The new Fall TV Season has started on the broadcast networks, bringing us new dramas like Chuck and Private Practice, a few sit-coms, as well as a slew of reality fare. This comes at the close of a summer in which cable successfully competed with the broadcasters with shows like The Closer and Burn Notice.
It’s only been four months since The Sopranos went off the air. Four months since that ending – which you may consider either deeply satisfying or a huge cheat – echoed around American pop culture. With the curtain rising on the fall broadcast line-up, this is as good a time as any to reflect on what The Sopranos did to the television landscape and to note – exactly – where the bar has been set for quality television.
The Sopranos expanded the artistic expression of the television medium. It achieved high art while also appealing to a wide audience. It showed moments of beauty and grisly ugliness. It utilized high wit and low humor. It wasn’t afraid to swing for the fences, occasionally knocking a foul ball. It dared for greatness in a medium that has over the last 60 years largely aimed for mediocrity. For the past few years, other television shows have been pushing those boundaries as well and I think it’s safe to say that The Sopranos helped make their success possible, showing what television could achieve creatively and financially.
From the moment The Sopranos debuted on HBO in 1999, it made an impact but some network and studio executives may have taken the wrong lessons from the success of the show. It wasn’t the sex and violence that attracted viewers. It was because series creator David Chase was allowed the liberty to write what he wanted. With that freedom, he came up with a fresh twist on the tired Mob genre. And if that’s all he’d done, it would have been enough to make for a good, sometimes great, program. After all, some TV critics have observed that this is a Golden Age of Television, with shows like Lost, The Wire and House (You might include your favorite here – I’ll throw in the late Veronica Mars). But even with the presence of a number of high-quality programs, I’m hard-pressed to think of many shows on television that approached the greatness of The Sopranos. Why? Well, television is almost without exception created by committee and as a show develops, creative decisions have to by run by the studio and the network brass, who have a tendency to file away the sharp edges and complexities until the final product is soft and shapeless.
When I think of what made The Sopranos great, I reach for comparisons to novels. That’s not just because of commercial concerns; novelists are not immune from the cold realities of the marketplace. However, for writers, the work always begins with the blank page. When they pick up the pen or sit in front of the keyboard, they have nothing to answer to but their consciences. They make creative decisions and then have to make it work. Over hundreds of years, novelists have developed many techniques: the unreliable narrator, narrative events told out of sequence, novels that rely more on characters and atmosphere than on plot, and so on.
This willingness to go anywhere and do anything in the course of telling a tale can be found in novels and in The Sopranos, but not in most television programs. The Sopranos told a full, expansive story with a beginning, middle and end – the end the writer wants. The ending of The Sopranos – that magnificent cut to black that lasted for an eternity – didn’t feel the need to bring explicit closure. At the same time, the final episode reflected issues from the very first episode, circles within circles over the course of the season.
What made the show – and its successors – so different? Here’s my list.
Unlikable Characters. There is a belief in the television that the lead characters of a TV series must be likeable (as opposed to thinking that the most important factor is that they be interesting). It used to be that a show might feature a renegade cop who flouted the rules, but ultimately he only went after bad guys who deserved it. Now we have Vic Mackey on The Shield, a straight-out rogue cop. Over the entire course of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano would draw viewers in as he struggled with moral choices. But every time you might be convinced that he was a good guy caught in a difficult situation, he would kill somebody or cheat on his wife again or steal something from an innocent. Tony was a criminal and the show didn’t try to whitewash that fact.
Subtlety. Most television programming hits you over the head with its meaning, if it even has any. The Sopranos wove an elaborate tapestry and left it up to you to pick through the threads and tease the meaning out for yourself. This was done in an impressionistic manner, with short scenes whose meanings weren’t always immediately clear. Like a pointillist painting, you need to stand back from it and connect the dots in your head to get the full image. The true nature of that meaning is up to each visitor, but I saw a complex examination of American life, including politics, commerce, immigration, race, sexism, masculinity, Hollywood, honor, justice, family, and more.
A Big Sprawling Narrative. Most TV shows go on for years, a bunch of stuff happens, and then the show stops. But the landscape explored is pretty self-contained; so you miss a few weeks or months. You can pick up right where you left off an get, with a bit of close attention, the plot details you need. The Sopranos was more ambitious. Big characters, big ideas, big canvas. Remember Tony’s trip to Naples and Carmela’s jaunt to Paris? The story took detours as well, such as the infamous “Pine Barrens” episode with the Russian, which didn’t directly connect up with the larger story, but resonated with the larger themes.
The new shows have come; some will make it and some won’t. There will be next season and then the next. We can only hope that other shows are able to achieve what The Sopranos has done, but first we must first recognize what that greatness is and, possibly just as importantly, how an audience – a large audience – came to love it.