(Bloomberg View) -- If you have some free time over this long weekend, I suggest that you spend it in New Jersey -- specifically, North Caldwell, New Jersey, longtime home of Anthony and Carmela Soprano.
This summer marked the 10th anniversary of the show’s infamous “blank screen” ending, and so, not having tuned in for a while, I set myself the task of watching the entire series, in order. What began as a project swiftly became a labor of love, and then I had to force myself to slow down, lest I finish too fast.
I had forgotten what a truly magnificent work of art showrunner David Chase achieved. “The Sopranos” is widely credited with kicking off the era of “prestige television.” It’s easy to see why. The writing was witty yet earthy (really, really earthy), the characters were believable, the acting was uniformly outstanding, and the narrative itself began as engrossing and swiftly became compelling.
With its central tale of a troubled mob boss seeing a psychiatrist to understand why he suffered panic attacks and was so angry all the time, “The Sopranos” sounds like a dark comedy. That’s how it was originally conceived, and even as the story began to get serious, the humor was always there. The family relationships were tragically familiar: Tony and his monster of a mother, Tony and his wily uncle, Tony and his rebellious children, and, most important, Tony and his wife, who grew in the course of the series from the enabler who loved the jewels and large house that her husband’s business provided to the troubled, defiant moral center of the tale.
“The Sopranos” famously pioneered both the gore and the explicit sex that have become the norm on prestige TV, and precisely because the show was first, all that blood and sex seems a little tame. The show also pioneered the willingness to kill off familiar and even beloved characters, often with no warning, and unlike so much of today’s television, kept on killing them as the end drew near.
But what centrally drove the fan obsession was the rich and remarkable narrative, and the rich and remarkable people who inhabited it. As Tony Soprano, the late James Gandolfini gave us as complex and fully realized a character as has ever graced the small screen. He was an enormous presence, not just physically (although he was large and grew larger through the series). Few television faces have ever been so expressive. Tony’s struggle to live as the 1950s-style father he avowedly wanted to be while securing his criminal empire against internal and external enemies had us whipsawed. We rooted for him one moment, only be repulsed by his violence or philandering the next.
Fully equal to the challenge of playing opposite him was Edie Falco, who during the show’s seven-year run won three Emmys and two Golden Globes for her role as Carmela. It’s astonishing she didn’t win more. Don’t believe me? To see her work in “Whitecaps” (4x13) or “College” (1x05) or “Proshai, Livushka” (3x02) or dozens of other episodes is to recognize that we’re in the presence of one of the finest television actors ever.
And then there was the spectacular Lorraine Bracco, who was nominated alongside Falco for many awards for her portrayal of Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s ever-patient psychiatrist who struggled with her own fascination with her patient’s world -- and, at the end of the first season, found herself briefly and frighteningly drawn into it. Her sessions with Tony bubbled with tension and threat, and yet one had the sense that under her care he was getting better. So persuasive was Bracco’s portrayal that she received a special award from the American Psychoanalytic Association.
The show was violent, but the Sopranos were a family. Tony and Carmela, in love and in hate, felt like a genuine couple; the screen chemistry was remarkable. The parents among us had our teeth set on edge when the children, Meadow and A.J., acted out. The in-laws, on both sides, were so deftly drawn that they might have been our own.
The family’s McMansion, at the imaginary address of 633 Stag Trail Road, was itself a character. Fans learned every nook and cranny, and slowly came to know and love North Jersey as well. Chase was adamant that exteriors should be filmed roughly where they were really supposed to be, and his determination to get the images right was a part of the show’s delicious charm.
“The Sopranos” was never at its best when it left the neighborhood. An exposition-heavy trip to Naples, Italy, and a couple more to Florida, never quite carried the snap of the rest of the show. The stunning and heart-wrenching final-season episode “Kennedy and Heidi” broke down when Tony took himself off to Las Vegas.
On the other hand, Chase worked small miracles with bottle episodes. A particular gem was “Pine Barrens” (3x11), which lands on everybody’s list of 10 best episodes, and many critics think was the show’s absolute finest. My own favorites -- in the sense that I would watch them over and over and stay on the edge of my seat -- were the emotionally draining “Long Term Parking” (5x12) and the aforementioned “Whitecaps.” Unlike many other fans, I also loved the show’s controversial finale, “Made in America” (6x21). But I would be happy to drop in on any episode. I would still be engrossed.
“The Sopranos” birthed more prestige TV. Matthew Weiner, who would go on to create “Mad Men,” was schooled there. So was Terrence Winter, who would go on to create “Boardwalk Empire.” The show served as a training ground for some of the great television directors, among them Alan Taylor, a familiar name to fans of “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones.” Will Arnett and Paul Dano were among the then-unknown actors who had nice turns in small parts. Then there was 15-year-old named Stefani Germanotta who showed up in an uncredited role as a friend of A.J., and would later become slightly better known as Lady Gaga.
Sure, “The Sopranos” had its weaknesses. The cast never achieved the diversity some of us would have wished (but then neither did “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones”). The final season, like every final season, felt rushed, as the showrunners hurried to wind up subplot after subplot, and even squeezed an entire gang war between the Sopranos and a powerful New York family into the last two episodes. But those were hiccups in the show’s overall brilliance.
“Mix it with the relish!” cries Tony’s friend Paulie Walnuts in “Pine Barrens,” as he and Tony’s nephew Christopher, lost in the snow, try to survive overnight with nothing to eat but a few packets of condiments from a fast-food restaurant. And that’s what the showrunners did. Year after year, episode after episode, they mixed it with the relish. The result was the greatest show in the history of television.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.