HomeTelevisionStill Singing: The Sopranos At 20 Years Old

Still Singing: The Sopranos At 20 Years Old

Written by Michael Vacchiano

The HBO original series The Sopranos made its debut 20 years ago today.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Millions of fans, myself included, are amazed that it’s been that long since we first saw Anthony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in his bathrobe attempting to get a closer look at a family of ducks in his backyard swimming pool. Watching the feared leader of a criminal empire become absolutely mesmerized by some cute animals was like nothing we had ever seen before on TV. Little did we all know, that image would kick start a revolution that would change the television landscape forever.

The main story elements of the show, and the mafia genre as a whole, has been present in countless films over the years. But once The Sopranos premiered, it took the medium of the boob tube to a whole new world. The late, great James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob boss who is struggling to deal with the pressures that come with balancing both of his “families”: his wife, children and relatives, as well as his organized crime associates and activities. Unable to cope with the stresses and anxieties in his life, Tony begins to see psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) to discuss his problems.

Creator David Chase introduced us to something very vintage and classic, yet still completely new and grounded in reality. An incredible ensemble of amazing actors (many of whom lived and/or were raised in the Jersey area) embodied the characters and made them people we all felt like we knew and had met before. The writing, direction and use of music were of a cinematic quality that very few television programs were capable of at the time. Granted, being on premium cable may have given everyone involved a little more artistic freedom and leeway, but the results could not be denied. The “small screen”, so to speak, would never be so little again.

The success of The Sopranos, however, would not have been possible without its richly drawn, multi-layered main character. Gandolfini, who sadly passed away in 2013, was a longtime character actor before taking the role of Tony Soprano and making him into a certified icon. Tony was charismatic and unlikable at the same time, a family man who would not blink at shooting a betrayer in the face. He was violent yet vulnerable, a husband and father who would bash someone’s head in one minute and still be home for Sunday dinner with his kids.

An intimidating mafia kingpin with a hairline ever receding and a waistline always expanding, Tony was an ordinary everyday guy despite his “occupation.” We still rooted for him even though he frequently did terrible things. He set the table for all the antiheroes who came after him in today’s Golden Age of Television. Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer. Dexter Morgan and Walter White. Don Draper and Nucky Thompson. Jax Teller and Ray Donovan. It’s fair to say that none of these incredible and polarizing characters would have existed without Gandolfini’s legendary protagonist.

Tony and his struggles may have been the show’s centerpiece, but other characters definitely made their presence known as well. Arguably none of them made their mark more so than Edie Falco’s Carmela, Tony’s long-suffering yet loyal wife. Primarily a theater actress before landing the role, Falco expanded on the housewife trope by making Carmela more conflicted than anyone could have expected. Always wrestling with her issues with Tony’s infidelity and accepting his criminal activities, Carmela still seemed to be perfectly fine with the materialism and luxury her husband’s work afforded her. Falco and Gandolfini each won three Emmy awards for their performances, and their on-screen arguments and clashes are still some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on television.

Other standout characters included Bracco’s straightforward and no-nonsense Dr. Melfi, the drug-addled and reckless Christopher (Michael Imperioli), and the curmudgeonly and wise-cracking Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). The Sopranos was littered with dozens of fantastic characters, and all of us fans had our personal favorites. The show drew its share of criticism, however, by those who thought Italian Americans were again being stereotyped. The notion of “wiseguys” and “goombahs” was alive and well for decades long before the show’s debut. But in its heyday, The Sopranos was celebrated by fans for putting their Italian culture front and center.

Not to mention that New Jersey residents who watched the show had become filled with local pride, thrilled to hear their hometowns being name-dropped on any given episode. They recognized sights from Tony’s drive on the NJ Turnpike in the show’s opening credits, as well as locations around the Garden State where the show was filmed. Satriale’s butcher shop, the Bada Bing strip club, and the palatial Soprano house in North Caldwell have all become unofficial landmarks due to the show’s overwhelming popularity. On a personal note, I still haven’t forgotten the smile on my father’s face upon getting an autograph from cast member Vincent Pastore while filming on the Asbury Park boardwalk.

Groundbreaking series. Critical darling. Must-see TV. Awards juggernaut. Pop culture phenomenon. The Sopranos was all that and a plate of gabagool.

You can watch the pilot episode of The Sopranos for free online here.

HBO NOW & HBO GO are currently showing The Sopranos: Fan-Favorite Episodes Collection featuring the following episodes

  • S1E5 College
  • S2E13 Funhouse
  • S3E4 Employee of the Month
  • S3E11 Pine Barrens
  • S4E9 Whoever Did This
  • S4E10 The Strong, Silent Type
  • S4E13 Whitecaps
  • S5E12 Long Term Parking
  • S6B10 Kennedy and Heidi
  • S6BE9 Made in America

All images are courtesy of HBO and ThinkJam

Pop-Break Staff
Pop-Break Staffhttps://thepopbreak.com
Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.

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