The Sopranos Is the Most Influential Television Drama Ever

That headline may sound like hyperbole, but please note the choice of words: I didn’t say it was the most important, the most entertaining or even the best program ever.

Despite a disappointing sixth season, The Sopranos is certainly near the top of the list in all of those categories, no question. But Tony Soprano and his crew occupy a more specific niche: No one-hour drama series has had a bigger impact on how stories are told on the small screen, or more influence on what kind of fare we’ve been offered by an ever-growing array of television networks.

The Sopranos, which debuted on HBO Jan. 10, 1999, soon became a cultural phenomenon, then a ratings phenomenon. The complicated drama about a mob boss, his family, his shrink and his crew garnered critical raves, stacks of awards and endless media coverage for an ascendant HBO. But a more salient fact for television executives was that, at its peak, Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) and his crew attracted an audience of 12 million every week.

The highest-ever ratings for a first-run “Sopranos” episode was nearly 13.5 million viewers for the fourth-season premiere in September 2002.

In today’s fractured media environment, that is a very respectable figure for a program on a broadcast network. For a show on cable — and premium cable, at that — that figure was, and still is, jaw-dropping. Most cable dramas would kill to pull in half (or a third) of that.

Television executives didn’t have to be rocket scientists to take away the following lessons from the success of The Sopranos:

  • Dark, challenging storytelling can draw a large number of viewers and a torrent of critical praise.
  • Using film-quality production values and top-notch writing will garner more good press than any ad campaign can buy.
  • Casting less famous but gifted actors can not only save money but also pay off during awards season.
  • A risk-taking, successful, buzzed-about show will not just rake in high-income viewers and the advertisers who chase them, it can brand a cable network and put it on the cultural map.

Sure, there were great television shows before The Sopranos came along. But what show, before or since, put an entire industry on notice and said, in effect: “Pursue moral ambiguity. Make your lead character charismatic but deeply flawed and capable of great brutality. Oh, and if you want to indulge in dream sequences, long talks in a psychiatrist’s office and meandering storytelling that imitates the essentially random nature of real life, go for it.”

Those weren’t exactly the marching orders for the TV industry before The Sopranos arrived. The television writers, directors and actors who chased that kind of ambitious vision were a minority, and embattled at that. They’re still a minority, but those capable of even above-average work are more hotly pursued — and richly compensated — than ever.

Even CBS, the most staid and safe of networks, is hunting for the next challenging, complex, buzzed-about drama: It’s developing Skip Tracer, a show created by former Sopranos staff writers Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess; it’s adapting the cult British series Viva Blackpool (with Hugh Jackman as the show’s singing lead); and it’s even commissioned Swing Town, a partner-swapping drama directed by Alan Poul (Six Feet Under, Rome).

At a meeting of television critics in January, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler talked about “throwing out the rule book and really trying new kinds of shows, new kinds of storytelling.”

“We wanted to find shows that are going to be talked about,” Tassler said. “So we are really experimenting.”

Whether Tassler succeeds or not, that experimentation is a direct result of what HBO set in motion years ago: By assuming that a huge chunk of the TV audience is as intelligent as the consumers of the finest films and novels, the writers and executives responsible for The Sopranos helped usher in the current golden age of television.

The Sopranos demonstrated what could be accomplished with continuing story lines that grew organically out of three-dimensional characters,” said David Weddle, a Battlestar Galactica supervising producer. “The show demonstrated … that by following the lives of characters over a period of years, one could fashion an epic narrative with all the textured complexity of an epic novel such as War and Peace. Feature films cannot even begin to approach narratives of this scope and complexity, so it put to rest once and for all the notion that television is an inferior medium.”

All this from a program whose opening image is of a man sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, waiting to talk about his crippling panic attacks — which began when the family of ducks nesting in his back yard took off for good. That small moment set in motion a wrenching reassessment of Tony Soprano’s supposedly contented suburban life.

Rewatching that first episode of The Sopranos, you realize how much of it had nothing to do with mobster lore. Tony’s tenderness toward the young ducks in his pool was an outgrowth of his own desire to be taken care of, to preserve some innocence in what he knew to be a cold and cruel world.

If The Sopranos had been about a Mafia boss who whacked people and hung out at a strip club, it would have lasted a season or two, if that. Creator David Chase was far more interested in exploring how a man with a volcanic temper and a bewitching degree of power could hang on to some kind of ethical code, all the while battling the negativity emanating from his black hole of a mother and a world that expected mere violence and materialism from him.

“When you look at shows like The Sopranos … I feel like they have explored storytelling in a different way, where something will happen in an episode, and you may not see it again for three episodes or five episodes or the next season. It’s like life that way,” says Jason Katims, executive producer of Friday Night Lights and a veteran of Roswell and My So-Called Life.

