Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon

The meaning of 'The Sopranos,' 20 years after its debut

Series star James Gandolfini, left, and creator David

Series star James Gandolfini, left, and creator David Chase.  Credit: Getty Images

1999 arrived somewhere on the planet bright and clear. Everywhere else — here, for instance — felt dark and gloomy. Impeachment hearings had gridlocked Washington. Something called a "Y2K bug" threatened to smite our fast-growing digital addiction. 2000 loomed ahead like an iceberg. Doomsday was nigh, and a classic 1982 song ("1999") suddenly felt prophetic:

"Woke up this mornin', coulda sworn it was judgment day..."

Coincidentally, or not, that line echoed the first spoken (and sung) line of a new series launching Jan. 10 on HBO: "Woke up this mornin', got myself a gun..."

That series needs no introduction, just context, because 20 years later that context has largely been forgotten. Awash, nearly drowning, in TV, we now look back at "The Sopranos" as the lonely sentinel that birthed our golden age. Wrong: There was lots of good TV then (and "Seinfeld" had ended just eight months earlier). We think of Tony (James Gandolfini) as culture's first anti-hero. Wrong again: There had been many.

 "The Sopranos" was in fact culture's first anti-TV show — emphatically more so than "Twin Peaks" (1990) which had almost seemed to stumble into the medium by accident. Creator and TV veteran David Chase hated TV, with its conventions and tropes abetted by the willful stupidity of those who ran it. Fox and CBS passed on the pilot because (after all) who ever heard of a mobster swimming with ducks? His lodestars in no particular order were Fellini, French New Wave, "Goodfellas" and hometown North Caldwell, New Jersey. TV had never really had such lodestars before. TV was largely about reassurance and meeting expectations, preferably after the last commercial break. Chase would subvert all expectations, at launch and eight years later. We couldn't say we hadn't been warned.

More context: Gandolfini was a virtual unknown in 1999. That would change — electrifying so — when he slumped like dead-weight into a chair across from Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).

"I dunno," he muttered. "The morning I got sick I'd been thinking it's good to be in something from the ground floor. I know: I came too late for that but lately been getting the feeling that I came in at the end, the best is over."

Melfi: "Many Americans feel that way..."

There was instantly a whole series in those lines, a hook too: A mobster, this mobster, feeling like "many Americans?" Do tell us more.

Edie Falco — Carmela — had a solid Broadway career ("Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune") and a little TV ("Oz") by the time she got here. But with Gandolfini, she was magic, and "The Sopranos" was all about magic too

There was also something both degrading and ennobling about this anti-TV series, also something beautiful and repulsive. By keeping us off-balance Chase kept us focused. The year 1999 — the ennui, the gloom, the end times, even the Prince lyrics — was in its bones. "The Sopranos" taught us how to watch TV all over again. It taught us how to approach TV as art as opposed to commerce, and how to see our culture — and ourselves — through its glass darkly.

Twenty years later, we remain — as always and forever — indebted.

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