The passing of James Gandolfini

Ross Douthat called him “the best actor in the best TV show of all time.”  I consider that to be a fair description.  I will never forget Tony proclaiming in one episode “He ain’t got ungatz” (sp?) and suddenly understanding what my father had meant by that many years ago.  In my dotage I hope to watch through all of the episodes once again.  Here is one good obituary; Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey and was born in Westwood, both very close to my own upbringing.

Gandolfini was not very well known when he was cast as Tony Soprano, and of course this raises the broader question of how much talent is actually out there.

@ModeledBehavior asked an interesting question: “Are any of the nominees I’m seeing for best TV show ever not centered around crime?”


ugatz (oogatz)

Gandolfini was very good in several films prior to the Sopranos, including "Mr. Wonderful", "True Romance" and "Get Shorty".

I thought his turn in "The Mexican" was not bad, either.

I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but I think he was poor in Get Shorty. That he played a sympathetic role with a sympathetic screen writer does not detract from the fact he did little with the part.

On the other hand I think that with Tony Sporano the stars and planets all aligned just right for him. There are some actors who are just perfect for some roles and some roles that are just perfect for some actors. He was never in anything as good, nor did any role bring out as much in him. Unlike, say Ray's wife in Everyone Loves Raymond (who could be substituted for any one of a dozen ball busting "fiesty" wives), or even his mother come to that (although it would be harder, but again there are any number of annoying Jewish grandmothers out there), it is hard to imagine anyone else being Tony Soprano.

What a shame.

Very, very sad. There are people in their early/mid twenties who love the current serialized dramas on HBO/AMC that The Sopranos is partly responsible for. I will try to convince them to start watching The Sopranos.

I'm wondering...In the interest of privacy and to avoid crowds at the burial site, should he have asked to be buried next to Jimmy Hoffa..

Inappropriate comment

Since I grew up on the other side of pascack valley from him I always felt a connection. Very sad.

3 high testosterone U.S. celebrity males in the prime of life pass away within a day or so of each other (Gandolfini, Vince Flynn, and the Rolling Stone reporter who indirectly criticized both Gen McChrystal and Democratic party leaders). Requiescant in pace cives et quirites ... (rest in peace fellow citizens...)

His performance as Tony was one of the most compelling things I've ever watched onscreen. It's really sad to think that he's gone. He'll live on forever as the high point of his medium.

I think Steve Sailer pointed out that urban crime shows displaced the western as a setting for American drama. In any case, 'Cheers' was a pretty great show.

Mad Men is not an urban crime show (as conventionally defined). Nor is Game of Thrones or Lost.

Agreed. Drama is not really about the plot, but about the characters. The Sopranos, Mad Men and Game of Thrones are connected by the transgressive sovereignty of their protagonists. They get away with murder, sometimes literally. This is appealling and romantic in a 21st century which is characterised by extensive social inter-dependence, permanent surveillance and the economic decline of the West. Hitchcock skewered this sentiment towards the good old days of transgressive sovereignty in "Vertigo".

"The essence of drama is conflict."

-director character in a simpsons episode

"Mad Men is not an urban crime show (as conventionally defined). Nor is Game of Thrones or Lost."

I don't think you can really make an argument for any of those being the best TV show ever though. Certainly not Lost, which had way too many episodes (or entire seasons) that were just terrible. Hmmmm, if you change it to what is the best season, or part of a season, of television ever, Lost is now a top contender. Are there other shows where that change makes a big difference?

Are there really that many crime dramas that could really be called the best ever? I think when someone makes that statement everyone starts thinking of the The Wire and nodding their heads, but I don't think there's actually all that many. I don't think Law & Order counts. Too many things that leave lawyers and cops shaking their heads wondering what the writers were smoking. It's distracting, and it's also cheating. It's harder to make a good show based in reality.

I think Seinfeld would have a good shot at that title, but thinks start getting really confusing when you try to compare a comedy to a crime drama. I'd love to put Arrested Development on the short list, but it does sometimes feel like they tried to force too many jokes at times, and how do you judge something that only lasted 2.5 seasons?

