Considering the greatest television show of all time.
There’s been some controversy this week over the finale of a certain critically acclaimed show. Many people thought the ending marred the otherwise impeccable artistic integrity of the whole, that it was a rare misstep from the creator and the show’s writers. Others maintain that regardless, this series was the best to ever air.
No, no, no, I don’t mean Mad Men, which ended this week (though twice as many people watched a rerun of I Love Lucy while its finale aired).
Nope. I’m talking about the true Greatest Show of All Time — The Sopranos (the ending of which, even though it aired in 2007, still manages to generate controversy on the reg).
First let’s get something out of the way: To name “THE GREATEST TV SHOW OF ALL TIME” is silly.
But it can be entertaining, especially since (as it’s become a cliché to say) television has surpassed film in both quality and depth. So let’s play! (Spoiler alert: The Sopranos is The Greatest TV Show of All Time.)
I know that many would disagree with this choice, some vehemently so. Besides Mad Men (full disclosure: I stopped watching that tripe many seasons ago, though I’m fully up-to-speed thanks to Clickhole’s comprehensive “Oral History of Mad Men”), I can imagine plenty of other plausible nominations rolling in: The Wire (I’d peg this at #2 personally). Breaking Bad. The Simpsons. Seinfeld. Cheers. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The West Wing. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Louie. Arrested Development. Saturday Night Live. Sesame Street (OK that’s a weird one, but think of all the good it’s done — plus, Jim Henson). Mr. Show. The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.
The disparity between all of those choices points to the futility of this whole thing. A couple of them could certainly make strong claims for top billing — for my money, especially The Wire, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld. But what I saw of Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner, who clearly learned a thing or two working as a writer for…you guessed it, The Sopranos) seemed like one long, hollow, superficially attractive, sentimental period-piece-slash-soap-opera, where the characters served as backdrops to the real story and star, which was not “Don Draper” but rather an idealized version of the 1960s. Meanwhile another frequently nominated contender, Breaking Bad, was burdened with serious flaws, even though it was wildly captivating and reached some stupendous heights.
No. It’s The Sopranos that is the grandest achievement. It combined the strengths of shows like Breaking Bad — strong story, strong characters, strong character development, unbelievably strong performances (more on that later) — with the main achievement of The Wire: namely, creating a staggeringly complex and wide-ranging universe in which the story could unfold and reverberate, with connections and putatively minor instances resurfacing with surprising significance even after multiple seasons.
Yet unlike The Wire, The Sopranos unfolded inexorably, painfully toward a seemingly preordained conclusion, one that the audience anticipated all along yet was (wisely, I think) denied seeing explicitly, though all the clues are there (no matter what goadingly revisionist trolling its creator, the brilliant David Chase, is serving up this week). Chase knew the trajectory of the story from the very beginning and consistently adhered to it, always deferring to its own internal logic, whereas Breaking Bad seemed to meander a bit before regaining its footing, Mad Men seemed to never not meander, and The Wire (to its great credit, honestly) used some sort of jujitsu to turn meandering into a major strength.
The Wire’s aim was to hue as close to reality as possible, meaning that it was more about slowly revealing the maddening, haphazard truth of a modern American city’s inner workings than following any linear path — in other words, its artistic aspirations practically required meandering. This very diffusing of the show’s action and focus is simultaneously what makes The Wire so impressive and innovative, yet just a tick less satisfying, since it therefore lacks a true center over its five seasons. (Devil’s advocate: I suppose some would argue that what I call a drawback is its strongest feature, but I think it also explains why a surprising number of people — Philistines, all! — find The Wire to be inaccessible.)
But all that is beside the point. Knowing — again — that this is admittedly futile and foolish, here are two major reasons why The Sopranos is supreme.
The Show That Launched a Thousand Shows
Being the first television series to attempt such scope and grandeur is not a sufficient condition for excellence (let alone supremacy), but nor is it a trivial one. It is not an understatement to say that without The Sopranos it is unlikely that later dramatic series, extravagantly produced and aired by cable networks, could come to pass when and how they did.
The Sopranos set numerous precedents — being awarded a gigantic budget; telling a serious, novelistic story over many years and involving a dizzying number of crucial, developed characters; making an earnest (and largely successful) attempt at verisimilitude; granting one show-runner unheard-of power and control. There really was nothing like it before. You could liken the situation to Nirvana and other underground grunge acts suddenly clearing the charts of arena-rock dinosaurs and big-haired inauthenticity. Or perhaps a better comparison would be Pulp Fiction, also a true revelation in its time. More than its dazzling dialogue, its extreme and unorthodox violence, or the general cloud of seediness hanging about throughout, Quentin Tarantino’s main breakthrough was realizing that a film could be told in a non-linear way: he has described it as a real epiphany, understanding at once that if literary fiction could get away with jumping around in time to great effect, why couldn’t a movie (and not just in those standard trite flashback-and-forths)?
