Articles about the 20th anniversary of "The Sopranos" repeat the assertion that David Chase's mob saga began the era of "prestige television."
While the ground-breaking influence of "The Sopranos" can't be denied, its amen chorus slights an earlier innovative show, "Hill Street Blues." A 2014 CNN article cited "Hill Street" as the progenitor of "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Breaking Bad," "Deadwood," and all of the other edgy-provocative comedies and dramas that followed.
"Hill Street Blues," which began in 1981 on a nearly defunct NBC, portrayed multiple characters at a fictional New York City police precinct. Steve Bochco's show with its fast-cut scenes and dramatic camera angles was more technically innovative than "The Sopranos." The action looked more like a gritty film than a TV show, all the more impressive in that "Hill Street" appeared on a commercial TV network rather than cable.
The characters on "Hill Street," male and female, were lovable, flawed anti-heroes who set the mold for Tony Soprano. The many recurring personalities dealt with conflicted love affairs, fraught ethical choices and emotional stress flaring into violence.
Also preceding "The Sopranos" were network shows "St. Elsewhere," "L.A. Law," "Homicide: A Life on the Streets" and "NYPD Blue," the latter reprising some of "Hill Street's" characters, most notably Dennis Franz's Andy Sipowicz, a cop cousin of Tony.
As New Republic writer Josephine Livingstone said in deflating some of the grandiose claims made for "The Sopranos," the show's main strength was its writing, how words that appeared simple on the surface conveyed deeper meanings and led to momentous outcomes.
Livingstone and others writing about "The Sopranos" anniversary haven't noted how much Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" scripts influenced "The Sopranos." Characters on "The Sopranos" often reference "The Godfather" films, even re-enacting scenes. Coppola's scripts set the tone for "The Sopranos," displaying an even more striking ability to extract profound meaning from simple words.
"The Sopranos" excels over "The Godfather" in its comedy. "The Godfather" films don't lack humor, but it doesn't lighten the grim atmosphere as the jokes on "The Sopranos" do.
"The Sopranos" undoubtedly spawned a profusion of TV shows aiming for the sophistication once associated with art films. This outpouring of "prestige" shows coincided with the growth of cable TV and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Too many of these "Sopranos" descendants fall short on their writing, as Livingstone notes. Their technical sophistication, artistic beauty and rich costumes don't overcome dialogue and plot weaknesses. Scenes of Tony and Carmela sometimes weren't "pretty," in Livingstone's term, but their words cut deep.