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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel On TV/Radio column

June 21, 2013

YellowBrix

June 21--Did "The Sopranos" really change television?

That's become the conventional wisdom in the days following the death of the show's star, James Gandolfini, of cardiac arrest at the age of 51. But how does the show, which ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007, embody this mighty boast?

The character of Tony Soprano, a mobster with personal problems, was not the first TV anti-hero.

Archie Bunker, the flawed father figure on "All in the Family," personified the nation's battles over race, religion and politics. And in their own way, Lucille Ball, Bill Cosby and Larry Hagman had an impact on TV form and content.

TV is not a static thing. It is a continuum of envelopes being pushed that are rarely pushed back. Being on pay cable allowed "The Sopranos" to portray sex and violence, use language and explore themes that broadcast television couldn't.

And when the networks tried to weigh in, they aped the show's visceral elements rather than creative ones. The key to "The Sopranos'" success was in the dense narratives, complex character studies and serial-style storytelling increasingly familiar today.

Too, it made HBO's bones. It turned a cable channel best known for showing movies into a destination for quality programming.

With streaming services like Netflix waiting in the wings, HBO "would have gone the way of the dodo" if it hadn't evolved, said James South, associate professor of philosophy and department chairman at Marquette University, who has written numerous books on music, TV and movies.

In one fell swoop, he said, "The Sopranos" "saved their bacon. They wouldn't be around today if not for" the show.

Other cable channels followed suit with quality programs about conflicted characters, like AMC's "Mad Men."

"Conventional wisdom was characters had to be conventionally likable in order to watch them every week," said Bruce Fretts, articles editor of TV Guide, which featured the show on its cover seven times and will feature it in a tribute issue next week. "The Sopranos" disproved "traditional TV thinking that you can't have an unsympathetic character as your lead."

Gandolfini's character "did despicable things but was still likable because he was a suburban schlub, trying to hold onto his job, keep his wife in check, deal with his troublesome kids and impossible mother, and everyone could identify with that," said Fretts. "You wouldn't want the character in your house once a week because he might kill somebody, but you were happy to have him as a guest on your TV."

Gandolfini himself was the key to playing such contradictions. He was so associated with the role that both the New York Post and New York Daily News announced on their front pages that Tony Soprano died.

"In retrospect, it seems nobody else could have played the role," said South. "There was something, not just about his physical presence, which was imposing, but also in the intelligence in his eyes and the confusion he could show."

And "despite his lack of traditional handsomeness, he was charismatic, and his power and self-confidence was really attractive to women on the show. He never did not get the object of his desire," said South.

Gandolfini was a character actor at heart, and was content with supporting roles in smaller films after the show ended.

"'The Sopranos' turned him into a star, which he did not seek out or want," said Fretts. "It made him a leading man. What he always wanted to do was character roles. He was much happier when I talked to him" on the set of "Not Fade Away" -- the coming-of-age movie written and directed by "Sopranos" creator David Chase -- "than when I talked to him on the set of 'The Sopranos,' because it was all riding on him. And that wasn't why he became an actor."

Fretts said when they last spoke, Gandolfini was "more relaxed" because he was "under less pressure. So it was ironic he died from a heart attack in a period of life when he was more mellow than when he was in the pressure cooker."

Go to my blog, The Dudek Abides at www.jsonline.com/dudek, to see Gandolfini's top movie roles.

The lasting legacy of "The Sopranos," however, is that it made television interesting again.

"It opened the doors to shows like 'Breaking Bad,' 'The Shield' and 'Dexter,'" said Fretts, and "introduced a great new golden age of TV dramas."

The show also broke the traditional programming structure by presenting its stories as limited-run events on no particular schedule. Fretts said Chase's philosophy was, "'I want the show to be really good, and if takes two years to do that they will wait two years.'"

Today such thinking has become common.

"Larry David does another season of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' whenever the muse strikes him," said Fretts. "That was not allowed before 'The Sopranos.' People will wait for quality television like 'Arrested Development,' which was off the air for seven years" before a new season was produced on Netflix.

"'The Sopranos' revolutionized television in many ways," said Fretts. "And a lot of that had to do with James Gandolfini."

Email: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

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