Even when it did delve into the world of the mob — admittedly, one of the attractions for some viewers — The Sopranos upended expectations. Adriana La Cerva, fiance of mobster-in-training Christopher, could have been just another stereotype — a big-haired, big-mouthed Jersey girl sporting fake nails and tight pants.

But thanks to Drea de Matteo’s impassioned performance and the show’s commitment to building real, nuanced characters, the murder of Adriana near the end of season 5 ranks as one of the most wrenching deaths in TV history.

The Sopranos is a classic exploration of the underside of the American dream — something that anyone, of any ethnicity or income level, can understand. And Tony may be a made man, but the Mafia is by no means the show’s main or only subject matter. If anything, Soprano and his fellow mobsters know they are quite literally a dying breed, and that’s what informs the show’s evocative meditations on mortality.

That’s why it’s incomprehensible to me when representatives for the Italian-American community fuss about the way that The Sopranos supposedly props up ethnic stereotypes. That’s like criticizing “The Last Supper” for being too religious, or saying that The Great Gatsby is unfair to rich WASPs. The subject matter may be specific to one group, but the themes are universal.

Tony Soprano is too complex and specific to be a mere ethnic stereotype. If his characterization lacked depth, context and nuance — which it doesn’t — protesters would have every right to complain (as I did regarding the preposterous superficiality of Showtime’s heavy-handed Irish-American saga Brotherhood and NBC’s The Black Donnellys, a Celtic-themed festival of post-Sopranos cliches if there ever was one).

The Sopranos isn’t about one group or one subculture or even one individual: It has always been obsessed with the idea of what it means to be a man in this day and age, when the clear-cut codes of the past have little meaning.

“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type?” Tony asks Dr. Jennifer Melfi, the therapist played by Lorraine Bracco, in the first season. “That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings, he just did what he needed to do.”

And now we come to the dark side of the Sopranos legacy: The trail of bad-boy dramas that leads all the way back to Satriale’s Pork Store, one of Tony’s hangouts.

FX’s The Shield, which in its 2002 pilot had take-no-prisoners cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) kill a fellow officer — now that was the right way to build upon the Sopranos legacy of moral ambiguity. The writing for that FX cop drama is every bit as surprising and compelling as what we’ve seen on HBO in the last eight years, with the morally challenged Mackey providing a window into a dark, restless soul in a violent search of redemption.

The same rigorous, challenging writing informs Showtime’s darkly cynical Dexter and Weeds; Sci Fi’s brave Battlestar Galactica; and HBO’s own Rome, The Wire and Deadwood.

But too many shows have tried to ape the moral conflict at the core of The Sopranos without approaching the HBO show’s depth or cinematic quality. TNT’s 2006 series Saved is just one of a string of shallow, forgettable cable dramas about lovable, tortured rogues with bad habits. And FX’s Rescue Me has flirted with the depth of an HBO series, only to back away with a joke, a wink and a shrug when things get too scary or serious.

And though broadcast dramas have certainly allowed their lead characters more flaws — Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) of House is a big collection of flaws in one charismatic package — they’ve more typically misfired when attempting to appropriate the moral gray area that The Sopranos lives in.

When Tony Soprano murdered a man during a college visit with his teen daughter during the show’s first season, it was a turning point in television history. Viewers of The Sopranos knew from the get-go that they were watching a show about a man involved in shady, perhaps gruesome activities, but for Chase to show the worst that Tony was capable of, and still expect viewers to keep tuning in — that took chutzpah, not to mention patient, skilled character development and a towering performance from star Gandolfini.

Contrast that with Ray Liotta’s character on Smith, last fall’s failed heist drama on CBS: When he killed a security guard in that show’s pilot, it felt like a cheap stunt. And the nearly unwatchable Huff — which eliminated the bad-boy middleman and made its troubled protagonist (Hank Azaria) a shrink — showed that some “edgy” shows are more interested in stringing together dark-drama cliches than in breaking new ground.

Still, for the last eight years, television executives, writers, producers, directors and actors have looked to The Sopranos as a benchmark of quality. The series hasn’t just shown us what television is capable of, it’s shown us what filmed storytelling is capable of.

These days, the best programs on television sprawl, enchant and enthrall us with the confounding, entertaining and moving people at their core and with stories that are compassionate, surprising, eloquent or just surprising and strange. Though there are other characters and programs in the history of TV that paved the way for the current golden age, we should thank Tony and Carmela Soprano, not to mention Silvio Dante, Adriana La Cerva, Christopher Moltisanti, Dr. Melfi and all the rest, for the large role they played in getting us here.

For a while, HBO cornered the market on intelligent programs that employed actors who are and were every bit as good — often better — than the faces that fill our multiplexes. It’s not TV, we were told, it’s HBO.

But now that most networks — broadcast and cable — are more willing to give talented people the chance to aspire to that level, Tony Soprano and company are no longer alone. No one network has a stranglehold on quality.

It’s not HBO, it’s TV.