If it is truly possible to make a bunch of criminals, thieves, and cold-blooded murderers amusing and appealing, then the much-praised HBO serio-comedy The Sopranos did the trick. The title refers not to a gaggle of singers, but to a powerful New Jersey mob family who goes about it's business behind a disarming veneer of suburban respectability. Most of the stories concentrate on middle-aged mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), whose illicit and homicidal activities are treated as par for the course by his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), his college-age daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), and his listless teenage son Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler). Plagued with the usual problems attending his profession, Tony is also weighed down by the travails of his immediate family, not to mention such irritants as his thoroughly venal mother, Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), and the overly ambitious Soprano patriarch Corrado "Uncle Junior" Soprano (Dominic Chianese), with whom Tony is locked in an eternal power struggle. At his wit's end, Tony begins consulting a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), who is understandably queasy over being privy to the most intimate details of mob activity. The large and ever-changing supporting cast includes Tony Sirico as obsequious mob torpedo Paulie Walnuts, John Heard as "bought" detective Vin Makazian, Michael Rispoli as capo Jackie Aprile, David Proval as Jackie's testy ex-con brother Richie Aprile, Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti, Steve Van Zandt as Silvio Dante, Aida Turturro as Tony's sister Janice, Drea de Matteo as Adrianna, Vincent Pastore as Pussy Bompensiero, Joseph Badalucco Jr. as Jimmy Altieri, Michele DeCesare as Hunter, Anthony de Sando as Brendan Filone, Jerry Adler as Hesh Rabkin, and Kathrine Narducci as Charmaine Bucco.
The series was created by David Chase, who previously served as a writer/producer for such "mainstream" shows as Northern Exposure and I'll Fly Away, and who, born David DeCesare, claimed that a goodly portion of the series is autobiographical (in terms of family interrelationships, if not "the family business"). The Sopranos was almost picked up by Fox, but Chase took a pass when the network insisted upon having casting approval (apparently Fox preferred the best-looking actors to the best actors). The HBO link-up allowed Chase greater freedom in terms of the series' profanity and violence quotient, which provides a realistic backdrop for the oftimes surreal comings and goings of the Sopranos and their various relatives, friends, foes, and business associates. Debuting January 10, 1999, The Sopranos immediately became a popular and critical favorite with the New York Times gushing that the series is "the greatest work of American pop culture of the past quarter century." ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi