It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since the Sopranos first hit our screens. The series was a game changer in more ways than the obvious. It redefined our expectations for television, transforming it from ‘chewing gum for the eyes’ to a high art form. It’s no coincidence that it was on HBO rather than a major broadcast network; it wasn’t television, it was something else. The likes of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Mad Men would not be around without the Sopranos.

On the creative side of things, the Sopranos gave us the flawed anti-hero, Tony. While James Gandolfini’s character is inimitable, the idea of a bad guy protagonist on television was revolutionary, leading to a more varied spectrum to drawn upon today. Of course, it’s not as if the idea of putting the mafia on screen was revolutionary, and the Sopranos clearly draws upon Goodfellas a lot. Get this for a stat: 27 actors appeared in both the Sopranos and Scorsese’s Goodfellas.    

Falco deserves praise

A note, though, on how women are portrayed in the Sopranos. There was, of course, some sexism in the show as it pertained to this world of machismo.  But away from the Bada Bing strip club, the female characters have depth and strength. The brilliant Edie Falco is a huge presence in the show, which landed her three Emmys and two Golden Globes, there are also standout performances from Lorraine Bracco, Aida Turturro and Dre DeMatteo. The latter as Adriana is – despite an Emmy win – still one of the most underrated performances in recent television history.

Today, the series is still a huge draw. You won’t get it on streaming services like Netflix, and the boxsets cost a pretty penny on Amazon, but Sky Atlantic still runs the series regularly. It’s not quite the ‘merch-monster’ of Star Wars or Game of Thrones: The video game, The Sopranos: Road to Respect (2006) was a bit of a flop, but the Sopranos online slot machine is very popular with casino players. Intriguingly, the series isn’t that quotable, certainly in terms of one-liners, but there is a feel to the characters that is remembered: It’s not what they said in the Sopranos, it’s how they said it. 

Gandolfini made for the role

Obviously, the shows heart lies with Gandolfini’s performance. The masterstroke is not the portrayal of his fragility, but the fact that it is both the domestic issues – Tony’s mother, kids, wife – that impact as much as the ‘business’. Tony’s problems with his family are given as much weight as his problems with his other ‘family’. And, that means we, the viewer, can identify with him much more than a two-dimensional mob boss on screen. Most of us (you would hope) can’t relate to being the target of a mob hit, but the themes of a sister or uncle being a jerk are universal. Tony’s problems are like yours, but he just happens to be a mob boss. Not the other way around.

Humour, dark humour, also plays a role in the show, much of it fueled by Tony’s sense of exasperation with other characters and the world around him. Above all though, the Sopranos was brave enough not to get shmaltzy with its characters. There is heart in the show, yes, but not everyone is redeemed Hollywood style. The ending is still discussed today, and its fair share of critics. But, like the show, it was bold and different. A masterpiece that we will be talking about 20 years from now.