Twenty years ago this week (Jan. 10, 1999), HBO debuted “The Sopranos” pilot — the Big Bang of golden-era TV and the uber-auspicious beginning of the best series in TV history (with apologies to “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons” and “The Wire.”)
Rewatching the pilot two decades later, what remains remarkable is just how fully realized the show was from the jump, and just how much the pilot informed everything that came after. Even the best shows take a few episodes to find their groove. But “Sopranos” knew exactly what it was at hour one: a show unlike any that had come before.
The gangsters, the therapy, the family psychodrama, the graphic violence, the cutting satire of American empire, capitalism and life in the suburbs. The seeds of resentment that would lead Livia and Uncle Junior down the road of an assassination attempt against Tony near the end of Season 1. It was all there.
The pilot was “a hybrid slapstick comedy, domestic sitcom and crime thriller, with dabs of ’70s American New Wave grit ... high and low art, vulgar and sophisticated,” write critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz in their new book, “The Sopranos Sessions.”
There were, of course, great and/or influential serialized dramas (and comedies) that came before “Sopranos.” “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” “Oz” and “Twin Peaks,” to name a few. And, as Zoller Seitz has pointed out, the true forerunner to “Sopranos” was probably “Seinfeld”: a show that acclimated millions of Americans to following the lives of a group of bad, selfish people.
But in “Sopranos,” creator David Chase synthesized everything bold that had (and hadn’t) worked before. He gave the world an unforgettable antihero in Tony (James Gandolfini), along with a collection of mostly reprehensible (but always fascinating) side characters. When “Sopranos” proved a hit with both critics and audiences, it stood as definitive proof that viewers would watch a show about unlikable people, so long as the people were interesting.
This launched a wave of TV antiheroes: Walter White, Al Swearengen, Vic Mackey, Don Draper. Not always cold-blooded killers, but in each case men (almost always men) at odds with the traditional hero narrative. But you rooted for them anyway, rooted for them to triumph over their enemies — or at least to make a successful ad pitch to Kodak.
Bad or mediocre shows that came in the wake of “Sopranos” learned the wrong lessons. They doubled down on the crime and lasciviousness of the series, focused an outsized amount of attention on the antihero aspect. AMC’s “Low Winter Sun” was one noxious example of this. Or the later seasons of “Sons of Anarchy.”
The serialization “Sopranos” brought to the table was also one of its key contributions to television. The first season in particular was like a tightly wound novel; later seasons would feature episodes more self-contained and theme-driven.
It’s impossible to imagine the narrative ambition of subsequent masterpieces like “The Wire” or “Deadwood” without “The Sopranos” laying the groundwork. Before HBO made serialization the norm, most dramas operated on the case-of-the-week format. Characters continued episode-to-episode, but rarely larger stories. Episodes started and concluded a story before the credits rolled, then told another one the following week. Some plotlines carried over, but overall the typical TV drama had about as much week-to-week continuity as “Cheers.”
(There are exceptions: Two-parter episodes were already common in TV dramas. As were season-finale cliffhangers, a la “Who Shot J.R?” and that “Friends” episode where Ross says “Rachel.”)
“The Sopranos” revealed that audiences not only had the patience and attention span for serialized storytelling, but a hunger for it. There’s a certain kind of obsession that comes with a good serialized plot. You look forward all week to knowing what happens next. But shows as densely plotted as “The Shield,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” would have been impossible prior to Jan. 10, 1999.
There’s also a communal aspect that “The Sopranos” ushered in. After all, the series’ run coincided with the launch of our Web 2.0 world. The fan experience since has only been reinforced by the collective insta-reaction made possible by social media. We might all bowl alone, but we still watch TV together — even if our meeting place is Twitter.
But here’s the thing. Yes, “The Sopranos” did all these things and influenced countless shows (good and bad) that came after it.
But the thing that makes it great — that made it, in my opinion, unquestionably the greatest show of all time — is that its agenda, first and foremost, was to wrestle with the mystery of human existence.
It did this movingly and poetically, but also sardonically and hilariously — “Sopranos” is, at its heart, a workplace comedy. (For all the brilliance of prestige dramas post-“Sopranos,” only “Mad Men” has tackled subtext and symbolism so thoroughly and effectively.)
The gangster stuff had all been done before, though rarely as well. The spine of “Sopranos” was the therapy sessions, in which Tony and Dr. Melfi dissected a mob boss’ fears, hopes and neuroses.
The irony of the show was that as powerful as Tony got over the course of six seasons, he remained ever the harried middle manager, a capitalist drone perpetually putting out little fires at work and home.
The genius of the show was to make a murderer struggle with the same B.S. we all struggle with: bad jobs, insufferable coworkers, family resentments. Tony got no satisfaction from his work. He retreated to hedonistic pleasures. He took Prozac and Xanax to cope with his day.
That idea (and the towering performance by Gandolfini) made a bad man empathizable and, more importantly, worth watching.
Rewatching the pilot, I was struck by how much of this was baked in from the start. Tony’s first panic attack, for instance, was spurred by the departure of the ducks.
A family of ducks had found a home in his backyard pool, delighting Tony. When they finally flew away, he was devastated.
The pilot ends with a shot of the empty pool, devoid of the one thing that made Tony happy. That image, a symbol of a lucrative life without pleasure or purpose, would inform the next 85 episodes.
Tony lays out the core of his despair in his first meeting with Melfi:
“Lately, I’m gettin’ the feelin’ that I came in at the end. ... My father, he had his people. They had pride.”
Tony continually articulated the feeling that the best has already come — for the mob, for his family, for America. Everything great has already been built. We’re just the remainders, stuck with the mere maintenance of it all.
The show’s greatest irony: In lamenting the end of history, “The Sopranos” created a new world of storytelling. The party was over, but TV was just getting started.