New Sopranos Documentary Raises the Question: Was the HBO Mob Drama the Most Influential Series of All Time?

It wasn’t the sort of premise that had “modern masterpiece” written all over it.

In fact, it amounted to a huge gamble for a network that was tentatively seeking to expand its meager slate of original progamming.

Sure, we Americans love our cosa nostra sagas, as evidenced by the perennial popularity of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and their ilk.

But a mob boss who suffers from panic attacks?

A don who’s forced to contend with the usual headaches of fatherhood and suburbia?

A protagonist who operates out of a strip club and has no qualms about snuffing out inconvenient colleagues with the old extension cord around the throat?

Sure, the ironic juxtaposition of the two worlds — the mundane and the murderous, the humdrum and the homicidal — sounds like a great idea for a 90-minute comedy.

And sure enough, the similar-themed Analyze That, starring Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal hit theaters just as The Sopranos was wrapping up its first season (the two projects were developed simultaneously, so there’s no need to have anyone whacked over plagiarism allegations).

Related: 19 Integral The Sopranos Storylines You Might Have Forgotten About

But even as critics praised the show effusively, many wondered if it could sustain such an eccentric concept.

The Gamble Pays Off

And of course, the show did not maintain a consistent level of quality over the course of its six-season run.

Instead, it became the rare long-running series that seemed, with each passing season, to become richer, funnier, more challenging, more rewarding, and more invested in the grand experiment of testing and reshaping the limits of what an episodic television series could accomplish.

In short, The Sopranos pulled off the impossible on numerous occasions, and in the eyes of many fans and critics, the show’s achievements remain unmatched.

Now, in the year of its 25th anniversary, David Chase’s magnum opus has once again become a hot topic of discussion among TV obsessives such as ourselves.

And while many of the revered series of yesteryear have crumbled under the weight of reevaluation, The Sopranos has once again pulled off an incredibly rare feat:

As new generations discover the show, it’s possible that it’s even more revered and more widely beloved now than it was during its original run.

Don’t Stop Believin’

And thanks to a new documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney, the staggering influence of the series’ eight-season run has once again been placed under the microscope.

And the timing couldn’t be better.

In recent years, industry vets, Chase among them, have bemoaned the current state of the medium and lamented the fact that the execs emboldened by the success of HBO’s grand genre experiment seem to have retreated back into the cozy confines of familiarity.

The network suits are not completely to blame for the rise of comfort TV, as audiences seem more interested than ever in shows that can be enjoyed while one folds the laundry.

Related: HBO at 50: Fifty Shows Everyone Should Watch In Their Lifetime

But for a brief, shining moment, it looked as though The Sopranos would usher in a new era — one in which artistic possibilities would receive equal consideration to financial concerns during C-suite programming meetings.

A Variety review of Gibney’s film cuts right to the chase (no pun intended) with a headline that calls The Sopranos “TV’s greatest show.”

Obviously, that’s a popular opinion, but it’s also a highly subjective one, and strong cases could be made for several other series.

But many of those contenders might never have seen the light of day were it not for the impact of the pioneering series that forced us to reevaluate the medium.

The debate over the best show in TV history will always remain unsettled.

But the question of what was the most influential series of the 21st century is significantly easier to settle.

In fact, the answer is as obvious as Ralph Cifaretto’s toupee.

The Sopranos didn’t spawn a bunch of competing mob dramas, as some industry analysts predicted it would.

Rather, it paved the way for series that were similar in their psychological complexity, their dim view of human nature, and their refusal to coddle audiences.

Shows like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men (helmed by former Sopranos staff writer Matt Weiner) might never have graced our screens if Tony and the rest of DiMeo crime family hadn’t blazed the trail ahead of them.

Viewers of modern prestige dramas who have never watched The Sopranos are a bit like fans of modern rock music who have never listened to the Beatles.

You might not have been directly influenced by that relatively small yet wildly impactful body of work — but your faves certainly were.

We’ll extend the analogy and say that like the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo, Chase sought to experiment as much as to entertain.

The subtextually dense dream sequences and the divisive “Kevin Finnerty” episode, in which a comatose Tony imagines himself in the life of a middle-class schlub — these were The Sopranos equivalent of oddball Beatles tracks like “Revolution 9” or “Honey Pie.”

Related: Suits, Ted Lasso, and the Rise of Comfort TV: Is the Desire For Easy Viewing Creating a Barren Streaming Landscape?

Those more divisive tunes might not be as beloved as some of the band’s more accessible output, but they’re crucial to the Beatles’ continued popularity, as the challenges they present are as infuriating and intriguing to new listeners as they were when fans first dropped the needle nearly 60 years ago.

Members Only

Similarly, The Sopranos, because of its stubborn insistence on pushing the envelope and defying categorization, is the kind of show that’s like catnip to folks who enjoy endless hours of debate and dissection on social media.

David Chase might feel that he failed to carve out a permanent arthouse niche in the vast landscape of American television.

And his younger viewers might, as Tony lamented, feel that they arrived too late to get in on “the ground floor or something.”

But in an era of increasingly disposable entertainment options, The Sopranos and the many series it inspired have proven remarkably durable.

As long as these shows continue to inspire memes and heated debates about subtext and symbolism (to say nothing of what became of that Russian in the woods), they’ll continue to galvanize new generations of creators.

And any one of them might one day restore TV to the glory of its most recent golden age.

Tony might have kvetched to Dr. Melfi that the best was over, but we refuse to go about in pity for ourselves.

What do you think, TV fanatics? Is The Sopranos the most influential drama in TV history? Hit the comments section below to share your thoughts

Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.

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