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The Sopranos - the new Shakespeare?

17 September 07 15:27 GMT
By Helen Bushby
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Many critics say The Sopranos, which has been named best drama at the Emmy Awards, was a work of genius. Some have even likened it to Shakespeare. But was it really that good?

The show revolved around the troubled life of mobster Tony Soprano, head of the DiMeo "crime family", who suffered such debilitating panic attacks that he resorted to therapy.

Soprano described himself as a "waste-management consultant" - but in reality, he was boss of New Jersey's biggest criminal organisation, and overwhelmingly stressed.

This, coupled with demons he battled from his disturbed childhood, resulted in anxiety so acute that he could lose consciousness.

The show, which was a critical and commercial success during its 86 episodes, focused not only on Soprano's internal turmoil, but also on relationships with his family and murderous mobster colleagues. And, of course, his long-suffering psychiatrist.

It won 22 Emmys and five Golden Globes, and was shown around the world.

"The standard was always incredibly high," says Ben Macintyre, who writes for The Times.

"It covered all the great elements of drama like Shakespeare - Tony Soprano really is King Lear. The show's themes are the great themes of literature."

The show depicted "fathers fighting sons, kings controlling kingdoms, treachery, loyalty, love, guilt, revenge... everything really", Mr Macintyre says.

He adds that it was about "a bad man with good in him, trying to understand how he works".

He also compares it with Charles Dickens, saying the show, which ran from 1999 until it ended in the US this June, was like a "huge, sprawling novel" with "small cameo parts that pull you along through it".

'Male weaknesses'

High praise for David Chase's series was echoed by the Radio Times's Jack Seale, who raves about it as "the best programme on the box".

"It's so comprehensive in the way it deals with human emotions, and with the standard of its direction and writing it's hard to imagine how it could be improved," he says.

The Shakespeare comparison is valid because "the show's so good at dealing with men and male weakness - inherent personality flaws we can't get away from which cause eternal misery", he says.

"Soprano can't resist adultery and violence, and can't commit to relationships - although he'd like to. But when he tries to be a better person, his fecklessness trips him up," he says.

Mr Seale explains that its creator was exceedingly clever to use the mob as a "magnifier" of human flaws.

The characters were already prone to violence because of their job, making for "heightened dramas".

He sums up the show by saying it was "like watching a movie every week."

Variety magazine's Ali Jaafar agrees The Sopranos was a "milestone drama series, a landmark in US TV".

The show reclaimed its Emmy best drama title, which it last won in 2004, because it had reached its last episode, he believes.

"Like the final Lord of the Rings film winning at the Oscars, it won this year because Americans like awarding a body of work, plus it was the last chance for them to do so," he says.

'Master of quality'

The HBO show "didn't treat audiences as stupid, it respected their intelligence", he says, adding that it focused on the "universal themes of family and tragedy".

Describing the series as "almost Shakespearean", Mr Jaafar praises both its star, James Gandolfini, and the "beautifully" written scripts by Chase, who was a "master" of quality.

He adds that the supporting cast "became richer as seasons continued".

Episodes delved into the lives of characters including Soprano's conflicted wife Carmela, his murderous mother Livia, his children Meadow and Anthony Jr and his Uncle Junior.

Mr Jaafar also explains that after 11 September 2001, the US was more willing to accept "darker fare and more serious material" on TV.

"You can see a changing landscape on American TV after 9/11 - The Sopranos was one of the first, followed by 24 and The Shield - gritty, well-written, expensive shows," he says.

Such fare stood out against a "barrage of reality and non-scripted TV programmes", he adds.

New contenders

So are there any new shows on US television that might come close to replacing The Sopranos for TV viewers?

Mr Jaafar says the "much-hyped" Pushing Daisies - about a baker who is able to resurrect the dead - could be one to watch. He also mentioned Cane, starring LA Law's Jimmy Smits, about a sugar-producing Latino family.

Mr Seale reckons Dexter, about serial killer Dexter Morgan, shares similar production values to the mob drama.

But the critics are all agreed that it will be very tough to replace the "sheer brilliance" of Sopranos, the final series of which is currently showing in the UK on E4.

"It's the best show there's ever been or will be on TV," Mr Seale says. It will be a tough act to follow.

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