It was only a few months ago, in June, when the news broke that James Gandolfini had passed away while holiday in Italy with his family. The outpouring of grief and accolades directed at Gandolfini’s career were enormous, even though the eulogising of him as an actor seemed somewhat incongruous with the lack of stardom Gandolfini had held during his life.
Gandolini’s career was, after all, not one of a cinematic celebrity. His roles were largely confined to character-types, sitting on the edges of plots and protagonists; his leading man parts kept mostly to the stage where diversity among actors seems to be embraced more than on our screens. So, for most of us, when we really think about Gandolfini as an actor, and as a person who tragically passed away far too soon, we are really thinking about him as the actor behind one role: Tony Soprano.
Only two weeks before his passing, The Sopranos was voted by the Writers Guild of America as the best-written TV show ever screened in the US. And while that is a plaudit afforded primarily to David Chase and the writers he employed to deliver The Sopranos, it is through Gandolfini’s performance across six seasons that we are able to experience the work of the writers.
It’s not easy for me to articulate exactly why I regard The Sopranos not only as my favourite TV show, but also as the best television I’ve ever seen. It has much in common with many highly regarded shows that it’s not immediately discernible what’s so special about a show that, for some, paid too much favourable attention to organised crime and morally culpable characters.
To many, a unifying idea or concept permeates through the fabric of a great TV show. For Six Feet Under, it was about death. True Blood is about excess. The X-Files was about belief. Twin Peaks and dreams. Breaking Bad and control. And there’s The Wire and its titular application to societal disfunction, Mad Men and societal alienation.
For The Sopranos, it was all about family.
This is integral to the way The Sopranos is viewed. To me, it deals with and acknowledges all the aforementioned major themes but through the prism of the family as the central tenet of life. The early seasons of the show were marketed on this basis, almost as a gimmick.
‘Meet Tony Soprano. If one family doesn’t kill him, the other family will.’ (Season 1)
‘Family. Redefined.’ (Season 2)
‘America’s most watched family.’ (Season 3)
While these tag lines largely played off the hook of having Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano trying to manage his own family in 21st century America, as he simultaneously tried to control and rule his other family within the New Jersey mafia, it does strike at the heart of the show. It was always about family, about how so much of our lives are ruled and dictated by this aspect, our responsibility to family, our servitude, our role within a family and our inability to escape it. Tony’s role as boss of New Jersey was predominantly an extended metaphor for his struggles with his own biological family.
I missed the show as it screened on Australian television. All of my viewing was retrospective of the seasons, ingesting each season as freeform storytelling about an extended group of characters. Very few episodes followed a set run time, very few followed any type of formula for episodic television. When I found the show, it was at the stage of life where I was out of home, unsure of any future direction, unsure of what I should be doing with the life I had. As Tony himself says in a brief moment of awakening during his coma in the sixth season:
‘Who am I? Where am I going?’
The show called for introspection. It came along at a time when I needed it. Tony’s regular psychotherapy meetings with Dr Melfi was an occasion for the audience to ask themselves these same questions: who are we? why do we do what we do? where do we come from? what are we going to do with our lives? This show wasn’t just about one aspect of life, it was about it all, about everything that could possibly happen to us, while acknowledging the one constant – wanted or not – of family.
The show explored fathers and son, wives and daughters, brothers and sisters – but all not as mutually exclusive roles but as ones that are fluid and multiplied for many of us. Tony was a father but also a son, and a husband, and a cousin, and – obviously – a godfather. Gandolfini showed us a person trying to improve his own life, as much or as little as he could. He was as sociopathic as Walter White, perhaps even more so, but we get the impression he didn’t want to be. He didn’t choose to be. Change the details around, and this is anybody. We can’t choose our family, but we can try to make the best of it.
This was initially going to be a list of my favourite episodes, but clearly I got derailed. James Gandolfini’s death was shocking and terrible for his family, but it really did clarify just how emphatic his performance as Tony Soprano was, and how enormous The Sopranos was. The show tried to show us life, in all its facets, and rarely strayed into conventional television. Episodes are difficult to isolate, as the plots and strands bleed across many – it’s an impossible challenge to try and watch an episode of The Sopranos on its own, three seems a good minimum to start with.
I won’t list or recommend episodes. My personal favourite is The Second Coming (but so are Funhouse, Pine Barrens, Pie-O-My, Join the Club and Kaisha) but one episode can’t be watched at all without having seen the other eighty-odd. The characters existed in their own reality, struggled to be bound by any type or role that was afforded them, and asked us to question and reflect on our own roles, and our own stories. I have never watched a TV show that has asked me to look at myself so much.