I love The Sopranos. I mean, fucking LOVE The Sopranos. And loving the Sopranos means loving James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano, since he was by far the best thing about that show. But it goes beyond that. Tony Soprano was the character that set the tone for modern TV. He was a villain, in that he was a criminal who did a lot of bad things. But he was sympathetic, in that we saw his family life and his personal struggles and we identified with them.
Without Tony Soprano, there is no Walter White. There is no Vic Mackey. There is no Tyrion Lannister. There is no Nucky Thompson. Tony Soprano created TV anti-heroes–people who are flawed and immoral and do lots of bad things, yet still evoke sympathy. James Gandolfini didn’t just portray a character. He created a TV archetype that shaped what people today are calling the next Golden Age of TV. His influence on American pop culture is incalculable.
It really saddens me to see the news that Gandolfini died at the tragically young age of 51. His talent extended beyond The Sopranos–he was great in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for instance. But the real reason this strikes me so hard is that I’ve been a fan ever since I saw the pilot episode back in January of 1999, and the experience of his performance in that show never left me. It also never left American cable television. I believe that decades from now, people will look back on his performance as a transformative moment, something that all American TV acting will always be indebted to. He was a motherfucking star, and his influence will be felt for a long, long time.