The mean­ing of ‘So­pra­nos,’ 20 years af­ter mag­i­cal de­but

The Capital - - NEWS - By Verne Gay Tri­bune News Ser­vice

1999 ar­rived some­where on the planet bright and clear. Ev­ery­where else — here, for in­stance — felt dark and gloomy. Im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings had grid­locked Washington.

Some­thing called a “Y2K bug” threat­ened to smite our fast-grow­ing dig­i­tal ad­dic­tion.

2000 loomed ahead like an ice­berg. Dooms­day was nigh, and a clas­sic 1982 song (“1999”) sud­denly felt prophetic:

“Woke up this mornin’, coulda sworn it was judg­ment day.”

Coin­ci­den­tally, or not, that line echoed the first spo­ken (and sung) line of a new se­ries launch­ing Jan. 10 on HBO: “Woke up this mornin’, got my­self a gun.”

That se­ries needs no in­tro­duc­tion, just con­text, be­cause 20 years later that con­text has largely been for­got­ten. Awash, nearly drown­ing, in TV, we now look back at “The So­pra­nos” as the lonely sen­tinel that birthed our golden age. Wrong: There was lots of good TV then (and “Se­in­feld” had ended just eight months ear­lier). We think of Tony (James Gan­dolfini) as cul­ture’s first anti-hero.

Wrong again: There had been many.

“The So­pra­nos” was in fact cul­ture’s first anti-TV show. Creator and TV vet­eran David Chase hated TV, with its con­ven­tions and tropes abet­ted by the will­ful stu­pid­ity of those who ran it. His lodestars in no par­tic­u­lar or­der were Fellini, French New Wave, “Good­fel­las” and home­town North Cald­well, N.J. TV had never re­ally had such lodestars be­fore. TV was largely about re­as­sur­ance and meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions, prefer­ably af­ter the last com­mer­cial break. Chase would sub­vert all ex­pec­ta­tions, at launch and eight years later. We couldn’t say we hadn’t been warned.

More con­text: Gan­dolfini was a vir­tual un­known in 1999. That would change — elec­tri­fy­ing so — when he slumped like dead weight into a chair across from Dr. Melfi (Lor­raine Bracco).

“I dunno,” he mut­tered. “The morn­ing I got sick I’d been think­ing it’s good to be in some­thing from the ground floor. I know: I came too late for that but lately been get­ting the feel­ing that I came in at the end, the best is over.”

Melfi: “Many Amer­i­cans feel that way.”

There was in­stantly a whole se­ries in those lines, a hook too: A mob­ster, this mob­ster, feel­ing like “many Amer­i­cans?” Do tell us more.

Edie Falco — Carmela — had a solid Broad­way ca­reer and a lit­tle TV by the time she got here. But with Gan­dolfini she was magic, and “The So­pra­nos” was all about magic too.

There was also some­thing both de­grad­ing and en­nobling about this an­tiTV se­ries, also some­thing beau­ti­ful and re­pul­sive. By keep­ing us off-bal­ance, Chase kept us fo­cused.

The year 1999 — the en­nui, the gloom, the end times, even the Prince lyrics — was in its bones. “The So­pra­nos” taught us how to watch TV all over again.

It taught us how to ap­proach TV as art as op­posed to com­merce, and how to see our cul­ture — and our­selves — through its glass darkly.

Twenty years later, we re­main — as al­ways and for­ever — in­debted.

HBO

James Gan­dolfini stars as Tony in “The So­pra­nos,” HBO’s ground­break­ing anti-TV show.

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