets used to be shaped like triangles, I was gently mocking how TV history seems to get rewritten every 20 years. For many contemporary TV scholars, the medium might as well not exist before The Sopranos, which has caused some of the show’s achievements to be overstated (and important precursors like Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks to get overlooked). For all its brilliance and originality, The Sopranos still exists on a continuum with other era-defining shows from prior decades, and builds on the strengths and innovations of those predecessors.
As a viewing experience, however, The Sopranos does seem different from what came before it, at least for me. For instance, The Sopranos was the first show I remember binge-watching — though, back then, you had to wait until each season was released on DVD before you could draw the curtains and proceed to ram 13 hours of TV into your skull. It’s also the last time I remember there being a single TV show seemingly everybody agreed was at the center of pop culture, that one essential watch you needed to make time for each week, if you wanted to keep up with the conversation. If watching The Sopranos now makes me nostalgic for anything, it’s for that kind of easy-to-follow cultural clarity.
For several years after The Sopranos debuted, as shows like Deadwood, Six Feet Under, and The Wire followed its example, following Great TV felt a lot like being a sports fan. Because almost all of the Great TV shows were on HBO, you knew they would always be staggered, like the seasons for the NFL, NBA, and MLB — for the most part, you were able to follow one “water cooler” program at a time. (Later, during the Mad Men/Breaking Bad era, AMC was able to copy this convenient complementary scheduling.)
Of course, that sort of orderly viewing is over now. Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, reading year-end lists for TV shows was a straight-forward proposition — you either agreed or disagreed with the choices, but anyone who paid passing attention to television probably was aware of every show in the critical mix. Flash forward to now, and there are dozens upon dozens of shows that critics insist you “must” watch, even if they exist on networks you’ve never cared about or even heard of: America to Me on Starz, You on Lifetime, Cobra Kai on YouTube Red, Sorry For Your Loss on something called Facebook Watch. Following quality TV shows now feels like keeping up with ultra-obscure indie-rock bands or Soundcloud rappers.
Nothing against these shows — I’m sure they’re great! But I can barely keep up with the dozens and dozens of shows I’ve already invested some degree of time in. For instance, I love The Deuce and would probably call it the best show currently on television … even though I still haven’t watched about half of the most recent season. But at least I started it. There are many other shows I’ve watched and enjoyed in the past but didn’t feel like watching when they returned for new seasons last year. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel shot part of season two in France? Non merci. Making a Murderer — a real phenomenon just three years ago that’s basically an afterthought now — is back with an update on the Steven Avery case? I request an extended recess. They made another season of American Vandal? You can’t top a good penis joke.
You could argue that Atlanta has similar importance in 2019 as The Sopranos had in 1999, except only a minuscule number of people watch it. You could also make a case for Game of Thrones, though that to me feels different — less “golden age of TV” and more about the imperialism of comic books and fantasy franchises in contemporary Hollywood. (Admittedly, I also have a bias against shows featuring dragons.) If The Sopranos still has an an outsized place in my memory, perhaps it’s because it was afforded the space to be important, to “hang out” in my consciousness and make a lasting impression, without so much pressure to constantly move on to the next thing.
Maybe I sound like Tony in Dr. Melfi’s office at the start of The Sopranos, pining for the days when Gary Cooper supposedly represented a simple “strong and silent” male archetype. But if The Sopranos is now valorized for changing its moment, it should also be noted how the moment changed (or enhanced) The Sopranos. It was a pioneering event TV show that emerged at time when watching TV still had the potential to feel like an event.