Sopranos, The – TV Series


A Gangster Epic You Can’t Refuse

Year(s): 1999 – 2007

Network: HBO

Creator: David Chase

Main Cast: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Steven van Zandt

Summary: A mobster deals with the challenges of the Family … and his family.

A rock star sideman, some petty criminals who had since grown straight and a handful of character actors melded together in 1999 to create The Sopranos. Given free rein by HBO, creator David Chase mixed brutal violence, introspection, sex and fantasy sequences to blast television audiences with the story of New Jersey’s fictional Soprano family.

Wise guys, great ratings: The birth of a mobster drama

As 2000 approached, gangster films, especially the Mafia variety, remained audience favorites. From the early days of Elliot Ness’ Untouchables in 1959 through The Godfather a decade later and Scarface and Goodfellas in following years, Americans were fascinated by movies about La Cosa Nostra.

Modern film’s top talents tackled la famiglia, which on the silver screen was led by Brando, Pacino, De Niro and other swarthy-looking virile men. The actors weren’t limited to Italians, as Cuban-born Andy Garcia won roles in The Godfather III and Brian DePalma’s Untouchables. DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese were among the directors who made movies about the Mob, and A-listers such as Oliver Stone and David Mamet provided their screenplays.

Audiences quickly responded to The Sopranos. As positive word of mouth grew, Chase and producer Brad Grey, whose previous success had been helming comedian Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, became Hollywood heavyweights. A word from Chase would cause HBO to shuffle its lineup. Grey, meanwhile, rode the production waves to become CEO of Paramount Pictures in 2006.

And The Sopranos, with its ensemble cast revolving around Gandolfini, Falco, Bracco and Van Zandt, received critical accolades and phenomenal ratings for any series, much less one carried on premium cable.

The Sopranos stays true to its gritty “What Exit Are You From?” New Jersey roots. Wise guys don’t shoot people while carrying machine guns down the street. They are liable instead to smash someone in the mouth with a bottle or shoot someone in the back. While The Untouchables romanticized the Mafia, The Godfather and Goodfellas gave Americans a glimpse into how an organization would actually run, and The Sopranos showed that the nice man living down the suburban street actually ordered people killed and was a psychological mess.

A family act

In any given year, The Sopranos, its actors and crew win multiple Emmy Awards and are nominated for even more. The breakthrough win finally happened at the 2005 Emmy Awards when the series won the award for Best Drama despite limited access to the show for much of the public and a bizarre casting schedule. Meanwhile, the cast and writers continue to pile up awards.

Gandolfini has been nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series five times, winning twice. Falco, whose role grew meatier as the series aged, was nominated every year as well and has won three times despite competition from Brooklyn-born Bracco, who was nominated in the same category three of those years and could have easily split the Sopranos vote.

2005 was an especially sweet year for The Sopranos, although some critics were less happy with the show’s timing and storylines. Michael Imperioli and Drea de Matteo both won Emmys for their roles as Christopher and Adrianna, in a story arc that lasted through most of the series and ended when Christopher learned Adrianna was providing information to the FBI. (Spoiler alert: Adrianna is subsequently killed in the woods by capo Sil Dante, who is played remarkably out of character by rock guitarist Steven Van Zandt.)

The Sopranos is famous for who it won’t let on the show as it stays true to its roots. Favorite New Jersey son Bruce Springsteen was rejected as being too famous despite his longtime collaboration with Van Zandt. Even rocker Jon Bon Jovi, who has long sought an acting career, was rejected as being “too pretty” and “typecast”. Viewers did see former ER vixen Julianna Margulies, critically respected actor/director Steve Buscemi, Robert Loggia and former Four Seasons lead singer Frankie Valli all appearing in recurring roles.

Exiting, stage left

Rumors of a movie based on The Sopranos universe remain in the talking phase. The notoriously meticulous Chase would be forced to develop character and story arcs in a fraction of the time he typically uses, and the show’s appearance on HBO has given him freedom to show things not seen on standard broadcast television.

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