The news came out of the blue and hit us hard: James Gandolfini — dead at age 51.
First shock, then awe, as we contemplated what he meant to us and to television.
He was the undisputed boss of “The Sopranos,” the show the Writers Guild of America recently named the best-written show in the history of television.
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But without a superlative cast to bring those words to life, the writing would have been meaningless.
At the head of this special group of actors stood Gandolfini as Tony Soprano — a North Jersey mob kingpin balancing two families — one crime, one real — while coping with an over-bearing mother. The combination sent him to a shrink, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). And the rest was TV history.
“The Sopranos” was a groundbreaking TV show for the way it raised the bar for so-called “quality” TV shows. And it’s true: The show was more than a few cuts above the rest when it aired from 1999 to 2007 on HBO. For proof of that, you have only to watch the episodes, which HBO is currently running — one at a time — every weekday evening on one of its channels (check your local listings). On Wednesday night, the episode on view ended with an on-screen placard noting Gandolfini’s death just hours before.
Or, you can access all of the “Sopranos” episodes — six seasons, all 86 episodes — right here on our “Sopranos” page. We’ll even help out with this guide to some of the best Tony Soprano scenes and episodes:
A history of violence: We neglected to mention, above, another reason for Tony Soprano to embrace psychiatry — he was conflicted by the requirement of his job that he occasionally commit murder. And most of the time, his victims were people who were close to him. Among them: Friend-and-turncoat Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), whacked in the Season Two finale, titled “Funhouse”; underling Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) in “Whoever Did This”; cousin Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi) in “All Due Respect”; and “nephew” Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) in “Kennedy and Heidi.”
Analyze this: One of our favorite moments on “The Sopranos” came near the conclusion of Season One, when Tony finally confided to his closest henchmen that he was seeing a psychiatrist. If memory serves, it was Paulie Gualtieri (Tony Sirico) who asked (and we’re paraphrasing here): “You mean, like ‘Analyze This’?” — referring to the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal comedy. To which Tony replied in a frustrated tone (again, paraphrasing): “That was a comedy! This is real life!” Well, the scenes with Tony and Dr. Melfi were among the most memorable in the series’ entire run. Look for some of them in these episodes: The series premiere, in which a panic attack sent Tony into therapy; “Toodle-oo”; “Live Free or Die,” in which Tony and Dr. Melfi discussed the situation with Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli), who was outed as gay; and many more.
Sopranos family values: In a way, the template for “The Sopranos” was, at least in part, “The Godfather,” which director Francis Ford Coppola always maintained was designed primarily as a movie about a family — although one that just happened to be involved in crime. Well, as much as anything else, “The Sopranos” was also about family — particularly Tony’s relationships with his wife, daughter, son, mother, sister and uncle.
The conflicts and joys of Soprano family life (the non-crime family, that is) were on view in practically every episode, but here are a few to look for: “College,” the fifth episode of the first season, in which Tony and daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) bonded on a visit to a prospective college in Maine and Tony took some time off to murder a mob informant; “Soprano Home Movies,” in which Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) visited Bobby Bacala (Steve Schirripa) and Janice (Aida Turturro) and Tony and Bobby had a vicious fistfight; and, of course, the series finale, titled “Made in America,” which ended with Tony and his family having dinner in a favorite New Jersey burger joint.