James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.
“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end.” Audiences first heard those words 20 years ago today, spoken in voice-over by Tony Soprano, when The Sopranos debuted on HBO.
Even if you’ve never watched, you know The Sopranos: It was a cultural phenomenon throughout the 2000s, helped redefine the artistic possibilities for television, and remains one of the most influential TV series of all time. It’s the show that turned the “Difficult Man” prototype into a Made Guy. (The mob drama is also the subject of a new book, co-authored by Vulture’s own Matt Zoller Seitz and Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall, called The Sopranos Sessions.) But for all of the accolades and its hall-of-fame status, The Sopranos has a reputation for being, well, a little long. Some critics might say “baggy,” or “repetitive,” or maybe even “boring.” It’s not exactly hard to see why: The Soprano saga consists of 86 hour-long episodes, stretched across what are effectively seven seasons of TV. Run those numbers by someone you’re trying to convince to watch the show for the first time, and they’ll hit you with the hand wave faster than Livia Soprano.
But with all due respect to the detractors and anyone allergic to starting such a lengthy series, The Sopranos isn’t too long. I’d go so far as to say that the show’s shagginess is one of its great assets, not a liability. Yes, it’s true that 86 episodes is a lot, but consider what those 86 episodes add up to: a fictional world — in this case, mobbed-up northern New Jersey — more solid than any other in TV (barring Game of Thrones), with a rich and deep history to match.
Throughout The Sopranos, there’s a wealth of callbacks, recurring gags, and minor characters who pop up onscreen or in name only — all of which make the show’s world feel realistic and truly lived-in, like creator David Chase’s vision of North Jersey actually lies just over the George Washington Bridge. Whether it’s a reference to something that happened way back in the show’s timeline (like the poker game stick-up that put a young Tony and his friends on the criminal underworld map), a phrase that’s repeated over the years (Tony’s rhetorical question, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?”), or some Family associate like Corky Iannucci (a never-seen arsonist who’s mentioned in passing), the series is stuffed with little details that fill out the margins. And the more time we spend with the Soprano crew — say, at the Bada Bing! strip club or Satriale’s Pork Store, where Tony and his capos hold court — the more believable it all becomes.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments when The Sopranos stretches credulity. Like with any TV series, it has plot twists that might draw a little side-eye, and moments when the writing staff is out of its depth. (Any time the show comments on the hip-hop industry, like in season one’s “A Hit Is a Hit” or season six’s “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” it’s rough.) But if you look at The Sopranos in aggregate, its creative team used their hefty episode count to build an immersive viewing experience.
There certainly isn’t another TV show that features a main character as fully realized as James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Over the course of essentially seven seasons (the extra-long sixth was split into two separate chunks), we spy on Tony’s therapy sessions, we follow him in his private moments, we know when he’s lying to himself and to those closest to him, we actually get inside his head and see what his dreams are made of. We reach a level of intimacy that wouldn’t be possible in a shorter series. Other shows have developed protagonists, of course, and fleshed out their backstories with flashbacks and exposition, but there’s something distinct about what The Sopranos accomplishes with Tony. It’s a creative feat that obviously couldn’t be pulled off without Gandolfini’s masterful performance, but it’s also driven by the various ways that Chase and the writers explore and pick at Tony’s psychology. There’s a cumulative effect to all of the probing; by the time Tony’s sitting at that diner table with wife Carmela and son A.J. in the series finale, we know our antihero inside and out.
Some critics have argued that we come to know him a little too well — that too often The Sopranos covers the same story beats, that it underlines the same character traits too many times. Yes, Tony’s love of cold cuts and depressive brunettes are both well documented. We also see virtually all of the show’s principal players repeat mistakes over and over. But that’s part of what makes The Sopranos so lifelike: Watching it, we’re supposed to feel like we’re among members of a family, with all of the familiarity and frustrations that come with that dynamic. It should be disappointing when Tony’s addiction-addled nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, relapses, and it should feel like we’ve been there before when he relapses again. Chatterbox Paulie Gualtieri should get on your nerves, just like he gets on Tony’s; if you spent years listening to that laugh, you’d probably consider throwing the guy overboard from a boat, too.
I’ll admit that isn’t the most enticing sales pitch for a TV show — “No, trust me, you’re supposed to be annoyed!” — but ultimately, the shagginess is intrinsic to The Sopranos. Whatever you look for in a TV series, you should be able to find it somewhere in the show’s variety of styles and tones. If you’re a fan of family drama, Tony and Carmela’s relationship is an unsparing look at the security, compromise, and hurt that comes with a partnership that’s never quite on equal footing. If you want something a little quieter, more contemplative, then savor the therapy scenes between Tony and Dr. Jennifer Melfi, which include the occasional expletive-filled outburst, but also put the very idea of psychiatry under the microscope. Perhaps you like it when your TV takes a surreal turn: Well, not only do you have the eerie, indulgent dream sequences that bubble to the surface here and there, but you’ll also spend time at a hotel complex caught between this world and the next. Have a weakness for crime fiction? Whether you prefer your crooks dim-witted or cold-blooded, you’ll be satisfied. (Certain sections of the show even turn into the more straightforward mob thriller that some fans always wished it would be.) Or, it’s possible that all you want is a story that feels rooted in a specific place and subculture. Then look no further: The Sopranos burrows deep enough into the Jersey mafia and the lives of its characters that it feels downright anthropological at times.
If you’re just hoping to find a TV show you can burn through in a weekend, that’s fine, this clearly isn’t the one for you. But if you’re curious about The Sopranos, or you’ve toyed with the idea of a rewatch, don’t let the runtime stop you. This show is an investment, but it’s a rewarding one. If you want to see what people have been raving about for the past 20 years, and you’re willing to put in the time, start from the beginning and settle in. It’s good to be in something from the ground floor.
In Defense of The Sopranos’ Shagginess