Saturday, June 22, 2013

James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

On January 10, 1999, the Minnesota Vikings beat the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 behind another strong performance to Randall Cunningham to roar into the NFC Title game, which they would host the next week.  Given that their opponent was to be the usually-hapless Atlanta Falcons, I was pretty certain Minnesota was going to the Super Bowl.  And that's about all I can remember from that day.  I didn't subscribe to HBO back then, so I know I didn't watch the first episode of The Sopranos, which aired that night.

But that would change.  Within just a few years, I wouldn't think of missing the first episode of a season involving The Sopranos.  Months before each season began, speculation would start in magazines and message boards.  And by the time the familiar theme music started to play, anticipation among Sopranos fans reached a fever pitch.

Of course, we were never all that numerous.  At the height of its fame, in late 2002, The Sopranos averaged about 11 million viewers per episode.  To put that in perspective, NCIS came on the air in 2003, and its lowest-rated season averaged 11.84 million viewers per episode.  (Last year, NCIS was the number-one show on television, with over 21 million viewers per episode.)

These numbers are important, I think, when we realize what The Sopranos did to the world of television.  For years, we've all been told the story of how The Sopranos ended up on HBO because all of the networks turned it down.  But the network executives were not necessarily wrong.  The networks are designed to appeal to a broad audience -- in that sense, they are literally broadcasters.  The Sopranos, with its artsy experimentation, its extraordinary levels of violence, and its moral ambiguity, probably never could have been sufficiently popular to air on network television.

Instead, The Sopranos represented the dawn of an era in which television would follow the rest of American culture, in which the divisions among Americans become more obvious with every decade.  When I was a kid, the United States was dominated by a broad middle class that shopped at Sears and Penney's, and got its entertainment from the major networks.  Over time, that class has shrunk, and we Americans have divided ourselves in different ways.  We have niche magazines, niche restaurants, niche books, and niche shopping.

Television came relatively late to this party.  By the late 1990's, it was obvious that the booming stock market and the growing effects of globalization were creating a new "overclass" that had less and less in common with its neighbors.  But when The Sopranos came on the air, TV was still dominated by the old networks.  In 1998, the nominees for the Emmy Award for Best Drama included two shows from ABC (The Practice and NYPD Blue), two shows form NBC (ER and Law & Order), and one show from FOX (The X-Files).

Even after The Sopranos burst on the scene, and was regularly being lauded by critics as the best show on TV, the Establishment was slow to recognize what had happened.  The Sopranos was nominated for the Emmy Award for Best Drama in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2003 -- but it lost every time.  Not until 2004 did it finally win.

But even then, the greatness of James Gandolfini was recognized.  He won the Emmy Award for Best Actor in Dramatic Series in 2000, 2001, and 2003.  And he deserved them, because he was magnificent.  David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, had enormous ambitions for his show.  He wanted the viewer to be drawn into the story of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mobster with a troubled family life.  But he never wanted Tony to be a good guy, or even a sympathetic guy.  Time and time again, the audience would start rooting for Tony -- only to watch him commit a particularly brutal murder, or mistreat his wife in a particularly cruel way.  It was a very difficult balancing act to pull off, and the writing -- while outstanding -- was only half the solution.  For the show to work at all, the actor playing Tony had to be able to both charm and horrify the audience.  We had to be repelled by his behavior, or the show would lose its moral force.  But we also had to remain interested, or the show would grow stale.

James Gandolfini accomplished the almost impossible tasks associated with his role.  In any episode, he could be funny, poignant, and murderous -- all with total credibility, and all within a few minutes of each other.  And he did it year after year, from the very first episode to the last.  You never felt that he was just mailing it in, or that he had lost interest in the role.  For its viewers, The Sopranos became the gold standard of television, and James Gandolfini deserves much of the credit.  His performance as Tony Soprano is, for me, perhaps the greatest acting accomplishment in television history.

These days, of course, the revolution started by The Sopranos is complete.  Last year's nominees for the Emmy Award for Best Drama included two shows from HBO (Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones), two from AMC (Breaking Bad and Mad Men), one from PBS (Downton Abbey), and one from Showtime (Homeland).  No show on the broadcast networks has won the Award since 2006, when 24 did so.  High-end television is now dominated by shows that, in one way or another, seek to emulate The Sopranos.

 We can talk about whether this has all been good for culture, just as we can talk about what the decline of department stores says about our country.  But I am certain that under the new regime, a lot of great and entertaining television has been made that never would have been seen in the old days.  And this would not have happened -- or wouldn't have happened so quickly -- without the brilliance of James Gandolfini's performance.  I am very, very sorry he has died, but his work will live for years to come.  Very few people can say as much.

1 comment:

  1. This was great.

    Your point that the big-network folk weren't necessarily wrong in passing on The Sopranos is a very good one. As good as I always heard the show to be (and I"m sure it was that good), I never felt inclined to tune it in--there would've been a lot of money and effort wasted on trying to pursue viewers like me, and that investment might well have ultimately changed and lessened the show.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Gandolfini. I was stunned to learn he was only 51. He was a former Park Ridge (N.J.) HIgh Owl basketball player--a member of the Class of '79.