How do you judge this at all? Popularity is right out I hope. For one it's a boring standard and two it's wrong. Best is not the same as most popular. I think my preferred way of judging it ultimately ends up being kind of elitist and ignoring the opinions of a large percentage of people, but isn't that how every kind of award show or opinion column works? People with some expertise explain to the reality-tv watching masses why their opinions are wrong and who they should be cheering for.

Serious TV critics will definitely make the case that Mad Men is the best show ever. And I've seen some do the same with GoT.

I have not subscribed to cable since The Sopranos ended (and never to satellite).

Do you need to subscribe to a satellite? I thought you just put up a dish and receive the signals.

You subscribe to a box that decodes the scrambled signals you receive into a television signal.

Information is free, but knowing how to use it isn't.

The Sopranos was a very good TV show. But there is far superior stuff than that. I though that Gandolfini's character was a bit artificial as well, though that would also be the fault of the show's writing.

I agree.

“Are any of the nominees I’m seeing for best TV show ever not centered around crime?”

Interestingly, since I haven't watched crime based TV that was artistically accomplished. I guess that crime series have a broader demographic appeal among Americans than non-crime shows (hardcore stuff like Babylon 5 - it's my fav. American tv series - only appeals to niche audiences, mainstream stuff is pretty much crime or disposable trash (such as Family Guy)).

Also notice that all nominations are for American TV series, I guess that TV in the US is completely dominated by domestic productions. Well, in my country things are not very different: TV is dominated by a mix of domestic and American productions.

There are very few shows in the US that are directly lifted from non-US sources, and most of them are from Britain with a smattering of Canadian shows. The majority of shows that are brought to the US from overseas are reworked in the US with American settings and actors, or at least American-accented actors. Shows like Doctor Who and Flashpoint fall into the former category while shows like The Office and Coupling fall into the latter one. The problem with foreign shows in the US is that the typical American hates subtitles and especially hates dubbing (unless it's a kung fu movie). In other words, if it's not done in English originally, it's probably not going to get on the air in the US.

The above of course only applies to English-language entertainment in the US. The Spanish-language channels might have different programming tastes because a large proportion of their audiences are drawn from people who were born in other countries and who therefore might be accepting of subtitles and dubbing. Though I imagine that if they have foreign-sourced shows, they are probably original Spanish-language shows from places like Mexico and Argentina.

Does the show that is centered around US Senator qualify as a crime show? 'Cause Spacey was very good in the House of Cards. Or, as you put it, "artistically accomplished".

My guess as to why crime has such broad demographic appeal is that the genre combines highly dramatic elements and familiarity to the average viewer.

Dramatic elements include things like violence, morally-ambiguous characters, underdog protagonists, good cop/bad cop dynamics, etc. These kinds of elements show up in most popular entertainment, including sci-fi.

As for familiarity, people seem to like stories about things they feel connected to, however vaguely. They watch CNBC because they own an index fund. They watch sports and cheer for their team because they're from that city. They watch crime because they've been personally affected by it, or they know someone who has been affected by it, or they know a criminal, or they fear becoming a victim of criminals.

Put the two together and you have a dramatic story that also manages to feel very personal. Just my guess.

“Are any of the nominees I’m seeing for best TV show ever not centered around crime?” Uhm... "All in the Family?"

"All in the Family" was gigantic in its own time, #1 in the Nielsens for five straight years, and a subject of constant debate in the press. The contradiction between how the liberal writers would stack the deck against Archie Bunker, yet he'd still wind up the hero due to Carroll O'Connor's charisma was compelling. But it doesn't seem to wear well. Perhaps it was too much of its time.

The most remarkable television show ever for popularity, both in its own time and in the generations since, has been "I Love Lucy." Thus, Lucille Ball would be the frontrunner for the top actor/actress in television history.

'yet he’d still wind up the hero due to Carroll O’Connor’s charisma.'

Just like Homer Simpsonstill winds up the hero, that is.

