Lorna Cooper, TV Editor
16/09/2009 12:10 | By Lorna Cooper, TV Editor

Bada Bye To The Sopranos

James Gandolfini

Pint-supping Kevin Webster reveals a literary bent no one knew he had when he compares Tony Soprano to Henry V. A discussion of the quasi-Shakespearean tragic qualities of the Italian-American mobster ensues… in Corrie!

Eh chuck, old battleaxe Ena Sharples would turn in her grave at such a hip pop-culture reference. But it's yet another illustration of how far-reaching The Sopranos' influence has become.  

The Sopranos took its final bow on E4 (why not Channel 4? Why? Why?!), safe in the knowledge that its place in the pantheon of landmark television is secured. Let me take you all the way back to 1999. A middle-aged, overweight man sits in a psychiatrist's office after suffering a panic attack. Mob boss Tony Soprano (brilliantly played by James Gandolfini) is deep in mid-life crisis. He opens up to psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi (the wonderful Lorraine Bracco) about his crippling self-doubts: "Lately, I get the feeling that I came in too late. That the best is over." Her cool response? "Many Americans get that feeling."  Little wonder audiences were quickly hooked; a gangster in therapy? Too intriguing to pass up. As if to prove the point, Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal comedy Analyse This was also a monster hit that year. It explored similar territory, albeit in a vastly different way.

James Gandolfini and Edie Falco

From the outset, this HBO saga about a man at the head of two families in crisis grabbed audiences and plaudits. First-class writing, compelling story arcs and film-quality production values quickly made The Sopranos a cultural and ratings phenomenon worldwide. Its classic exploration of the flipside of the American dream spoke to millions of people across the globe.

Sure, it had its critics - the American Italian Defamation Association (AIDA) filed a lawsuit with the makers alleging a negative portrayal of Italian-Americans - but TV's The Sopranos stands alongside all-time great cinematic gangster epics such as The Godfather, Goodfellas and Mean Streets. 

Like superlative 1980s ensemble drama Hill Street Blues (which The Sopranos owes its life to), it was blessed with a fantastic cast delivering killer performances week in, week out. Tony's blood family included Edie Falco as long-suffering wife Carmela, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler as his kids Meadow and AJ, Aida Turturro as his sister Janice, the late Nancy Marchand excelling as their malevolent mother Livia, Dominic Chianese memorably bringing Tony's Uncle Corrado 'Junior' Soprano to life and Michael Imperioli hitting all the right notes as Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti.  The crime family included the likes of Steven Van Zandt as consigliere and best friend Silvio Dante, the superb Tony Sirico as Paul 'Paulie Walnuts' Gualtieri, Vincent Pastore as Salvatore 'Big Pussy' Bonpensiero, Steven R. Schirripa tugging the heartstrings as Bobby 'Bacala' Baccalieri and Joseph R. Gannascoli as the tragic Vito Spatafore. Back in 1999, few Sopranos faces were A-list. James Gandolfini was a bit-part character actor in hits such as True Romance, Crimson Tide and Get Shorty. Martin Scorsese fans would've recognised Goodfellas' Lorraine Bracco (she played Karen Hill), Vincent Pastore, Tony Sirico and Michael Imperioli (as poor, hapless Spider). Nancy Marchand, best known for 1970s series Lou Grant, had played Frasier Crane's mother Hester in Cheers.

Tony Sirico

However, on the whole, not many members of the cast would've stopped traffic. A blessing in disguise as it strengthened the dramatic impact of the show, making it all the more credible. One glance at Tony Sirico (capo Paul 'Paulie Walnuts' Gualtieri) and there's no doubt he looks the part.

He can say "Let's whack this c**k sucker and be done with it!" and make you believe the guy's gonna be sleeping with the fishes before he can say antipasto. The fact that some of the cast have had run-ins with the law adds to the aura of verisimilitude.  Dark, challenging storylines were driven by strong scripts with sharp, snappy dialogue. Check out some of the gems that made this one of the most quotable TV shows ever: "Even a broken clock is right twice a day." "He Marvin Gayed his own nephew." "She's so fat, her blood type is Ragu." 

Little wonder celebrities queued up for cameo and guest slots including director-writer-producer Sydney Pollack, Frank Sinatra Jr and his sister Nancy, Sir Ben Kingsley, Lauren Bacall (hilarious!), Steve Buscemi, Frankie Valli etc. Creator David Chase and his crew achieved a remarkable feat in making the grim, bloody world of the mob seem mundane and everyday. To the hoods, excessive in-yer-face violence, an extortion racket or twenty and a body needing chopping was as mundane and ordinary as folding clothes is to a Gap employee.  

Steven Van Zandt

To their credit, the writers never shied away from moral ambiguity. They positively gloried in the fact that their charismatic leading man was deeply flawed: a murderer and serial adulterer with goomahs in every city, a man capable of great brutality to friend and foe alike - and yet, we can't help liking him. Tony Soprano is an anti-hero for our times. These days, you can't swing a damaged psyche without hitting the likes of Hugh Laurie's arrogant Dr House, Kiefer Sutherland's complex Jack Bauer, David Duchovny's troubled Hank Moody (Californication), con man Wayne Malloy played by Eddie Izzard (The Riches)…the list goes on and on.

Viewers became accustomed to expecting the unexpected because the makers loved keeping everyone guessing. For me, one of the greatest Sopranos twists was the season 5 outing of Vito Spatafore; Meadow's boyfriend spotted him performing a sexual act on a security guard. With all the (misplaced?) machismo in organised crime, there was only ever going to be one outcome once his sexuality was discovered. And sure enough, it came: "Cut off his braciole and feed it to him!" cried a disgusted Christopher Moltisanti.  

All these elements combined for a fresh perspective on familiar subject matters: infidelity, religion, race, homosexuality, familial strife, psychological abuse, depression...Admittedly, there were occasions when episodes fell short, a natural consequence of high expectations perhaps. However, even lesser instalments effortlessly delivered winning mixtures of humour and pathos, savagery and sentimentality, ordinariness and extraordinariness, accompanied by an excellent soundtrack.  Ultimately, one of The Sopranos' enduring legacies will be bringing silver screen quality to the small screen. Battlestar Galactica supervising producer David Weddle said: "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." 

And the movie actors have followed, with some asserting that the quality of writing is now higher on TV than in film. Turn on the tube and you'll find: Kiefer Sutherland (24), James Woods (Shark), Ray Liotta (Smith), Jeff Goldblum (Raines), Minnie Driver (The Riches), Oscar-winner Geena Davis (Commander in Chief), Glenn Close (Damages), Forest Whitaker (The Shield and ER) and Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) - more will definitely follow. 

As Hollywood contents itself with pointless sequels, inferior remake after remake, teen comedies and generic thrillers, TV has upped the ante with numerous exceptional vehicles. It took a conflicted New Jersey gangster to completely redefine the drama genre. And unlike his enemies, Tony and his crew will live on. Look out for TV repeats, DVD sales, computer games, soundtracks, books, blogs, downloads - the works. You think this is the end? Fugeddaboutit!  

Gallery: Top US TV Shows including The Sopranos and The Simpsons

Gallery: Top US TV Shows including The Sopranos and The Simpsons (© Image © Channel 4 and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation – All Rights Reserved)

Gallery: Top US TV Shows including The Sopranos and The Simpsons  The views in this column/blog are those of the author alone and not of MSN or Microsoft.


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