Where to begin when talking about a show as thematically rich, as emotionally complex, as utterly groundbreaking as The Sopranos? Even though it premiered 20 years ago, the HBO flagship drama has had such a lasting influence on today’s television landscape that it’s near impossible to discuss “prestige TV” without mentioning Tony Soprano and crew. Within its 86-episode run, The Sopranos broadened the scope of what a serialized TV show can do and be, from its lengthy narrative threads and ever-expanding cast of characters to its extended dream sequences and abrupt plot twists. Its story may have been centered around the New Jersey mafia, but The Sopranos spoke on many modern-day concerns regarding family dynamics, the rise of corporate culture and consumerism, and older generations’ nostalgia for a “simpler time”.
Throughout the series, characters are constantly filled with dissatisfaction and unease: Tony (James Gandolfini), a high-ranking member of the mafia, secretly goes to see a therapist after suffering repeated anxiety attacks. His wife, Carmela (Edie Falco) struggles with raising their teenage daughter and son, as well as balancing her Catholic faith with her husband’s immoral actions. Early in the pilot, Tony complains, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” The glory days of the Italian mob shown in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas are done: what’s left behind is a failing empire that has less and less of a place in 21st-century life. Everyone laments over what once was and fears what is to come: for Tony and his crew, it becomes apparent that can only mean death or prison.
Interestingly enough, The Sopranos was often at its best when it explored Tony’s family life rather than his work. The relationship between Tony and his elderly mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), is one of the most discussed aspects of the series, as she is shown to have a firm psychological grasp on her son as well as other members of the family. Both Carmela and Tony struggle to raise their kids — Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and Anthony, Jr. (Robert Iler) — as they begin to grow more independent and start questioning Tony’s criminal actions. One episode of The Sopranos could derive just as much drama from Anthony, Jr. getting drunk at school as it could from a member of the mafia becoming an FBI informant, and the Soprano family dynamics further helped audiences connect to an otherwise despicable main character.
The Sopranos had its fair share of ruthless killings and shocking twists, it’s telling that some of the most acclaimed episodes were focused on smaller events within the show’s larger narrative. For example, “College” (Season 1, Episode 5) only featured a fraction of the show’s main characters, telling two parallel storylines: Tony drives Meadow through New England to tour universities while Carmela stays home with her priest Father Phil (Paul Schulze). The two separate stories play out in grueling detail, as Tony tries to hunt down a former mafia member turned informant he sees on the road and Carmela confesses her fear of losing her soul in marrying Tony. Though the episode is mostly self-contained, it is powered by both Gandolfini’s and Falco’s incredible performances and an impeccable script; today, it is widely considered the definitive Sopranos episode.
Furthermore, The Sopranos had one of the best ensemble casts of a TV series, but most praise goes to Gandolfini and Falco for their multilayered, transformative performances. In lesser hands, Tony Soprano would have been despised by most audiences; the late James Gandolfini made him one of the most cherished TV characters in history, a man that we can respect and pity despite his brutal actions. Similarly, Edie Falco does incredible work as Carmela Soprano, twisting and undermining our expectations of what a mobster’s wife is like. And that is to say nothing about the other terrific main cast members (Nancy Marchand, Lorraine Bracco, Dominic Chianese, and Michael Imperioli, to name a few) or some of the more famous guest stars (Steve Buscemi, Joe Pantoliano, John Heard, and Peter Bogdanovich).
Despite the incredible performances and terrific scripts by creator David Chase and crew, it remains difficult to believe that The Sopranos was as popular in its heyday as it was, putting HBO on the map as a major TV cable network and being nominated for over 100 Emmy awards. The series usually ended major plot threads unexpectedly, taking even the most dedicated viewers by surprise. At the beginning of Season 2, mafia member Richie Aprile (David Proval) comes out of prison and begins to butt heads with Tony, placing the two increasingly at odds with each other and hinting at a larger confrontation by the end of the season. Instead, Richie is shot to death by Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro), his fiancee and Tony’s older sister, for beating her.
Plot twists like Richie’s unexpected demise seemed only to foreshadow “Made in America”, the controversial series finale of The Sopranos. Without adding any personal commentary on what happens during the final scene or what it signifies for Tony, it is telling that fans of the series are still in fervent discussion over what they think happened over a decade since the series ended, especially since creator David Chase has refused to provide any definitive explanation.
Ultimately, to simply describe The Sopranos as a series about a mobster going to therapy, or the fear of older generations about the future, or the American Dream in the 21st century, is to simplify the uniqueness of what the series was or what it did. The show itself has become an integral part of American pop culture, right next to the very gangster films that it was influenced by. Its impact can be seen in any TV drama airing today (and arguably some comedies as well) yet its brilliance and daring will never be truly replicated. The series may have premiered in 1999, but — with a 500-page book on the series just released and a prequel film by David Chase currently in development — The Sopranos is still thriving 20 years later.