Do not stop believing.
Around 20 years ago, the Sopranos ushered in a new era of television. One that would no longer play second fiddle after movies. One that put storytelling in the foreground. One that featured some of the finest actors dedicated to cinematic work on the small screen.
It was a show that forced television to grow up, not just in terms of identity, but also in terms of the way people viewed the types of narratives they could program and the kind and the way they were allowed to challenge the audience.
The Sopranos were able to do all of this thanks to the performance of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. He was a vision of depth. A mobster who has panic attacks between murders and takes his daughter to colleges.
But was it the greatest achievement of all time?
I was skeptical until I saw this video essay by Evan Puschak, better known as the nerdwriter … now I'm not so sure. Now I think it could be.
Is James Gandolfini the greatest acting performance of all time as Tony Soprano?
Before I dive in, I just want to thank Puschak for posting videos that are so inspiring and interesting. I think his channel is one of the best in filmmaking and creativity on the internet. Anyway, let's get to Tony.
David Chase created The Sopranos and the show was a hit from the start. If you'd like to learn more about writing the show, we have an article on it.
This scene is from the season 5 episode "Unidentified Black Males," which originally aired in 2004 (and was co-written by Matthew Weiner!) And is set in Tony's psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.
Fans know that this relationship is at the heart of the story.
And the lie he tells Melfi in this episode is about how he got jumped and thus couldn't help his cousin in the past. We know this jumping is a lie, instead he had a panic attack and that's why he was MIA the night his cousin was pinched.
"Tony Soprano will have a panic attack in this therapy session," says Puschak, and "the way James Gandolfini builds on this attack" shows "how it carries us through a complex series of emotions".
This set of emotions makes him wrestle and fight with his own body. He has a panic attack in the office and ends up confessing the truth that he missed the job. As Puschak puts it: "Rhythmic anger, like waves crashing on the bank, is hypnotic and pulls you deeper into its mental and emotional space with each new cycle. "
Seeing a character go through a panic attack that feels so real … but is completely wrong … is the product of incredible acting skills. His ability to point out the delicate source of destructive tendencies is incredible. It's what Tony Soprano is about as a person and what makes him feel whole and real.
Gandolfini meets the nuance of the words with the nuance of the performance. Sure, this may be the best writing and writing room ever shown on television, but it could also be the best cast. Gandolfini justifies the entire show, setting the bar so high that it was difficult to see him as another person on the show.
And he does that in each of the series' 86 episodes.
From the musicality in his voice to the crescendos of anger and emotion, we can really call this the greatest performance. I mean, he did it for 86 hours. Man, I wish he were alive to do it again with another character. He gave us everything he had and it's hard to look back and realize that maybe we didn't appreciate it enough then.
If you have time during the pandemic, check out The Sopranos again.
All in all, do you agree, as Puschak says, that Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano "is probably the greatest acting achievement that has ever been made on screen, small or large," or do you have some other achievement in mind?
Let us know in the comments.
The WGA reunited Sopranos creator David Chase with Sopranos writers Terence Winter and Matthew Weiner for a conversation about creating impactful characters and how writing on The Sopranos influenced their careers. They even touch storylines that never blow up.