Christopher Bray

How The Sopranos changed TV for ever

Peter Biskind describes how a once despised medium became the definitive narrative art form of the early 21st century. But has it now passed its peak?

Members of The Sopranos cast in 1998. [Getty Images]

‘Too many characters, too many plot lines, characters who weren’t very good at their jobs, and their personal lives were a mess.’ Thus the memo to the creatives behind Hill Street Blues. ‘It was like a blueprint for what made every show successful since The Sopranos,’ Kevin Spacey giggles to Peter Biskind. ‘If the NBC executives had had their way, the road from then to now would never have been paved.’ As the quondamlead of one of that road’s biggest stones, House of Cards, Spacey can perhaps be excused his post hoc moment. Still, his big point stands. There was TV before The Sopranos and TV after The Sopranos, and they are not the same.

In Pandora’s Box, Biskind tells the story of how a medium once despised as pabulum for the great unwashed became the narrative art form of the first two decades of the 21st century. That’s right. Biskind believes that ‘peak TV’ has been and gone. This thesis gives his book the kind of tight three-act structure of the shows he loves disdain. It’s a nice conceit, but a glance at the Radio Times is enough to show that a conceit is all it is. Could it be that Biskind needed some imaginary drama to enliven an otherwise ho-hum tale?

He made his name with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), an interview-based account of the Movie Brats revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The book heaved with sex, drugs and Tinseltown gossip that had you howling with laughter and honking with disgust even as you marvelled anew at the modernist masterpieces of Altman, Bogdanovich, Coppola et al.

Alas, the writers and directors in tellyland, while unpleasant enough, are yawns by comparison. ‘I pissed in someone’s pencil cup’ is as colourful as things get. Your eyes light up when Chris Albrecht, the CEO of HBO, is nicked for assaulting his fiancée, but glaze over again when a judge orders Albrecht to get some domestic-abuse counselling.

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