It’s been over two years, now, since The Sopranos ended its run on television with one of the most cryptic endings in television history, leading to weeks of debate over whether or not Tony was dead, who killed him, and why Meadow was such a bad parallel parker.
For many people, that ending is the most iconic image from the show; for some, it may be the only thing they remember of the show’s cultural impact. Unfortunately, that black screen is blocking a very rich history.
It’s easy to forget, but when The Sopranos premiered in 1999, it instantly became the best television drama of all-time (granted, this wasn’t as difficult of a crown to earn back then, since The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, etc. had all yet to air). It also resonated culturally in a way other great shows rarely do; it was almost instantly beloved by critics and viewers alike, at least partially because HBO allowed them to show violence, profanity and nudity.
Looking back on the first season of the show, it’s odd to think how “edgy” a lot of it was. Aside from cursing and sex, the show features a character who kills someone with his bare hands in the fifth episode (which HBO thought would render Tony unsympathetic to an audience), which now seems tame (this guy doesn’t even wait five scenes). The show uses psychiatry as a key feature of the narrative, which is commonplace now. And the show offers a frank approach to sexuality and drug use, which has become par for the course now as well.
And yet, none of the shows that have pushed the envelope farther has achieved the resonance that The Sopranos had. What made the show great wasn’t shock value— though it had plenty of that— but something much more substantive. Continue reading »