Tony Soprano giveth, James Gandolfini taketh away
What TV would look like without Tony Soprano?
The premature death of James Gandolfini, best known for playing Tony Soprano, has been met with sadness across the board. People you didn’t think would’ve liked The Sopranos were sympathetically expressing RIP, actors who play polar opposite roles were citing their admiration and a strong feeling of loss was felt well beyond the usual corners of TV.
Nirvana changed music forever with the introduction of Grunge, Tiger Woods changed golf by making the most dull of all sports sexy and Tony Soprano changed the scope of television in ways past writers wouldn’t have dreamed of. So why did he have such an impact? And how did he do it with a murderous, abusive and adulterous character? What would TV look like if Gandolfini had rubbed the producers up the wrong way in audition?
What’s the appeal?
Why do we want to share a beer with a Meth manufacturer in the form of Breaking Bad’s Walter White? Why do we root for serial killer Dexter Morgan in Dexter? And why does the shameful behaviour of Don Draper in Mad Men have millions of men reaching for the brylcream and wishing short brimmed hats would come back into fashion?
Thank Tony Soprano. For the first time viewers could explore a character whose actions polarised the feeling that boiled underneath. He was depressed but hid behind a self-imposed mask of control and happiness. He murdered people and cheated on his wife but the sadness in his eyes made us question if he felt guilty or not. We empathized with him when anyone who’d read the script would’ve thought it impossible.
What Tony Soprano changed was the way in which we relate to a TV character and how he made the unforgiving capable of forgiveness. In films, you don’t look at Brad Pitt in two hours and think you share experiences and emotions in common. You don’t sympathize with Tom Cruise in the midst of a typical Cruise-against-the-world action film. And before The Sopranos, few TV dramas achieved this as well. Tony Soprano opened the door for the small screen.
Most of us can’t relate to murder, illicit activity or adultery. Yet when he cried to Dr. Melfi about his dark struggles with depression; his overwhelming feelings of guilt and even the scene in which he shoots fellow crew member, Pussy, on his boat – simultaneously displaying emotions of anger, guilt, depression and regret in just one facial expression – we felt a deep sense of friendship with him, as if he were sat opposite us at a support group.
When it came to adultery, he changed the spectrum of infidelity. Take Don Draper, the exhaustingly adulterous lead character in Mad Men. When Don cheats on his wives and girlfriends, the pitiful act is suggestive of an alarming insecurity that directly contrasts with the notion that he simply can’t resist a different female every now and again. Tony Soprano set this precedent; he fooled around with a one-legged Russian woman, makes advances on his nephews fiancé and strings together a series of affairs over the course of six seasons. Yet none of them make him happy or were the simple product of his sex drive.
His moral compass became our moral compass. Any decision he made, we felt like we made it with him. Just one look into his eyes gave us a deep feeling of empathy, like a loveable dog abused by their owner. As a disciple of The Sopranos it has been hugely refreshing to know just how appreciated he was. Best Television actor of all time? I can’t find a counter argument.