Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of July 16, 2007)

The Sopranos set a new standard for excellence in TV drama


  By John Martin

Like many others, I’m still in a state of mourning mixed with withdrawal over the demise of The Sopranos.  Not only was it far and away the best crime based drama on television, it was probably the finest TV series ever produced.

Despite over a hundred channels it can still be a chore finding anything even remotely worthwhile sitting down for.  A big production karaoke contest is the most successful offering, closely followed by a show where contestants try to eat more maggots than each other.  There are so many exclusive sports channels that they’ve had to air spelling bees and hot dog eating contests to fill out their schedules.

But somehow amidst all the rubbish, HBO gave us The Sopranos.  The conflicted New Jersey crime boss, Tony Soprano, would share with the viewer, a delicate balancing act in which he had to navigate his family, his other family and his weekly therapy sessions.

For any number of reasons, dramatic portrayals of organized crime seems to be one of the most successful formulas in movie production.  The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco and the ultra violent Scarface are just a few of the immortal films based on organized crime.  These and other masterpieces follow an impressive tradition of gangster movies from the golden age starring Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and others.

But until The Sopranos, the organized crime theme never made it in a big way to the small screen.  Superb casting, thoughtful character development, witty dialogue and no shortage of whacks helped make The Sopranos a cultural phenomenon.

The series inspired the creation of “The Libranos” a satirical poster depicting Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and other Liberals during the height of adscam as shady, thuggish looking characters based on the promotional artwork for The Sopranos series.  The Liberals howled with displeasure and only inadvertently strengthened the association.

A number of high placed law enforcement officials have actually expressed concern that Tony Soprano and his crew are so well thought of and admired, that it could actually hamper real life efforts to police organized crime.  Toronto police chief and president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), Bill Blair, said as much this past week.  He referred to a report, “Out of the Shadows - An Overview of Organized Crime in Ontario” that outlines the many activities of professional criminal organizations.  The report notes, “Our understanding of organized crime is often based on popular fiction and biographies of retired and reformed gangsters,” and that popularized accounts of organized crime desensitize the public to its true nature and impact.

As most now know, the series ended with some ambiguity and confusion.  Did Tony get whacked in the café?  Or did they keep him around to make a movie in a year or two?  So many of the characters got taken out in the last season that a reunion special may be difficult.

One test for immortality of an entertainment product is its ability to leave an impression beyond its intended purpose.  In this regard, The Sopranos clearly succeeded and set a standard the rest of the industry may find impossible to meet.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

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