For a very long time, television was bad. A “vast wasteland,” as FCC chairman Newton Minow called it in his now-quaint 1961 speech Television and the Public Interest. Minow went on to ask his audience to sit through an entire day’s worth of television programs. He promised that: “You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”
Anyone who took Minow up on his challenge would have been hard-pressed to disagree. For every Twilight Zone there was a My Three Sons and two Lassies. Television had barely come on the scene before people started calling it the boob tube and the idiot box.
Time did nothing to improve television’s quality, variety, or impact on culture. The only real innovation in the medium over its first fifty years was the reality show, which, by the end of the 20th century, was threatening to consume Western civilization entirely with increasingly dystopian nightmare offerings. By the time of George W. Bush’s election it seemed like only a matter of time before primetime network television would consist entirely of live executions and Regis Philbin. But then, when all hope seemed lost, a shaft of light burst through the covering darkness. A shaft of light in the bulbous, gabagoolian shape of James Gandolfini.
The Sopranos changed what television could accomplish artistically. It utilized the serialized storytelling, the depth of characterization and theme of a novel, and the visual sensibility of film. Episodes ended without the pat resolution that defined traditional TV drama. Stories stretched out over episodes and seasons. Characters underwent the sort of transformations that would have confused and alienated the audiences of previous generations of shows that thrived on archetypes. Inspired by show creator David Chase’s accomplishment, a whole generation of creative heavyweights set to putting their own mark on the medium. The Davids, Milch and Simon, created a pair of HBO shows, Deadwood and The Wire, respectively, that failed to match The Sopranos in viewership, but achieved posthumous critical canonization. Then, the network AMC, which originally showed old Hollywood movies to a small audience of nostalgic geriatrics, really managed to copy the Sopranosformula with Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. These shows achieved levels of popularity and critical acclaim that had never been seen before, and certainly not on basic cable. TV got so good, in fact, that it wasn’t long before the dominant opinion among cultural tastemakers, from Vanity Fair toNewsweek, was that television had surpassed film as the most vital popular narrative art form.