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The Sopranos: A Television Revolution We Couldn’t Refuse

Cindy and I just finished rewatching all six seasons of The Sopranos last Saturday. 

We went deep, only surfacing for air to watch episodes of sitcoms we’ve already seen, like our current run of Community, to get all the murdering out of our heads before sleepy time. 

For three weeks it was nothing else, with that theme song banging between our ears. 

“Do you think Sopranos still holds up?” Cindy had asked before we started. 

“Not sure.” I shrugged. 

We had tried to watch it once with the children around five or six years ago, but Ethan was like fuck this a few minutes into the first episode and Lottie fell asleep on the couch before it was over. So the idea of rewatching the series temporarily went on a shelf. 

We only planned on watching the pilot, and then maybe that season, if the first episode captured us. But the binge commenced immediately, with both of us still blown away a quarter-century after the first time we had seen the show. 

My favorite movie year of all time (clap if you know what’s coming!) is 1999. Holy shit on the cinematic nirvana of that year. But Sopranos also made its debut in ’99, and few of us early viewers could have fully grasped the impact the show would have. 

We missed the first four episodes, back at a time when you couldn’t just pick up your remote to catch up. So our first exposure to the show was in episode five, when Tony takes his daughter Meadow on a tour of colleges in Maine … where he encounters a former mob informant and subsequently murders him.

I had none of the buildup from those first four episodes, and no Dr. Melfi, but the episode still masterfully blended Tony’s role as a caring father with his life in the mob to showcase the dual aspects of his life. We were hooked and then some. 

We watched each episode as it debuted on Sunday night, then again when they came out on DVD, often with wine and pasta. The series finale disappointed, with a cut to black finale black that left us hanging more than satisfied.

But regardless of how anyone felt about that last season, over the course of its six-season run from 1999 to 2007, The Sopranos revolutionized what stories could do on television and set the stage for a new era of prestige TV that predated our current streaming era while having an undeniable hand in shaping the medium. 

With its subversion of TV norms, richly-drawn characters, and thematic complexity, The Sopranos still slaps all these years later. Two days after finishing that finale for the second time, I have plenty to say about the show. 

“You’re only as good as your last envelope.”

TV was a different beast before The Sopranos. Sure, there were great shows, even groundbreaking ones, but it was still largely defined by formulaic sitcoms, procedurals, and soap operas. Series followed established patterns: self-contained episodes, clear-cut heroes and villains, tidy resolutions wrapped up in a bow by the end credits.

The Sopranos blew that model to smithereens like a hit gone wrong in the Jersey pines.

Creator David Chase was playing by a different set of rules, with complex and multi-layered narratives, threading storylines and character arcs across entire seasons throughout the series. Each episode felt less like a standalone story and more like a chapter in a sprawling, novelistic saga.

Forget about the black-and-white morality of traditional TV protagonists. Tony Soprano and his ilk lived in a world of grays, where the lines between good and evil were perpetually blurred. Deeply-flawed, often reprehensible individuals, capable of great cruelty and surprising tenderness. Chase and his brilliant cast made us care, and even root for these pieces of shit.

Cinematic visuals, artful direction, and impeccable production design — The Sopranos looked more like a high-quality indie film than a television drama. From the framing of shots to the use of music, aesthetic choices felt meaningful and deliberate.

The Sopranos paved the way for daring experimentation in shows like LOST and Breaking Bad. Would we have the cerebral intensity of Mad Men or the gritty realism of The Wire without Tony and his crew having blazed the trail first, and proving that TV could be just as complex, challenging, and aesthetically daring as the best of cinema?

“Sometimes it’s important to give people the illusion of being in control.” 

Tony was a revelation — a repulsive yet magnetic protagonist played with towering, Emmy-winning gravitas by James Gandolfini. He’s a mass of contradictions: ruthless mob boss suffering from panic attacks, philandering husband who genuinely loved his wife, violent sociopath who doted on his children.

The show never sugarcoated Tony’s transgressions or made excuses for his choices. We saw him commit horrific acts of violence, betray his loyal lieutenants, and manipulate everyone around him for personal gain. But thanks to Gandolfini’s nuanced, fully-human portrayal, we also saw the wounded child behind his macho posturing.

But The Sopranos was more than just the Tony Show. Its supporting cast was a murderers’ row of talent, each character as vividly drawn and richly shaded as the last.

Carmela is Tony’s long-suffering wife, played with a blend of steely resolve and willful self-delusion by Edie Falco. She is his enabler and accomplice, a savvy operator who uses her willful ignorance as a shield against the ugliness of Tony’s business. A struggle to reconcile her Catholic guilt and material greed leading to a complicity in her husband’s crimes makes for one of the show’s most compelling through-lines.

Christopher Moltisanti is Tony’s hotheaded nephew, whose journey from eager-to-please soldier to disillusioned junkie mirrors the rot eating away at the family empire. Played with live-wire intensity by Michael Imperioli.

Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s psychiatrist and the show’s de facto moral compass, is played by Lorraine Bracco. She was our entry point into the main character’s psyche, her probing questions and cool analysis guiding us through the maze of his monstrous mind. But Melfi was also a fully-realized character, grappling with the ethical quandaries of treating a man like Tony and the personal toll it took on her life and relationships.

Uncle Junior, Livia (Tony’s mother), Paulie Walnuts, Silvio Dante, Adriana La Cerva — a full suite of fleshed out characters comprises the remaining cast. Relationships, conflicts, and shifting loyalties drive a narrative engine of human drama that’s as compelling as any criminal part of this story. With a keen understanding of codes and rituals within mafia life, the bonds of la famiglia, strict hierarchies of power, and a casual brutality meted out to those who transgressed against omertà, the series showcases a delicate balance between loyalty and betrayal.

