the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Tim Walker The In­de­pen­dent

JAMES Gan­dolfini cre­ated a mon­ster: like Tokyo af­ter a visit from Godzilla, the pop-cul­tural land­scape was al­tered per­ma­nently by Tony So­prano. Since the trou­bled wiseguy first went to ther­apy in 1999, tele­vi­sion has un­ex­pect­edly be­come the most vi­tal of creative me­dia.

Think­ing peo­ple spend vast chunks of each week de­con­struct­ing the lat­est episode of their favourite show as if it were 19th-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture. And thanks to the late, great Gan­dolfini, the pro­tag­o­nists of the best-loved dra­mas on the small screen can be bald, over­weight, or bald and over­weight, or a dwarf, or Steve Buscemi.

With the Ital­ian-Amer­i­can mob, The So­pra­nos took a pret­ti­fied big-screen genre and made it small and ugly. Michael Cor­leone’s or­gan­ised crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties in The God­fa­ther were gov­erned by an old-world hon­our code; Tony’s work was grubby and ig­no­ble. The god­fa­ther of sub­ur­ban New Jersey was a mid­dle-aged lunk, not a svelte young Pa­cino.

Ca­ble now puts a pre­mium on anti-heroic char­ac­ter ac­tors: Michael Chiklis of The Shield, Ian McShane of Dead­wood, Peter Din­klage of Game of Thrones. Not only are TV’s lead­ing ac­tors now non-tra­di­tional, but so are the char­ac­ters they play. In his his­tory of small-screen drama’s on­go­ing golden age, The Rev­o­lu­tion Was Tele­vised, Alan Sepin­wall writes The So­pra­nos dis­pelled ‘‘ the no­tion that a TV se­ries had to have a lik­able char­ac­ter at its cen­tre. Why, TV ex­ec­u­tives had been ask­ing for 50 years, would view­ers want to come back week af­ter week to watch a jerk, a crook, or worse?’’

The So­pra­nos broke that mould. Now, the nar­ra­tive arc of tele­vi­sion’s best dra­mas bends to­wards in­jus­tice. Tony wasn’t in­ter­ested in re­demp­tion or self-im­prove­ment. In spite of his reg­u­lar ses­sions with Dr Melfi, he just got worse. Sub­se­quent pro­tag­o­nists have fol­lowed a sim­i­lar down­ward tra­jec­tory, most spec­tac­u­larly Break­ing Bad’s Wal­ter White (Bryan Cranston): a mild-man­nered chem­istry teacher with lung can­cer who dur­ing the course of the fol­low­ing 41/2 sea­sons has be­come a schem­ing, mur­der­ous meth king­pin.

As the Tony So­prano ef­fect turned char­ac­ter ac­tors into lead­ing men, it also had the op­po­site ef­fect: turn­ing lead­ing men into char­ac­ter ac­tors. The dash­ing Jon Hamm was not cast as Man Men’s mer­cu­rial ad creative Don Draper sim­ply be­cause he was good-look­ing but rather be­cause the role de­manded good looks. When view­ers first en­coun­tered the tal­ented, com­pul­sively adul­ter­ous Draper, he seemed like an­other lovable rogue with a past. Yet as the se­ries has pro­gressed, and Hamm’s per­for­mance has de­vel­oped, the glossy ex­te­rior has peeled back to re­veal a rot­ten core. Like Tony and Wal­ter, Don has be­come not merely an an­ti­hero, but the vil­lain of his show.

The novel-like nar­ra­tives of th­ese se­ries have also en­riched their pe­riph­eral char­ac­ters: Roger Ster­ling of Mad Men, Saul Good­man of Break­ing Bad, or The Wire’s fear­less gay stickup artist, Omar Lit­tle. Char­ac­ter ac­tors have a chance to shine in small parts as well as large.

Th­ese phe­nom­ena re­main al­most ex­clu­sive to US ca­ble-TV chan­nels HBO, AMC and Show­time. The most in­flu­en­tial net­work dra­mas of the past decade, by con­trast, were led by con­ven­tion­ally hand­some fel­lows such as Matthew Fox ( Lost) and Kiefer Suther­land ( 24), and pop­u­lated by at­trac­tive co-stars whereas the sup­port­ing cast of, say, Game of Thrones, con­sists largely of Bri­tish ac­tors with ques­tion­able teeth. Or, at least, the male sup­port­ing cast does. Though Game of Thrones is full of funny look­ing blokes, its fe­male char­ac­ters are mostly gor­geous, and fre­quently naked. Sim­i­larly, while Tony So­prano may have made it pos­si­ble for male pro­tag­o­nists to sink to new depths, the same is not yet true for women. There re­mains, if you will, a glass floor for fe­male roles.

Gan­dolfini was plucked from rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity to play Tony, but his legacy means such roles are in­creas­ingly prized, not least by char­ac­ter ac­tors lured from the big screen. The star of The So­pra­nos’ most di­rect de­scen­dant, or­gan­ised-crime saga Board­walk Em­pire, is Buscemi. Kevin Spacey may just win the first Emmy award for a web-only act­ing role, for his per­for­mance as con­gress­man Frank Un­der­wood in Net­flix’s se­ries House of Cards. But though his in­flu­ence is every­where, we may never see the like of Tony So­prano again.

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