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'The Sopranos' lifted HBO and the TV industry to new heights

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 8:30 p.m.

Beloved by millions, “The Sopranos” infiltrated pop culture during its six-season run, leaving behind a legacy that's shaped the way television is made.

Kathy M. Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, says the show was able to overcome an industry dominated by reality TV to put an emphasis back on good storytelling that's evident in shows today like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

“It was the first show the people really started subscribing to HBO to watch,” says Newman, an ardent James Gandolfini fan who watched every episode. “‘The Sopranos' made broadcast TV realize that, in order to keep mature and financially affluent viewers, they had to up their production value, tell amazing stories and hire amazing actors.”

The dramatic and often violent show about an Italian-American mobster and his attempts to oversee his crime organization while protecting his home life opened up a dialogue about American families, business, the economy, ethnicity, language and religion, Newman says. Its long-arching plot lines and character development made viewers truly care about the show.

When “The Sopranos” made its debut in 1999, HBO had already had some success with original programming with “Sex and the City” and the dark prison drama “Oz.”

But the David Chase-created drama showed that a cable network — even one in only one-third of all TV homes — could get ratings and capture the cultural zeitgeist. In April 2001, just two years after “The Sopranos” debut, Newsweek did a cover story on the show titled “Why The Sopranos Has the Rest of TV Running For Its Life.”

Without James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, there would be no Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin, Walter White or Dexter Morgan. And maybe even no Don Draper.

Those characters, flawed anti-heroes all, followed in the wake of HBO's groundbreaking “The Sopranos,” which made a man who has done reprehensible things palatable to a big cable-TV audience.

After the show's record audience for the pay-cable network during its run from 1999 to 2007, which has yet to be broken, a spate of similarly flawed characters quickly followed, though none were murderous mafiosos.

You had Mackey, Michael Chiklis' corrupt cop on FX's first original drama “The Shield,” followed two years later by Gavin, Denis Leary's addled alcoholic firefighter on that network's “Rescue Me.” Later came Showtime's serial killer “Dexter,” played by Michael C. Hall, and schoolteacher-turned-meth-dealer White, played by Bryan Cranston on AMC's “Breaking Bad.” Jon Hamm's Draper, the increasingly dour, philandering adman on “Mad Men,” was created by former Sopranos writer Matt Weiner.

Each of those actors has won accolades for their roles, but it was Gandolfini who unmistakably “brought to life a new kind of character, something we hadn't seen much on TV,” TV historian Tim Brooks says. “Creative people have always been fascinated by flawed characters — Shakespeare was, too — but TV was not very good at doing that,” he says, favoring lighter dramas about detectives, doctors or lawyers who saved the day.

“It was hard to keep the audience coming back week after week to someone who was doing bad things,” Brooks says. “The basic rule of a TV leading character was someone you'd be comfortable having in the sanctity of your own home.” Even racist Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” was, at heart, a “teddy bear” underneath, Brooks says.

But Gandolfini turned a murderous thug, who strangled a turncoat while on a trip to visit a college with his daughter, into a somehow relatable guy.

“He revolutionized television, and really brought in a whole new type of protagonist, a certain kind of conflicted, sociopathic anti-hero,” says Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media. He was a hulking, super-masculine presence and a killer who had problems with his family and especially his domineering mother, Livia. “There were so many anti-heroes that followed, and he was the template for that.”

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