The Pulp Fiction comparison seems fitting for another reason. For someone seeing it for the first time today in 2015, it might seem relatively unremarkable. But that is only because it so heavily influenced everything that came after it, and not just in its many direct copycats, either. This is always the case with artistic breakthroughs. No one can hear Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band again as it sounded in June 1967, just as no one will gaze up at the Sistine Chapel and be affected in the same way as its first audience. The goalposts shift, and we become acclimated to what was once earthshattering. This is true for TV shows and movies just as with other art forms. The Sopranos, like Pulp Fiction before it, caused a tremendous shift in the television landscape and in perceptions of what could be accomplished in that medium. Make no mistake, we are still very much reaping the benefits of David Chase’s visionary approach — and HBO’s daring acquiescence to and accommodation (and bankrolling!) of that vision.
The Sopranos blazed new trails in some other significant ways. I’ve already mentioned that the creator of Mad Men was a writer for The Sopranos. But there are other fascinating developments that The Sopranos made possible.
For example, my (and many others’) favorite character on The Wire, Omar Little, was played exquisitely by Michael K. Williams — who actually appeared in a couple episodes of The Sopranos, and would later go on to play a major role in another huge HBO series, Boardwalk Empire — which starred Steve Buscemi, who played a major character on The Sopranos and also directed four of its episodes (including fan favorite “Pine Barrens”). Fans of the Netflix show Daredevil might recall Vondie Curtis-Hall from his small role in The Sopranos. And much as the show acted as a springboard, it also brought out some familiar faces (e.g., the great Burt Young played a notorious though ailing hitman, a far cry from his role as Paulie in Rocky).
Because the universe David Chase created extends so far and wide, it’s only natural that some of its actors would later go on to play in other hit series. But casting a lot of people isn’t enough. The reason we see actors who had appeared on The Sopranos go on to further quality work is because they were on the best television show of all time, which was the best television show of all time in large part because of their excellence. Which brings us to the point.
Performances of a Lifetime
The Sopranos is the brainchild of David Chase. He exerted full control over every facet of the story and production. Virtually anything he wanted, he got — right down to which song to use at the end of each episode (another innovation picked up by future great shows). And because ultimately Chase carefully chose the cast and deployed them as he wished, it does not detract from his staggering achievement to say that The Sopranos is the greatest television show of all time because of its actors.
You probably know where this is headed, but let’s slow up a bit. I mentioned the complex universe Chase created, which lends that verisimilitude to the show — we get to know people in all walks of life, in smaller and greater concentric circles, and somehow they always feel real — but it’s the core group of actors that command so much respect. And unlike other shows, the list of characters who can be deemed major is really something else.
Chase and his casting directors knew what they were doing. The result is that the show is frankly inconceivable without any of these actors’ contributions:
Joe Ventimiglia as the hapless Artie Bucco, always in the shadow of Tony and his ilk, always equally drawn to and resentful of their charisma and power. Joe Pantoliano as the wild-eyed, unhinged, incomparably creepy Ralph Cifaretto. Tony Sirico as the equal-parts menacing and needy, slightly comical, and capriciously short-fused Paulie Walnuts (Sirico had been an extra in The Godfather Part II and also played a role in Goodfellas). Drea de Matteo as the beautiful, pitiful, stunted Adriana. Steve Schirripa as Bobby Baccalieri, who we watch miraculously transform over the course of the series as the character assumes greater responsibilities (and their attendant compromises and tragedies). Vincent Pastore, as Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (his character got the name from his cat burglar days), who captured the inner turmoil, vulnerability, and dangerousness of a cornered man. (Pastore also played bit parts in Goodfellas and Carlito’s Way). Aida Turturro was a force of nature as Janice Soprano, Tony Soprano’s sister — the perfect complement to Nancy Marchand’s sadistic matriarch in Livia Soprano. Vincent Curatola as Johnny Sack depicted the corruption of power and greed, and the costs of corruption. Dominic Chianese, as Uncle Junior, likewise charted a double tragedy — the loss of his power, respect, and pride, and then ultimately the loss of his mental faculties. Frank Vincent (who had previously played in Scorecese’s Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino) always filled up the screen as Phil Leotardo, consistently ushering in an unsettling, unpredictable tension. Jerry Adler’s Hesh Rabkin brought depth to the show by giving the audience glimpses of his outsider’s perspective. (Adler also appeared on other TV classics including Mad About You, Northern Exposure, The West Wing, and the underrated drama Rescue Me.)
We are not even at the true stars yet, and already the depth of this cast has surpassed shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men (though The Wire could still hold its own in comparison — so far).
