James Gandolfini Changed Television Forever

I was slow to catch on to The Sopranos. Didn’t watch the first two seasons at all, and then only a couple of time during the third season did I really sit down and try to digest it. I started catching up though, and once I did, I was hooked.  I had underestimated the show, figuring the hype was somehow unjustified. It was yet another Mafia epic right? Filled with the cliché’ tough guy stuff and stereotypical characters constantly eating pasta. Always with the pasta.

It was the sessions with Dr.Melfi that got me. Lured me with its deft analysis and the emotional outbursts of Tony Soprano juxtaposed with the measured professionalism of Lorraine Bracco’s character. I’d been a fan of Bracco since Goodfellas (the best mafia movie, ever, in my opinion) but here she was doing something amazing.  The back and forth sessions were revolutionary television. The writing bar was being set at astronomically superior levels. I was impressed. We all were. The hype was legit after all.

When news broke yesterday evening that James Gandolfini had died it shocked me. The first five minutes I felt a real sadness. Five minutes after that, I felt guilty for being sad. I didn’t know this guy, he was just an actor. I felt weird about feeling this way about a stranger’s death, when strangers die everyday and I don’t even flinch. But I reconciled with those thoughts.  It was alright to feel sadness. The mortality reminder when famous people die is a tremendous thing.  Gandolfini was only 51, on vacation in Italy when apparently, he had a heart attack. Death on a vacation is, especially unfortunate. No denying that. There’s also no denying his talent as an actor.

His was triumphant as Tony. Loud, rage-filled and calculating. His presence on that show was menacing, and difficult to ignore. At the same time, his scenes with Carmela were incredibly revealing. The moments they had felt real. You could have sworn they were really married. Truth is, the family stuff is what took the show to that next level, where it went beyond plain old mafia living. The way the show set it up, with his daughter Meadow being a spoiled rich kid in her teen years  (and then a college student and professional) was brilliant.  As were the moments with his son, AJ. He was, for all intents and purposes, a loser. Tony’s constant battle with motivating him and dealing with his son’s myriad issues, including a suicide attempt were heartbreaking. The fact that he was a mobster didn’t protect him from the trials and errors or parenthood. That gave his character multiple levels. He’s an adulterer and a killer one episode, a loving husband and father the next.  I have no idea who else was considered for the part, but it’s easy to see why Gandolfini won the role. The goofy smile and the depressing eyes made his duality that much more understandable. It was elite level acting. It changed television. His character made it possible for shows like The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men to exist. To have the lead characters play out complex, often anti-hero, narratives didn’t really exist before that.

In the pantheon of great shows, The Sopranos has always gotten its due, and Gandolfini has been recognized with two Emmy Awards signifying his place as well. His shocking death won’t force out any faux praise of his talents or out of the blue appreciation for his ability as an actor. Even though the Sopranos has been off the air for a few years now, he resonated so strongly, that his name is always mentioned amongst the great actors of our generation anyway. He had already earned those props. He had a couple of strong movie performances as well, including The Last Castle with Robert Redford in which he plays a prison colonel. He brought that same intensity to that role as well.

If you read anything about Gandolfini, you should read this from New York Magazine. It’s intimate and powerful writing, detailing the actor’s personal life and how he tried to live as a normal person, while his celebrity life was raging on as Tony Soprano.

Interestingly enough, I had just watched an episode of The Sopranos on Tuesday night, right before Game 6.  It was the episode where Adriana almost admits to the other wives that she’s working with the feds, and where Tony is trying to decide what to do with his cousin played by Steve Buscemi.

HBO had started re-airing reruns a few weeks ago and I’d been watching them, going though the story again. Even though I’ve seen them all, it’s still hard to turn away. The level of excellence is just so high.  All the nuance that maybe you missed before, is easier to see now. It remains in the top, ten or five, greatest shows in TV history. Much of that is due to the writers and the rest is due to a great cast, with nobody greater than Gandolfini.  Damn that dude could act. 

Back to top