Killer series closes out age of Mob rule

While the television world slept in the winter of 1999, “The Sopranos” woke up one morning and got itself a gun.

Creatively, “The Sopranos” shot to No. 1 with a bullet. Eight years later, as the series heads into its final nine episodes (beginning Sunday), its cold-blooded impact on the industry is still a marvel to those who remember life before Tony Soprano and his crew.

“The first season of ‘The Sopranos’ is one of the most essential, transformative moments in TV history,” Newsweek television critic Devin Gordon says. “It’s arguably the best season of television that’s ever aired, but beyond that, it challenged every artist, every viewer and every fan of culture to reconsider some long-held notions about the medium of television: that it was cheap and disposable, that it could be quality at its best but never art.”

Paramount CEO Brad Grey, one of the show’s original executive producers, further believes “The Sopranos” actually altered the business of television (not to mention practically inventing DVD sales for existing dramas).

“The expectations on pay cable at the time (it premiered) could only be low, certainly in terms of the financial remunerations involved for the show,” he says. “Really, in terms of pay, no one had succeeded in figuring out a way to enjoy a meaningful backend.

“It became clear that not only could you create television that was uncensored in any number of ways and allowed you to create freely, but you could also make a great deal of money, which is the first time that had happened on pay television.”

Adds Gordon: “Network TV was scandalized by ‘The Sopranos’ at first … but it quickly realized this was the future. Cable networks like FX and Showtime should thank ‘The Sopranos’ for their very existence. And the networks should thank ‘The Sopranos’ for saving their butts from the creative doldrums of reality television and pointing out to them what their smarter viewers so desperately wanted.”

While personally satisfied with the show, “Sopranos” creator David Chase hardly had such lofty ambitions when the project began. At most, he dreamed of a cult following.

“I didn’t feel it would be successful,” Chase recalls. “I thought the mob idea was played out for a lot of people. And a show that broke a lot of rules would not be a big ratings grabber.

“The only overarching plan that I had was to make it really entertaining, first and foremost, and what that meant was there would be action, there would be suspense, there would be comedy, there would be some sadness translated as family feelings and love, and there would be great rock ‘n’ roll music along with it.”

Even series star James Gandolfini (Tony) offers that in some ways, the show wasn’t as pioneering as some suggest.

“Maybe Archie Bunker was groundbreaking,” Gandolfini reflects. “I don’t know if we were necessarily groundbreaking. I think we talked about a lot of issues, and HBO was kind enough to let us go to a really dark place.

“It’s good writing, you know?”

Though the show’s talent can afford to be modest about “The Sopranos,” the strongest testament to its legacy may be that such a once-shocking program no longer seems so shocking. Several descendants in tone, style and subject matter — “in its lack of obligation to tie things up nicely,” as co-star Edie Falco (Carmela) remarks — now populate the airwaves.

And while shows such as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” opened the TV door to grit and verisimilitude, few would argue that any series made the depths of humanity as accessible or rewarding as “The Sopranos.”

“I think it’s had enormous influence just in terms of television in general, when you see where the networks are leaning in terms of hour drama now,” Grey says. “You see hour dramas pushing the envelope in every way.”

Controversy occasionally dogged the series, from its unsettling violence to its depiction of Italian-Americans. In February, the latter propelled a New Jersey mayor’s attempt to deny “The Sopranos” permission to shoot its final scene in his town. Dr. A. Kenneth Ciongoli, chairman of the National Italian American Foundation, says the problem with “The Sopranos” is that, in the absence of more positive depictions of Italian-Americans in popular culture, “They take what I call the urban sclerosis of America, the sickness that pervades this country in terms of dysfunctional families, in terms of haphazard crime and cavalier morality, and they impose it upon the Italian-American.”

However, the fairly muted groundswell of support for those kinds of criticisms seemed to indicate that people saw the characters of “The Sopranos” as individuals, not as emblems — individuals whose oft-misbegotten lives remained thoroughly engrossing.

In the end, that’s about all that Chase, the creator of the most important series of the past decade(s), was going for.

“When I heard that people were having parties with pizza and wine and pasta and getting together Sunday nights, that was really very personally satisfying,” he says.

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