The Sopranos Made “Bad Guys” Heroes

I have discussed on this blog recently how I agree with the fact that episodic TV is dying. It’s part of two major trends that have changed the TV drama landscape of the last ten years. The other seems to be rooting for “bad guys”. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Luck and others all seem to have a common theme, the main character is someone who most people would consider to be a bad a person, and yet we constantly root for their triumph.

All in the Family is well-known for taking TV to another level in the way it tackled controversial topics. Although it was well before my time, and my familiarity with the TV landscape at the time is pretty thin, my understanding is that there was nothing like it before. It went to places that most TV shows didn’t dare to go. This was a time before cable TV and the number of channels was low enough that this show couldn’t hide. From The Museum of Broadcast Communications:

The network had good reason to be wary of reaction to its new show. All in the Family seemed to revel in breaking prime time’s previously unbreakable taboos. Archie’s frequent diatribes laced with degrading racial and ethnic epithets, Mike and Gloria’s obviously active sex life, the sounds of Archie’s belching and of flushing toilets–all broke with sitcom convention. They also and made people sit up and take notice of the new CBS series.

In the late ’80s, Roseanne breached new ground for the family sitcom. A show about a blue collar family, with questionable morals, homosexual friends/family and again controversial topics, definitely took family sitcoms to a new place. This was a totally different approach that more “wholesome” late 80s sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Full House, The Wonder Years and Growing Pains.

Another show about a dysfunctional family debuted shortly after Roseanne ended, but it was a slightly different kind of family. This show is widely considered to be one of the best two TV shows of the last 15 years, and is likely responsible for ushering in a new way of doing things. Move overlooked though, is the fact that it’s lead character, Tony Soprano, was not the traditional hero. Characters on ER and NYPD Blue made bad decisions from time to time, but in general they weren’t considered to be bad people. It’s hard to argue that most of what Tony Soprano did was not evil and wrong. And yet, everyone who watched the show was constantly rooting for his success. This was a guy who committed murders, cheated on his wife, lied to his kids and did about every illegal or immoral thing you can think of, and yet fans of the show always wanted him to come out on top.

My theory has always been that this was accepted because of the subject matter. The Godfather is one of the most popular movies of all time. Goodfellas is considered its spiritual successor for later generations. The Sopranos is essentially an extension of that. And because of the established subculture, it would seem that people were more accepting, especially as time wore on, of rooting for this bad character.

Without that acceptance, it’s hard to believe that shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men would have been so successful. Obviously Mad Men’s Don Draper doesn’t quite go to the same lengths as Tony Soprano. Although he has broken the law1, he hasn’t caused the same physical harm to people. He still stepped out on his wife repeatedly, and is a habitual liar. It’s difficult to relate to Don Draper because he lives in another era. Drinking and smoking in the office, sexually harassing women in the workplace and downright racism are rampant in 1960s New York. If not for The Sopranos blazing the trail for this type of character, it’s interesting to think about whether Mad Men would have succeeded.

Breaking Bad takes things to a whole different place. Walter White is a much more relatable person, a high-school teacher with a wife and kid finds out he has cancer and wants to provide for his family before he dies. In this way, it’s easier for people to “get him” vs. Don Draper. When Walt decides the way he is going to make money for his family by cooking and selling meth, he starts on a path similar to that of Tony Soprano. As one might expect, eventually Walt realizes that once you break a few major laws, you have to break a few more to avoid death or prison and he becomes a downright terrible person. And yet every week people are on the edge of their seats rooting for him to escape and succeed.

It seemed that there used to be a time where there were “good guys” and “bad guys”, and people always rooted for the “good guys”. But somewhere along the way, this all changed. Now, not only do we root for the good guys, but it’s almost unconditional. Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson is this generation’s Tony Soprano2. He steps out on his wife/girlfriend, he steals, cheats and murders people. Luck’s Ace Bernstein seems up to know good, although we still don’t know how evil he is. Many of the most popular shows on TV seem to share this quality, a quality that would not likely have succeeded without The Sopranos success.

  1. At least I think he has, my understanding of 1960s laws is a little fuzzy []
  2. Ironic because this show is set about 30 years before Soprano would have been born []