Television Learned the Wrong Lessons From <i>The Sopranos</i> ( )

The elderly Uncle Junior is in his armchair, facing down a disloyal male relation. In the next episode Junior will get his hand stuck in the garbage disposal for six hours, but for now he has the dignity of a retired king, which is what he is. He holds up one hand, and says: “I’m in no shape for disharmony.”

After mainlining the entire Sopranos oeuvre this last week, Junior’s seated pronouncement is the moment that has stayed with me. Not the first time we see Tony take joy in strangling a man, not the violent death that takes Adriana away, not even the time Paulie Walnuts gets lost in the woods. No, I’m obsessed with the easy, elegant way in which The Sopranos’ patriarchs wield their power. With a word, peace is made or broken.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the show’s first air date, and everybody is re-watching the series credited with inventing prestige television. Its creator David Chase is doing the media rounds, performing post-mortems on that notorious final episode. And The Sopranos Sessions, a vast new book of critical essays covering every single one of the show’s 86 episodes, is newly on sale.

What is there even left to say? From the beginning, everybody knew that The Sopranos was to be a watershed. There would be before, and there would be after. In every commemorative article about the show, the author inevitably cites the list of prestige shows that followed The Sopranos and that adopted its central conceit of a flawed antihero—Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, and so on. As Brett Martin argued in his 2013 book Difficult Men, an antihero who creates his own problems (Tony