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TV had had villains before, and even Villains You Love before (Archie Bunker and J.R. Ewing come to mind), but Tony Soprano took things to an entirely new level. This was no mere smirking bad boy but a six-season dive into the heart of darkness. And after him, our concept of a leading man would be changed forever. James Gandolfini, who died today at age 51, created and inhabited the role of Tony Soprano as no actor had ever taken on a bad guy role, and made TV a deeper, richer medium as a result.
Before Tony Soprano, bad guys either had to be forgiven (as with Archie) or laughed away (as with J.R.). Eventually we would be shown that under that gruff exterior, they really weren't all that bad. Or if they were, it was just a big game, played up for camp. Lovable scalawags like J.R. in the end were too cartoonish to be threatening or scary.
But in the hands of James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano only became scarier as we grew closer to him. Debuting as "The Sopranos" did in the age of "Friends," this was a revelation.
What was particularly terrifying about Tony wasn't his savagery — film and TV are filled with that — but that Gandolfini made him precisely what J.R. Ewing was not; the realest possible bad guy; more real than the good guys; the psycho next door who worries about his family and kids and keeping his business afloat just like you, I, and all our neighbors do.
One great test of a TV drama's success is whether after every season you feel you know a character better than you did the year before. Even as the story sometimes soared into baroque drama, Gandolfini found the little moments — the asides, the attentions to his family, the shrugs, the appetites, with not a false note in six seasons — that made him grow as a presence in our lives. Every year, we saw him in his struggles both mundane and terrifying, and we came to know him more intimately than we did many of our closest friends.
And never in his performance did Gandolfini for one moment give the audience a wink to say, oh no, he's not really like that. And never for a moment did his performance apologize for Tony or let the audience stand above him and feel superior to this gangster.
And after getting to know him like this — seeing his struggles, his family, the demons he carried down from his parents and their parents — how could we condemn him just because he had to whack a guy or two now and then?
And that's what ultimately made the show and the character so compelling. How could this man we knew so well, whom we felt so much for, still be so unrepentantly evil? How after going through so much with us could he still act this way? Thanks to James Gandolfini's six-year tour in the track suit, these are questions that will haunt every "Sopranos" fan till the end of time.
Watch Gandolfini in the final scene of "The Sopranos":
See the many sides of Gandolfini's Tony Soprano: