I was too young to have seen The Sopranos when it first aired. In 1999 I was too busy trying to grasp such difficult concepts as tying my shoelaces and counting to one hundred to be able to appreciate a brutal saga of violence, betrayal and corruption. Thankfully, by the time I was old enough to watch The Sopranos, it had already been cemented in popular culture as a modern masterpiece, and I became aware of its existence.
The show centres around the titular Sopranos, the name both of the protagonist Tony’s blood relatives and the organised crime “family” that he runs. While the show is, at surface level, a combination of a crime drama and a family drama, there are plenty of philosophical themes, social commentary, and even moments of comedy, that make it such a rich and rewarding experience.
While the supporting cast is near flawless (most notably Tony’s troubled wife Carmela (Edie Falco), volatile nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and cruel yet comical sidekick Paulie (Tony Sirico)), I believe that it’s the main character of Tony Soprano that gave the show its depth and watchability (and rewatchability). This is down to the fantastic writing of showrunner David Chase (and the rest of the writing team) being brought to life by the incredible acting of James Gandolfini, who tragically passed away at a young age in 2013.
There’s a strong case for Tony Soprano being the most realistic and three-dimensional character ever portrayed on screen. This is why the show is so fascinating: as an audience we’re watching a character that we can relate to and understand his fears, hopes and dreams (even if we don’t agree with his actions). Except we’re watching this character who is so much like us in a situation that none of us will ever experience: being the boss of the New Jersey mob. Tony goes to work in a business where extreme violence and double crossing are part of the daily routine, he smokes expensive cigars in his friend’s gourmet restaurant every night, and then he goes home to sit on the sofa, eat ice-cream, and watch The Godfather with his wife and kids.
How often do you see a character on screen who can play the roles of psychopathic murderer, manipulative schemer, loving father, childlike joker, hopeless idealist, and depressed nervous wreck all at once? And what’s more it seems completely natural, completely real. And that’s because that’s how people are in the real world. Real people, like Tony, have many sides, wear different “masks” depending on who they’re around. As viewers, we’re privileged enough to get to see all of Tony’s sides: his interactions with his therapist, with his friends, with his enemies, with his family, and with only his own company. We also get to see inside his head via dream sequences. We know more about Tony Soprano than anybody else in his life does. This is what keeps the show so interesting, even during the slower moments of the plot.
All of this is brought together perfectly by the acting of James Gandolfini, who could show more complex emotion with a single facial expression than most actors can in an entire season’s worth of script. The Sopranos, many argue, was the TV drama that elevated television to a serious art form on a par with cinema and ushered in what many call “the Golden Age of Television” that we are currently experiencing. This was in no small part due to the fantastically written and amazingly portrayed Tony Soprano, the greatest character ever to grace the small screen.