Draw a direct line from Tony to the serial killer at the center of Showtime’s “Dexter,” the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin in AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Jax Teller and the motorcycle club on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” the turncoat hero Nicholas Brody on “Homeland,” the spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings on FX’s “The Americans.”
“I don’t think ‘The Shield’ would have happened without ‘The Sopranos,’” said John Landgraf, the FX network’s president and general manager. He’s not sure a pilot episode with the lead character, Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey, killing another cop would have been green-lighted if it hadn’t been three years after Tony made his debut.
It’s not just psychopaths, either. Don Draper’s morally compromised advertising executive on AMC’s “Mad Men” owes its existence to the television “rule” that Tony Soprano ended. The characters’ flaws earn a pass, even devoted support from viewers, through strong writing and acting.
Notice something else? All of those characters appear on cable, not broadcast programs. “The Sopranos” on HBO led the way, providing the example to other networks that they could change their appeal and identity by investing in quality series that create a buzz.
“The Sopranos” in 1999 was the first cable series to earn an Emmy nomination for best television drama, although ABC’s “The Practice” won. In 2003 both “The Sopranos” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under” were nominated, the first time there were multiple cable nominees for best drama. “The Sopranos” broke through and won the Emmy in 2004 and 2007.
Last year five of the six nominees for that award (including the victorious “Homeland”) were cable series. The only broadcast series nominated was PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”
In 13 years, that’s a complete turnaround.
Landgraf was working at NBC back at the beginning (where they were putting a pretty good drama named “The West Wing” on the air) and the success of “The Sopranos” was noted. Broadcasters were envious of the freedom cable networks had to depict sex, language and violence. But it was the authenticity of the characters on cable that made the real difference, he said.