But The Sopranos was never content to simply romanticize or mythologize the mob, as so many films and TV shows had done before. Instead, it used the mafia as a lens through which to examine deeper, more universal truths about human nature, from the corrosive effects of toxic masculinity to the ways in which we justify our own moral compromises.

“What use is an unloaded gun?”

For all its surface pleasures — dark humor, shocking violence, quotable catchphrases – The Sopranos was a show of thematic richness, about the seething underbelly of our American Dream, reeking and rotting beneath a gleaming surface of national mythology.

Tony Soprano is a twisted embodiment of that dream — a self-made man who clawed his way to the top through grit, cunning, and ruthless ambition. But the show never lets us forget the human cost of his success, all those broken bodies and shattered lives in his wake.

The Sopranos is unsparing in its critique of the hollow materialism and spiritual emptiness of modern American life. From soulless McMansions in the Jersey burbs to the Bada Bing! backrooms where Tony conducts his sordid business, the show depicts a world where everything and everyone has a price, the pursuit of wealth and power replacing any higher sense of purpose or meaning.

But the show also recognized the seductive allure of that world, the intoxicating pull of power and privilege. In Tony’s kingdom, loyalty and family are everything — until they aren’t. Bonds of blood and brotherhood are severed if they threaten the bottom line or balance of power.

Tension between loyalty and betrayal, between the sacred and the profane, lies at the heart of the show’s most potent theme: the corrupting influence of unchecked power. 

As Tony’s empire grew, so too did his hubris and moral decay. Each compromise, act of violence, lie, and betrayal took him further from his own humanity, until he became a walking embodiment of the very rot he sought to escape.

And for all the professed devotion to his wife and children, Tony’s criminal life constantly threatens to tear his family apart. Infidelities, violent outbursts, an inability to separate his roles as father and godfather — all of it slowly poisoning the thing he claims to hold most dear.

“It’s all a big nothing.”

The show’s water-cooler phenomenon influence can be felt in the countless imitators and homages in its wake, from the gritty realism of shows like The Shield and Boardwalk Empire to antihero narratives like Dexter and Breaking Bad.

But its impact went beyond just inspiring other shows, seeping into every corner of pop culture, from music to fashion to politics, and influencing how we perceive complex characters and moral ambiguity. Phrases from The Sopranos and its larger-than-life characters found their way into our vernacular and began to reshape our cultural dialogue around power, loyalty, and the American Dream.

Regardless of how I felt about the series finale then or now, its ambiguity in the last scene is a masterstroke of subversive storytelling, denying us the closure and catharsis we had come to expect from our TV finales and leaving us with a haunting unease that lingered long after the cut to black, refusing to provide easy answers or tidy resolutions. 

Like Tony himself, the show was a mass of contradictions, a work of art that reveled in its ambiguities and shades of gray.

“Welcome to the family.”

Every episode has its merits, even the handful that fell short for me. But here a few stand outs:

The Sopranos: The pilot introduces us to Tony’s world with a deft mix of dark humor and drama. From the opening scene of Tony staring at a statue in Melfi’s waiting room, we are drawn into his inner life, establishing the key relationships and power dynamics that drive the entire narrative.

Pine Barrens: What might be the most iconic standalone episode of the series finds Paulie and Christopher lost in the snowy woods of South Jersey, hunting an elusive Russian mobster after they botched killing him. A masterful blend of dark comedy and suspense, with the wiseguys’ bumbling ineptitude playing against the unforgiving beauty of a winter landscape to showcase The Sopranos’ ability to shift tones on a dime, from wryly funny to genuinely unnerving.

University: This episode juxtaposes Meadow’s college experiences with the tragic story of Tracee, a young stripper who suffers a brutal fate at the hands of Ralph Cifaretto, challenging viewers by showing the brutal consequences of the characters’ lifestyles and the stark contrast between the worlds of organized crime and ordinary civilian life.

Employee of the Month: A deeply-impactful episode centering around Dr. Melfi’s personal trauma and moral dilemma. After experiencing a horrific assault, she grapples with seeking vengeance through Tony’s criminal connections. A profound examination of justice, power, and the psychological burdens of maintaining professional boundaries.

Long Term Parking: This episode is pure gut-wrenching tragedy, centering on the fate of Adriana, Christopher’s longtime girlfriend turned FBI informant. Her betrayal is discovered, and the fallout is devastating, both for the characters and the audience. Watching her final, futile attempt to escape is a brilliant example of building tension and dread that culminates in a shocking act of violence that haunts the series until its end.

Made in America: I failed to fully appreciate this finale my first time around. With the unenviable task of wrapping up six seasons’ worth of narrative and thematic threads, this episode had a lot of heavy lifting. But rather than tying everything in a neat bow as expected, the episode carried its weight in typically subversive fashion, leaving the audience with more unease than closure. With Tony and his family gathered in a diner, tension ratchets up with every jingle of the bell and sideways glance, until the series suddenly cuts to black forever. 

Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White, Don Draper, or Rust Cohle. But beyond its embrace of the antihero, The Sopranos raised a mirror to American society, forcing us to confront our national psyche. Through the lens of organized crime, the show explored the corrupting influence of power, the hollow pursuit of material success, and the lies we tell ourselves to justify our worst impulses.

The Sopranos ends not with a bang, but with a cut to black, immersing us in the profound depths of its story. On my second watch, I loved the choice for daring us to confront the unsettling truth that, in the end, we are all authors of our own ambiguous narratives, telling stories whose endings are as uncertain and open to interpretation as the lives we lead.