Still crime related = "Family"

“Are any of the nominees I’m seeing for best TV show ever not centered around crime?”

That assumes that the best TV shows are dramas. Yet, the shows that dominate in reruns year after year are sit-coms, followed by "resetting" single episode dramas like Law & Order. Long-arc dramas are fine, but once people find out what happens, how often do they go back to rewatch them? Seinfeld & David are a lot richer than David Simon.

Here are the top 25 syndicated shows for the most recent week:

Rank Program Dist. Days HH rating Viewers (000)
1 JUDGE JUDY (AT) CTD MTWTF.. 6.6 9147
2 BIG BANG-SYN (AT) WB MTWTF.. 6.4 10025
4 JEOPARDY (AT) CTD MTWTF.. 5.5 8174
5 WEEKEND ADVENTURE DAL ......S 5.1 7053
6 BIG BANG WKND B (AT) WB ......S 5.0 7663
7 BIG BANG WKND A (AT) WB ......S 4.7 7318
9 FAMILY FEUD (AT) 2/T MTWTF.. 4.2 6138
10 LAW & ORDER: SVU-SYN (AT) NBU ......S 3.8 5255
11 Family Guy-WK-SYN (AT) 2/T ......S 3.4 4793
13 Family Guy-MF-SYN (AT) 2/T MTWTF.. 3.2 4860
14 LAW & ORDER-SYN (AT) NBU ......S 2.9 3917
16 CASTLE (AT) DAD ......S 2.6 3452
18 DR. PHIL SHOW (AT) CTD MTWTF.. 2.5 3344
19 WHEEL OF FORTUNE WKND CTD ......S 2.5 3926
20 Criminal Minds-SYN (AT) CTD ......S 2.5 3742
21 HOW I MET-MTHR-MF-SYN(AT) 2/T MTWTF.. 2.4 3324
23 HOUSE-SYN (AT) NBU ......S 2.4 3283
24 KING OF THE HILL-SYN(AT) 2/T MTWTF.. 2.2 2996
Why Aren't The Simpsons on This List?!

While The Simpsons repeats are available nationally its ratings are not counted in the weekly syndicated ratings because The Simpsons does not sell any national advertising in syndication.

"Yet, the shows that dominate in reruns year after year are sit-coms."

That seems to me a poor metric for discerning the best show of all time, or even which ought be nominated. I find that "worse" (i.e., less artistically challenging/creative) TV shows and films tend to be easier to go back and re-watch, not because I do or don't know what happens, but because a "better" show/film tends to actually require some degree of effort on my part that a "worse" show/film does not.

Since most people are looking to just turn their brains off for a little while when they throw on the TV, one would expect shows of a lesser artistic quality to do better commercially. This is doubly true in the syndication context, where more episodic shows will be advantaged by (what I assume to be) the more irregular viewing habits of most viewers.


I'm not sure I'd put a drama in my top 10 all-time list. I mean I enjoyed the Sopranos, but really, "best ever?"

Best ever lists in my life would have to include Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Jeopardy, and Mythbusters.

The Big Bang Theory is a weird deal.

I am very sorry to hear this terrible news. I always liked him in his various roles (I thought he was pretty good in True Romance) but I actually don't share the general admiration for 'The Sopranos'. I've watched some years and didn't finish the whole thing.

'The Wire', imho, is a better crime-related TV show and, as best-of-the-best, things like 'Rome', 'Firefly', 'GoT' and even 'The Borgias' will be on my list ahead of 'The Sopranos'...

Don't forget his role as General Miller in the great political satire "In the Loop":

Do we know anything on cause of death? Fifty-one seems scary-young.

Many great TV shows are about crime, but fewer great films. Probably something to do with the higher public moral standards of society before 1960, combined with the weaker hold TV has on emotion and its greater reliance on intellect.

As Churchill said of the Khyber Pass region: life there is full of interest.

Hobbesian worlds are easily dramatized. For example, Walter White teaching chemistry is not that exciting, but Walter White cooking meth has potential.

