James Gandolfini remembered for setting new standard on 'The Sopranos'
James Gandolfini wasn't a well-known actor when he got the role of Tony Soprano in the HBO drama. But Gandolfini made it his own and the series took flight.
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Notice something else? All of those characters appear on cable, not broadcast programs. "The Sopranos" on HBO led the way, providing the example to other networks that they could change their appeal and identity by investing in quality series that create a buzz.Skip to next paragraph
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"Cable networks are no different from broadcast networks," Bianculli said. "When they see a success, they want to copy it."
"The Sopranos" in 1999 was the first cable series to earn an Emmy nomination for best television drama, although ABC's "The Practice" won. In 2003 both "The Sopranos" and HBO's "Six Feet Under" were nominated, the first time there were multiple cable nominees for best drama. "The Sopranos" broke through and won the Emmy in 2004 and 2007.
Last year five of the six nominees for that award (including the victorious "Homeland") were cable series. The only broadcast series nominated was PBS' "Downton Abbey."
In 13 years, that's a complete turnaround.
Landgraf was working at NBC back at the beginning (where they were putting a pretty good drama named "The West Wing" on the air) and the success of "The Sopranos" was noted. Broadcasters were envious of the freedom cable networks had to depict sex, language and violence. But it was the authenticity of the characters on cable that made the real difference, he said.
Their audiences shrinking and the stakes higher, the broadcast networks have generally responded by being less willing to take chances.
"Insurgents are always willing to take risks," Landgraf said. "The incumbents don't, because they have a fortified castle to protect."
"The Sopranos" broke ground with its structure, too. New story lines popped up all the time, sometimes dramatic, sometimes banal. Sometimes they were resolved. Sometimes, like an odd trip to the pine barrens, they were forgotten. Sometimes what seems to be important turns out to be random and withers away. Like in life itself.
That gave the show's finale all of its power. Tony's family gathers for a family dinner, bonding over onion rings. All of the show's unresolved story lines provided the backdrop. The timing — the show's last supper — offered an edge-of-your-seat tension. Will there be one grand climax? How many questions will be answered? Will Tony pay for his sins by being blown away?
Nah. Nothing much happened. Kind of like most nights for most people, really.
Ever since that ending there have been periodic reports or hopes that the cast of "The Sopranos" would gather again for a feature film. That dream ended Wednesday night in Rome, just like the shooting death of John Lennon ended the idea of a Beatles reunion. That's not to diminish the work of all of the other actors in "The Sopranos" cast, just like we didn't diminish the contributions of Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr.
It's just that without Tony, without James Gandolfini, what's the point?