Following the death of actor James Gandolfini in June, HBO put the first season of “The Sopranos” back up on its On Demand service. And I began watching the groundbreaking show for what must be my eighth time through.
It was, after all, what prompted me to get cable TV again almost a decade after turning it off, tired of clicking through the channels and finding very little I felt like watching. And it opened a watershed of quality television that expanded the dramatic possibilities to be enjoyed on the small screen.
My affection for “The Sopranos” was so strong during its original run that I used to joke that they were “my family.” Certainly one of its great sources of appeal to me was how well it captured the people, places and atmosphere of the greater New York City metro area where I lived prior to moving to Texas.
This time through there was also a minor personal connection that I realized on reading his obituaries – I’d met Gandolfini. They said that he had managed a “video nightclub” called Private Eyes during his time as a struggling actor in the early 1980s. I recalled how one night soon after the place opened I went there with a friend of mine who knew the manager. And spent some time hanging out there talking with what was a young Gandolfini. My memory is of a cool, friendly and welcoming guy.
And my impression was borne out by the many comments in the wake of his passing from the people he worked with about his kindness, generosity and sweet nature. It was a key to making the controversial character of Tony Soprano so likable in spite of his criminal and often heinous acts.
After re-watching the show’s first two seasons (which I also own on VHS) on On Demand, I kept going through the remaining four seasons on the HBO Go web service (on which cable subscribers can watch all of its series, many of its excellent documentaries, and the movies it is showing). In my eighth time through, there was the enjoyment of a certain familiarity.
But what is stunning is the density of the show, and how even after so many viewings there are perhaps small yet significant aspects that reveal themselves. Plus it’s a masterpiece of foreshadowing as well as character development.
“The Sopranos” also broke many series TV molds. For starters, it focused around a character who is morally objectionable. Without Tony Soprano, there never could have been chemistry teacher turned meth cooker Walter White of “Breaking Bad.” It also brought near-avant garde dream sequences that resembled independent film into the TV series form. The level of violence depicted exceeded that seen before on television, plus injected an almost absurdist sense of humor into some of the deaths. All told, “The Sopranos” anticipated an audience that had progressed beyond standard TV series fare, and was proven correct.
But the glue that held it all together was Gandolfini. Masterful acting more commonly found in films abounds throughout the series. But the star was the late actor, who created, refined and sustained a character that resonated with real life believability. It’s hard to imagine that the show would have had the impact that it did without him in the title role.
The sad fact of Gandolfini’s death at age 51 was that even though he was able to transition into movies and show that he had the chops to be far more than a one-trick pony, the actor never had the chance to play a tour de force lead role in a film that took him beyond identification as Tony Soprano. It would have been gratifying to see him triumph beyond the character that made him famous.
I also am saddened that now there is no way for my theory about the end of the series – that it left things open for a later return to the show – to now be possibly proven correct. But in the end, no matter. “The Sopranos” has proven itself as a monument to the possibilities of television, and I have few doubts that I will watch it again all the way through yet again, and once again marvel at its brilliance.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013
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