Besides reviving the Journey song "Don't Stop Believin'" to ubiquity, the TV series The Sopranos' main claim to fame was making the show's protagonist a villain.
Every critically acclaimed hourlong drama on the air right now follows The Sopranos template, from Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Boardwalk Empire to Game of Thrones. They're murderers, philanderers, liars, and still we root for them week after week. It drove the creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, mad that the worse Tony Soprano behaved, the more the audience loved him. But the love affair was Chase's fault. After all, he cast James Gandolfini to play Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini, who died yesterday at age 51 while vacationing in Rome, was on his way to being one of those great character actors whose name you never knew. He was a hitman who ruined Brad Pitt's high in True Romance and a bearded stuntman and enforcer in Get Shorty, but then in 1999 came the HBO series he's best known for.
The Sopranos followed the life of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mobster who suffered debilitating anxiety attacks that forced him to see a therapist. When the show aired, there was fear audiences would confuse The Sopranos with the similarly plotted Billy Crystal/Robert DeNiro slapstick comedy Analyze This. But the TV show was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Part Carl Jung, part Martin Scorcese, it explored the complex minds of a sociopath with the twists and turns of a soap opera. That first 13-episode season stands up there with Goodfellas and The Godfather movies as the Holy Trinity of Organized Crime Entertainment, and it wouldn't have worked without the nuanced performance of Gandolfini.
There had never been such a conflicted personality as a hero: a criminal mastermind, a New Jersey knucklehead, a brute who could choke a man with his bare hands and take his daughter on a tour of colleges all in the same episode. When Gandolfini entered a scene, your eyes simply could not leave this most unlikely sex symbol, no matter how many naked strippers at the Bada Bing might have shared the screen with him.
Tony Soprano in Gandolfini's hands was the antithesis of the flawed hero; he was the lovable villain. Every antihero to grace the small screen since then has been influenced by Gandolfini, from Bryan Cranston as Breaking Bad's Walter White to Michael Chiklis as The Shield's Vic Mackey.
As the seasons wore on, The Sopranos grew repetitive. There was less psychology and more of a focus on how Tony was going to deal with whoever betrayed him this season, but still mostly because of Gandolfini's likability, the show remained captivating right down to that series' controversial final scene. Tony walks into a diner. He picks a booth and plays a song on the jukebox. Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." He's waiting for his family, but he's also watching his back for his enemies. Every time the door to the restaurant opened, he looked nervously. It could be someone he loved or someone who wanted him dead.
The door swings open one last time, Tony looks, the screen fades to black and the sound to mute. People called their cable companies to complain that their cable went out. It was confusing. It was unfulfilling. It was abrupt. And now, with the news of James Gandolfini's death, life imitates art.
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