NEW YORK — James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano represented more than just a memorable TV character. He changed the medium, making fellow antiheroes like Walter White and Dexter Morgan possible and shifting the balance in quality drama away from broadcast television.
The passage of time since “The Sopranos” ended in 2007 brought all of that into sharp relief even before Gandolfini’s death of a heart attack while vacationing in Italy on Wednesday.
Television characters certainly weren’t one-dimensional when David Chase cast the little-known Gandolfini in the lead role of his series about the personal and work families of a New Jersey crime boss. But there were limits: Flaws in a TV hero character had to be affectionate grace notes, like Jim Rockford’s poor choice of friends or Arnie Becker’s womanizing on “L.A. Law.”
The unwritten rule: Don’t make your central character someone viewers will recoil from. Break the mold and failure looms. The 1980s comedy “Buffalo Bill” on NBC was highly regarded but conventional wisdom was that it lasted only a year because Dabney Coleman’s lead character was such a creep.
It’s possible to even pinpoint the moment that “rule” was wiped off the books. In the fifth episode of “The Sopranos,” Tony accompanies his daughter on a trip to scout out colleges and spies another mobster who was hiding in the witness protection program. Tony strangles him.
“There’s no question Tony Soprano was at the center of ‘The Sopranos,’” said David Bianculli, a longtime TV critic who teaches television at New Jersey’s Rowan University. “And there was no question how flawed and sometimes despicable he was. But he also had things people could relate to,” like his tortured relationship with his mother and emotional issues that led him to seek psychiatric help.