Each month, I’ll be looking back at some of the most important television shows to hit our screens and examining how they’ve impacted us and the medium. This time we’re heading back to New Jersey to pay The Sopranos a visit.
The Mafia has been a major influence on crime films throughout the years. From The Godfather (1972) to Goodfellas (1990), the Cosa Nostra have been the go-to guys when portraying organised crime on the silver screen. Most of these films were violent and graphic, aimed at an audience of testosterone-fuelled men who love their characters on the wrong side of the law, involved in shoot-outs and cold-blooded murder. However, in 1999, HBO produced a television show that would change all that.
Created by David Chase, The Sopranos took the Mafia world and grounded it in a reality many people could relate to. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the main protagonist, is a high-ranking member of a New Jersey-based criminal family. Dealing with the pitfalls of running an illicit empire was the main theme throughout the show’s six seasons. But what made The Sopranos more interesting and watchable was Tony in his home life.
Along with his loving wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), and two children, teenage daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and her younger brother, Anthony Junior (Robert Iler), Tony lives in a quaint residential area of New Jersey. It becomes very clear from the start that Tony’s real family needs just as much attention as his family in the criminal underworld. This is what gave The Sopranos its originality and, I think, opened up its audience considerably.
Whereas most of us find it hard to relate to someone in the criminal fraternity, one thing we can empathise with, to some degree, is family life. From arguments and fallouts to loving moments, we’ve all experienced ups and downs with our relatives. It gave the show a soap opera quality, with dramatic plots evolving purely from the relationships between characters.
Certain storylines in the show would seem very familiar to viewers of soaps: Tony’s infidelity and marriage separation; dealing with rebellious teenagers and their romantic relationships. But these all become more complex when set against a criminal backdrop.
Most protagonists in crime dramas are self-centred, focused on making the easy buck, not a care in the world for who gets hurt, but giving Tony Soprano a family to care for made him a more rounded character and increased his likability for viewers. Fair enough, Tony’s faithfulness to his wife was, well, non-existent and his parenting was questionable at times, but at his core he was a loving husband and father who just wanted the best for his children. One thing he wanted to ensure was that they never discover his other life.
In the first episode, we meet Tony at a session with psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). We immediately learn he has suffered a panic attack and is seeking medical help for bouts of clinical depression. This simple method of showing a hardened criminal as a vulnerable, desperate man speaks volumes to the audience. It allows us to empathise with a person who, by all means, should be hated because of the life he leads. This again opened the show up to viewers more interested in pure human drama and complex emotions than just murder and conflict.
The Sopranos is a perfect example of taking a particular sub-genre and exploring it from every angle to find a broader audience. Whereas most Mafia films target a male demographic, The Sopranos was able to pull in a strong female viewership.
Next month we head to Baltimore, Maryland, to find out how The Wire re-invented the police drama.