There were so many different scenes that typified the type of person Tony Soprano was.
Remember when he curb-stomped Coco? When he held Christopher’s nose, suffocating him? That time he garroted a man to death with wire? All of the fights and tender scenes with Carmela? The time he got his ass handed to him by Bobby?
Along the way, James Gandolfini and his manifestation of Tony, changed dramatic television forever.
Gandolfini died on Wednesday. He was 51. Fittingly, he passed in Italy while on vacation.
It’s been said so many times that we live in a golden age of television. Shows are now written with more depth and driven by developing, evolving characters. The stories and scenes are edgier. TV is providing us with a stronger dose of artistic vision that film cannot.
But that age started with Tony and his sordid life as an introspective and ruthless New Jersey mobster.Gandolfini showed us what was possible with cable television.
As network television doubled down on reality shows, HBO, Showtime, AMC, Starz and now Netflix picked up the slack, going from replaying movies to producing original content that had never been seen on the small screen. TV went from being more than superficial sitcoms, game shows and second-rate drama. It became art.
The Wire. Breaking Bad. Boardwalk Empire. The Walking Dead. Dexter. House of Cards. Boss. Mad Men.
All feature a strong lead character that drive the story.
The first time I sat through a Sopranos episode, I remember thinking the high-pitch voiced Gandolfini was such an odd choice. He didn’t have the screen presence as a lead actor (so I thought at the time). He was a bit actor before that, playing sleazy characters like the pornographer in 8mm. As the Sopranos gained steam it became clear that no one else on this planet could have been Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini’s transformation as an actor also became a bellwether for other actors who would undergo metamorphosize as well. Brian Cranston was the hapless dad on Malcolm in the Middle and Tim Whatley on Seinfeld before his groundbreaking performance on Breaking Bad. Michael C. Hall was doing plays Off Broadway when he began his stint on Six Feed Under and later Dexter. Now Steve Buscemi has gone from being in the background as supporting characters to the ruthless Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire.
What television and acting is today is partly due to Gandolfini and Tony Soprano. We all owe him a huge thanks for making the small screen worth watching again.