But then we have the core players. Steve Buscemi as Tony Blundetto, emerging from prison awkwardly (nobody does awkward like Buscemi — the best guitar player in the world!) but quickly being destroyed by the world he’s thrust into. Lorraine Bracco (another Goodfellas alumnus — it is not a coincidence) was brilliant as Tony Soprano’s conflicted, ambivalent psychiatrist. Edie Falco (who had previously been on Oz, and later went on to star in Showtime’s acclaimed series Nurse Jackie) completely transformed herself into Carmela Soprano, the quintessential suburban mobster’s wife. And Steven Van Zandt, he of E Street Band glory, metamorphosed into Silvio Dante, one of the show’s strongest roles — unwavering consigliere, ruthless capo, and time and time again a skilled diplomat.
But really The Sopranos was carried on two actors’ shoulders, one being the relatively unsung Michael Imperioli, who so utterly personified the ambitious, traumatized, vulnerable, sociopathic Christopher Moltisanti that it is difficult to imagine him in any other role (until you see him, that is — he played Spider in Goodfellas, and had roles in many other excellent films including Malcom X and The Basketball Diaries — and even voiced a bit role in one episode of The Simpsons). How consistently brilliant Imperioli is throughout the series is really something to behold, and there are moments when he simply steals the show.
Which is no easy feat when you come to the real reason behind the magnificence of The Sopranos…
The Greatest Dramatic Performance of All Time?
Ray Liotta — another Goodfellas star, naturally — was offered the role of Tony Soprano. Obviously, he turned it down. Meanwhile, a largely unknown actor named James Gandolfini auditioned for the part. In interviews he recounted how incredibly nervous he was, and how never in a million years did he think he would be given a chance at the role. But he was given the chance, and he didn’t squander it. Everything changed for him, and for television.
If you were a fan of The Sopranos but have your doubts about its merit — particularly about that ambiguous ending — I sincerely recommend reading this meticulous breakdown of the final scenes, wonderfully written by an anonymous author and praised everywhere from The New York Times to The Daily Dot. Even if you’re just interested in filmmaking in general, it is a rewarding read. Its interpretation of the ending, shot by careful shot, seems definitive. I wasn’t troubled by the finale as many others were, but because of this extensive analysis I’ll never think of the ending — or the whole series, or David Chase, or Gandolfini — in the same way again.
I mention that essay here because the unnamed writer of that piece updated his post with a nice tribute to Gandolfini upon the actor’s passing in 2013, a tribute that I agree with and that could scarcely be improved:
“James Gandolfini died today at the too young age of 51. His performance as Tony Soprano for 86 episodes is a masterwork and right at the top of our greatest performances of all time — in any medium. The Sopranos would not have been what it was, perhaps the greatest work of art in film history, a show that meant so much to so many, without his towering performance. Below [NB: he links to this clip, which contains very strong language] is a scene from the final few episodes that is a favorite of mine and shows the great humanity he brought to the role. Rest in peace sir, and thank you.”
“Great humanity.” That is precisely right — and he somehow simultaneously pulled off monumental inhumanity too.
Maybe The Sopranos would have been successful without James Gandolfini. Perhaps Ray Liotta or some other actor would have given his own impressive interpretation of this furious and furiously complicated sociopathic family man. Maybe some other actor could have played Tony Soprano — make no mistake, an abhorrent monster — and convince millions to actually root for his success in depredation after depredation. Once you’ve seen his performance though, it’s hard to think how it could ever have been any other way.
The other great asset of The Sopranos — and this could be said of The Wire as well — was that it had a point of view, an overarching philosophy. It’s best summed up in a scene where Hesh tells Tony, “Your uncle resents that you’re the boss.” To which the ever-unfazed Silvio shrugs and says, matter-of-factly, “Sadness accrues.” This exchange occurs in the very first episode. It would be hard to come up with a better tagline for the series, throughout which nothing accrues quite like sadness, except maybe pain and violence and soul-killing turpitude — and always so disturbingly nonchalantly.
A final note. The filming of Breaking Bad — five seasons for a total of 62 episodes — required the work of 408 actors (6.6 per episode). The Wire (five seasons, 60 episodes), 729 actors (12.1 per episode). And The Sopranos (six seasons, 86 episodes)? 1,627 actors (or 18.9 per episode).
Truth be told, those numbers don’t inherently mean anything. Storytelling is not a numbers game. But critics praise the remarkably rich world depicted in The Wire, its depth and humanity and honesty and truth, and they are right to do so. But even that show’s immensely detailed tapestry pales in comparison with the sprawling, ricocheting, recursive world David Chase unleashed upon us in 1999, the one that, if you watch attentively, continues to ripple across our screens today.
Anyway, The Wire could have added a thousand and one more characters, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It didn’t have James Gandolfini.
Posted on May 20, 2015