James Gandolfini, centre, with some of the cast of The Sopranos.

James Gandolfini, centre, with some of the cast of The Sopranos. Photo: SUpplied

I originally pooh-poohed the premise of The Sopranos.  A mob boss gets therapy, I scoffed – that’s exactly the same idea as Analyse This, a comedy where Robert De Niro gets psychoanalysed by Billy Crystal. Besides, I added, by way of icing on my cake of scorn, what kind of surname is “Soprano”? It sounds like a bad parody of an Italian surname. Who’d ever be scared of a mobster whose surname evokes a lady warbling with a high voice?

Well, me, as it turned out, once I’d given in to the deluge of critical acclaim and realised I’d better get on this bandwagon, what with all the “greatest television series ever” hype – to which the Writers’ Guild of America recently added, naming it the best-written series ever.

What grabbed me when I finally started watching the series was, of course, the character of Tony Soprano himself. For the series to be compelling, the central character has to be compelling – and for the central character to work, the performance has to be compelling. And for a character as complex and contradictory as Tony Soprano to not only be convincing, but become thoroughly endearing, it took a truly remarkable performance by the late James Gandolfini.

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The Sopranos. pic supplied Nine publicity.

A scene from The Sopranos Photo: Supplied

It’s probably not all that controversial to say that there has never been a character as complex, nuanced, and fully realised on our screens as Tony Soprano. In 86 episodes, we saw him killing with ruthless brutality, intimidating his rivals within the Mafia world, womanising with utter abandon, but then being thoroughly cowed by the strong women in his domestic sphere, whether his mother, wife, daughter or sister – and then going to pieces on the long-suffering Dr Melfi’s couch.

Gandolfini, whose physical bulk was as essential an aspect of the character as his capacity for surprising vulnerability, somehow drew these disparate threads together and gave us the quintessential portrait of the modern man. Well, the dramatic version, at least, to go with the defining comedic male character of the past 50 years, Homer J Simpson.

Tony Soprano was a fusion of several archetypes – as impotent and ‘hen-pecked’ at home as Darrin from Bewitched or Al Bundy from Married With Children, and yet in his workplace – a strip club, of course – as ruthless and brilliant a mafia don as Vito Corleone. Gandolfini was utterly convincing in all these diverse contexts, whether wandering blearily-eyed around his kitchen searching for cannoli, or giving the order to kill a once-trusted lieutenant.

Gandolfini holds up his Emmy award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series in 2008.

Gandolfini holds up his Emmy award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series in 2008. Photo: Reuters

I’ve always felt that a major element of The Sopranos’ success came from the decision to set it in New Jersey rather than New York City – a contrast showcased by the opening titles featuring Tony driving between the two locations. Being located in Jersey rather than the ‘mean streets’ of the Big Apple meant it was set in suburbia, among ‘normal’ middle-class families with their big homes and big meals and big televisions and sports and schools and the complacent humdrum of middle America that’s so familiar to us all. In New York City, Tony Soprano might have been dwarfed by the skyscraper-filled landscape, or those famous ‘five families’, or the weighty tradition of the Mafia tales that have been set there before. But in Jersey, he was the boss.

In some respects, Tony is like no man I’ve met – to my knowledge, at least, I’ve never met a mass-murderer – but in many more respects, he was the typical modern man. The Sopranos is about being caught between two worlds, and the psychic torment that ensues. There’s the tussle between the values of the old world of Italy and the new world of America that’s common across migrant communities. There’s the ‘mates before dates’ conflict between a man’s responsibility to his male ‘brothers’, and the women in his life, some of whom are simply exploited, and some of whom refuse to be treated the way that men like Tony have traditionally treated women. This is the very same conflict that Anna Krien explores in Night Games, and which has put so many footballers on the front pages recently.

And finally, there’s the conflict between the criminal and the legitimate worlds that’s so familiar from all the Mafia stories we’ve seen on our screen. Usually we are taught to think simply that criminals are bad and the justice system is good, but a well-told Mafia story introduces more moral complexity than that. Don Corleone was seen by his community as a more effective dispenser of justice than the police, and many might be attracted by his value system that placed loyalty above all else, as opposed to the cold neutrality of the state.

Tony (James Gandolfini) Soprano in a scene from the first episode of the final season of The Sopranos. Click for more photos

Remembering James Gandolfini

Tony (James Gandolfini) Soprano in a scene from the first episode of the final season of The Sopranos.

In Tony Soprano’s mind, his ‘business’ was all about providing for others – both for his family and his Family, the extensive web of retainers who relied on his willingness to break laws. This is brilliantly illustrated by his spoiled children and self-indulgent sister, and especially Meadow’s attendance at Columbia – achieving respectability in the mainstream that could only be subsidised by Tony’s activities on the margins. I’m not a husband or a father, but I can imagine that men in that situation sometimes feel like Tony – that everyone around them expects to be given things, without reciprocating. And sometimes it makes them depressed, and sometimes they lash out. Tony’s situation is one to which many of us can relate.

But his conflict is ultimately more primal than that – Tony Soprano’s life exemplifies the perpetual choice between morality and pragmatism. Do you take what you want, hurt who you want, or have sex with whoever you want, just because you can? A lot of the time, Tony does – but there are consequences. There have to be, of course, for him to remain likeable. But while Gandolfini’s character steps further outside the bounds of normal behaviour than almost of us would, we’ve all faced the same dilemma.

James Gandolfini’s extraordinary performance as Tony, which was somehow always compelling and never inconsistent despite traversing such diverse dramatic territory, could not have made for such compelling drama without extraordinary female counterparts. Most movies about mobsters have flimsy female characters – we never see much of Kay Corleone, for example, and she’s just about the only woman in the Godfather films. But Carmela Soprano is as complex and fascinating a character as her husband, and has to face some similar choices. Edie Falco is highly sympathetic as a woman who loves the little world of her family, but increasingly cannot put up with the moral compromises it rests on, while Dr Melfi is also a challenging character, and Lorraine Bracco has to be alternatively dispassionately clinical in the consultation room and a flesh-and-blood woman in the rest of her life. Nancy Marchand as Tony's mother is also nothing short of extraordinary. David Chase and his team created female characters that held their own in a series that frequently depicted a man's world.

But today is a day for praising the late, lamented James Gandolfini. He put in many fine performances throughout his career (In The Loop is a particular favourite of mine, and here are some others) but he will always be remembered primarily for Tony Soprano, criminal and victim, killer and provider, Don and Dad. It's the greatest male character in the history of television, and it could not have become that without the extraordinary brutality and vulnerability that Gandolfini brought to Tony Soprano, a man we loved despite his flaws, and perhaps ultimately even because of them.