NEW YORK — James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano represented more than just a memorable TV character. He changed the medium, making fellow antiheroes like Walter White and Dexter Morgan possible and shifting the balance in quality drama away from broadcast television.
The passage of time since “The Sopranos” ended in 2007 brought all of that into sharp relief even before Gandolfini’s death of a heart attack while vacationing in Italy on Wednesday.
Television characters certainly weren’t one-dimensional when David Chase cast the little-known Gandolfini in the lead role of his series about the personal and work families of a New Jersey crime boss. But there were limits: Flaws in a TV hero character had to be affectionate grace notes, like Jim Rockford’s poor choice of friends or Arnie Becker’s womanizing on “L.A. Law.”
The unwritten rule: Don’t make your central character someone viewers will recoil from. Break the mold and failure looms. The 1980s comedy “Buffalo Bill” on NBC was highly regarded but conventional wisdom was that it lasted only a year because Dabney Coleman’s lead character was such a creep.
It’s possible to even pinpoint the moment that “rule” was wiped off the books. In the fifth episode of “The Sopranos,” Tony accompanies his daughter on a trip to scout out colleges and spies another mobster who was hiding in the witness protection program. Tony strangles him.
“There’s no question Tony Soprano was at the center of ‘The Sopranos,’ ” said David Bianculli, a longtime TV critic who teaches television at New Jersey’s Rowan University. “And there was no question how flawed and sometimes despicable he was. But he also had things people could relate to,” like his tortured relationship with his mother and emotional issues that led him to seek psychiatric help.
Draw a direct line from Tony to the turncoat hero Nicholas Brody on “Homeland,” the serial killer at the center of Showtime’s “Dexter,” the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin in AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Jax Teller and the motorcycle club on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” the spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings on FX’s “The Americans.”
“I don’t think ‘The Shield’ would have happened without ‘The Sopranos,”’ said John Landgraf, the FX network’s president and general manager. He’s not sure a pilot episode with the lead character, Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey, killing another cop would have been green-lighted if it hadn’t been three years after Tony made his debut.
It’s not just psychopaths, either. Don Draper’s morally compromised advertising executive on AMC’s “Mad Men” owes its existence to the television “rule” that Tony Soprano ended. The characters’ flaws earn a pass, even devoted support from viewers, through strong writing and acting.
Notice something else? All of those characters appear on cable, not broadcast programs. “The Sopranos” on HBO led the way, providing the example to other networks that they could change their appeal and identity by investing in quality series that create a buzz.
“Cable networks are no different from broadcast networks,” Bianculli said. “When they see a success, they want to copy it.”
“The Sopranos” in 1999 was the first cable series to earn an Emmy nomination for best television drama, although ABC’s “The Practice” won. In 2003 both “The Sopranos” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under” were nominated, the first time there were multiple cable nominees for best drama. “The Sopranos” broke through and won the Emmy in 2004 and 2007.
Last year five of the six nominees for that award (including the victorious “Homeland”) were cable series. The only broadcast series nominated was PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”
In 13 years, that’s a complete turnaround.
Landgraf was working at NBC back at the beginning (where they were putting a pretty good drama named “The West Wing” on the air) and the success of “The Sopranos” was noted. Broadcasters were envious of the freedom cable networks had to depict sex, language and violence. But it was the authenticity of the characters on cable that made the real difference, he said.
Their audiences shrinking and the stakes higher, the broadcast networks have generally responded by being less willing to take chances.
“Insurgents are always willing to take risks,” Landgraf said. “The incumbents don’t, because they have a fortified castle to protect.”
“The Sopranos” broke ground with its structure, too. New story lines popped up all the time, sometimes dramatic, sometimes banal. Sometimes they were resolved. Sometimes, like an odd trip to the pine barrens, they were forgotten. Sometimes what seems to be important turns out to be random and withers away. Like in life itself.
That gave the show’s finale all of its power. Tony’s family gathers for a family dinner, bonding over onion rings. All of the show’s unresolved story lines provided the backdrop. The timing — the show’s last supper — offered an edge-of-your-seat tension. Will there be one grand climax? How many questions will be answered? Will Tony pay for his sins by being blown away?
Nah. Nothing much happened. Kind of like most nights for most people, really.
Ever since that ending there have been periodic reports or hopes that the cast of “The Sopranos” would gather again for a feature film. That dream ended Wednesday night in Rome, just like the shooting death of John Lennon ended the idea of a Beatles reunion. That’s not to diminish the work of all of the other actors in “The Sopranos” cast, just like we didn’t diminish the contributions of Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr.
It’s just that without Tony, without James Gandolfini, what’s the point?