I guess it depends on what you mean both by "great" and "about crime," but it seems like plenty of great movies are about crime. The Godfather saga, pretty much the entire works of Scorsese and Hitchcock, Chinatown, Badlands, Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Sting, The French Connection, most westerns, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, etc.

I completely agree. However, "plenty" is perfectly compatible with "fewer". Cinema also has many other genres which haven't thrived in the same way on TV, such as romance, horror and historical epics. TV has recently taken the edge on historical epics, as budgets have grown in the last 5 years. I think that is a function of the characteristics I mentioned. It's hard to see how you do Days of Heaven as a TV show. Furthermore, the films you listed, except Hitchcock, come from the post-1960 period of greater laxity of moral standards, but film critics seem to believe that the best films were mostly released before 1960 when cinema was a newer and more vibrant medium. I'd name directors like Welles, Renoir, Wilder, Powell/Pressburger, or Curtiz, whose work wasn't so oriented towards crime and anti-heroes, as well as Hitchcock whose work obviously was.

I just couldn't stand the Soprano family. I guess I'm old fashioned, but I need a somewhat likable protagonist.

I'd pay good money to read an autobiographical sketch by Tyler. Mankiw (also from Jersey btw) gave us one in his recent essay in defense of the 1%. I was kind of surprised Mankiw's parents didn't go to college and Mankiw was pretty much self-made. Given Tyler was a chess prodigy, I didn't imagine him with the tough talking Tony Soprano-esque father. But maybe my imagining of Tyler's childhood is way off the mark.

of course this raises the broader question of how much talent is actually out there.

A major factor is looks. It's very hard to get your foot in the door in film and TV in America (somewhat less so in the UK) if you're not perceived as attractive. Although it's more true for female actors, it also applies to men: other than Gandolfini, how many other leading men in live action tv or movies (i.e. Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin don't count) are heavyset men in their 40s?

"I consider that to be a fair description": except that you haven't seen every TV show ever made. So really it's just hyperbole.

Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey and was born in Westwood, both very close to my own upbringing.

It's only now, coming up on 18 years since I left there, that I realize that there is a northern New Jersey culture and it is distinct.

In the last three weeks, I had been re-watching all of the Sopranos episodes. I had just watched the finale a couple of days ago. His work on that show was simply brilliant, and it saddens me that he won't get to enjoy the rewards of that work any longer than he did.

Like Yancy, I have watched almost every episode recently. HBO is running them weekdays at 8 eastern. Watching the second time I realize the writing is a lot more about comedy than crime. It is a continuous stream of jokes and absurdities. Dark humor, but clearly comedy. I wish they spent more time with the 'crime family' in R.I. - there was a fun bunch! The odd bullet in the head was an easy way to trim the cast.

I always thought Gandolfini caught a lucky break, as did the producers of the show with a one-trick pony. That was until I saw him in a film where he played a Gay hit man. He was actually quite good in that one...


lots of dark humor, but even more humor of the type: hey we are on top of the world look at that silly and funny things we can say just ignore the fact that we're stuck playing a bunch of mooks we for sure are gonna ignore that (Donizetti would have called this sprezzatura)

"ugatz", still pronounced almost exactly like that in some Italian dialects, is from (excuse the indelicate language any Italian speakers): "un cazzo". This is a slang expression to mean a forceful nothing/anything (depending on where you put your negative). Literally, "cazzo" is a swear word for penis.

There are probably very few Italians alive today who are still shocked by "cazzo". Italians have some of the dirtiest mouths in Europe. I have heard children say "sto cazzo" and adults not even bat an eye. I blame Berlusconi.

I guess Ugatz would be un cazzo in Italian (literally dick, in this case he hasn't got squat)

Sopranos was great, but people give it credit for more than it did. Twin Peaks and Oz blazed a trail Sopranos often gets credit for. Just as Sopranos took that formula and "did it better", shows since Sopranos have "done it better", such as The Wire and (especially) Breaking Bad.

To be honest, Oz and Twin Peaks didn't blaze that trail either. It isn't like serial dramas started in the 1990s.

Comments for this post are closed