As The Sopranos celebrates its 20th anniversary Greg Fleming sets aside 85 hours and sits down for a marathon rewatch.

I've been as guilty of it as anyone — proclaiming we're living in a Golden Age of TV — recently we've had Escape at Dannemora, Succession, a politically charged season of The Good Fight and Patrick Melrose - all of them great in their own way, but as good as they are, will I return to them in twenty years' time?

That's an eternity in the pop culture zeitgeist. Most shows, even good ones (anyone remember HBO's first original drama Oz or our own short-lived cop show Harry?) — are, like Trump's dismissed Cabinet members, forgotten in a news cycle or two.

Unless, that is, the show's — Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad or the grandaddy of them all The Sopranos.

All turn up in every "greatest of all time" discussions; but cast your eye to the top of the list and, odds on, you'll see The Sopranos — a show dreamt up by a depressed, middle-aged, then moderately successful TV exec with mummy issues named David Chase, about a depressed, moderately successful mobster with mummy issues named Tony Soprano.

Advertisement

Surprise hit

Chase had been hiding in plain sight for years; had worked on The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure when the opportunity to create his own show fell into his lap.

Not exactly the sort of pedigree you'd expect from someone who would soon create the greatest show of all time but Chase, after a career of toeing the line and making compromises, had a vision.

In 1997 as he finished filming the pilot he said — "It'll either change the face of television forever, or sink like a stone."

Even the cast members thought it'd be cancelled early.

The show didn't just float when it finally aired in 1999 it levitated; snaring millions of viewers early it never looked back, running until 2007 when Chase shut the juggernaut down (much to the horror of his HBO bosses) with that ending.

By then Chase was tired of it, said he'd "had enough".

The Sopranos Sessions

Advertisement

Over the last two months I've rewatched all six seasons to see if it's as good as everyone says it is (there were seven seasons really — there're 21 eps in season 6; but apparently making it two would've require giving too many people a wage rise).

That's around 85 hours of tv; and by my side was a new book about the show The Sopranos Sessions by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz.

During its original run the authors were covering television for New Jersey's Star Ledger (the hometown newspaper of both Tony Soprano and David Chase) and that knowledge combined with the detailed research and episode-by-episode exposition make this the definitive Sopranos tome.

As novelist Laura Lippman observes in her foreword to their 464 page tome — "If the FBI had brought this level of exhaustive investigation to the Soprano Family itself, Tony would have been locked up by the end of season one."

It's not always an easy watch — "The Sopranos challenged TV to be better," the Sopranos Sessions authors write, "and it challenged us to be better viewers."

It's a deep-dive read that fans can return to, each time gleaning new insights — did you know for example that Al Green's Love and Happiness was almost the song accompanying those final moments? (Journey's Don't Stop Believin' of course prevailed).

Reading this book is almost as good as watching the show itself; almost.

After my rewatch marathon I'm convinced The Sopranos deserves all its plaudits and more; it's an enduring cultural phenomenon of 21st century entertainment not unlike Proust's In Search of Lost Time was for early 20th century literature.

What Proust did for high society Paris — Chase does for a bunch New Jersey mobsters who work out of a strip club — make magnificent, enduring art out of the day-to-day — (one of my favourite scenes is Tony fixing himself a plate of ice cream — sitting down to watch his beloved History Channel before getting interrupted by another one of life's dramas — the look on his face is priceless).

Both works were groundbreaking but also remain emotionally resonant; their impact depeening as the decades pass and the weight of achievement recognised.

Despite Tony's occupation Gandolfini gives him a sort of Everyman spirit, disillusioned, damaged, seeking.

Slow TV

The show's success starts with the writing and casting.

The late Gandolfini is still the most compelling protagonist in tv.

He and his fellow cast members looked different than people on network tv. They were often overweight, slovenly, they weren't particularly articulate or attractive, most were brand new faces, or little known (can you imagine Ray Liotta or Chaz Palimenteri — both considered for the part — as Tony?). That authenticity helped sell that this was a real world we were experiencing.

Despite Tony's occupation Gandolfini gives him a sort of Everyman spirit, disillusioned, damaged, seeking.

"The decent part of Tony," writes Matt Zoller Zeitz, "the part that stood in for the tragically wasted human potential Dr. Melfi kept trying to tease out and embrace, came from Gandolfini. His humanity shone through Tony's rotten facade".

Edie Falco — as trapped in her life-role as Tony is in his — is just as good; and the supporting players — especially ever-coiffed Paulie (Tony Sirico), Chrissie (Michael Imperioli), Adriana (Drea Matteo) and Janice (Aida Turturro) are superb.

Another difference — Chase was in no hurry to tell the story.

Themes would play out over seasons, but apart from a silly sojourn in Italy in season two — it all counted. That patience allowed it to cover a gamut of issues without it ever feeling forced — mental illness, political corruption, homosexuality, suicide, family, matricide, race, toxic masculinity, addiction, even fat-shaming.

Movie like

Chase also approached the episodes as a movie director would — sitting down with the DOP, going through the script, breaking down the scenes into shots.

And its characters spoke differently too.

"It was writing more the way people actually speak in real life. People very often don't say what they mean. They lie to each other," said writer Terence Winter.

I rolled through five episodes of season one the first night. Episode five College is perhaps the first great one, prompting one critic to write — "It's the episode that takes a show from just being one you watch to one you know you'll follow to the ends of the Earth".

Others for me were season six's Soprano Home Movies, season five's Long Term Parking and the unfairly maligned season four finale Whitecaps where even a Dean Martin album is weaponised.

Over the next month I watched at least two episodes a night — often three or four, this was not a tough assignment. Not once did I pick up my phone for some sneaky second screening, or wonder if I should turn it off and see what had dropped on Netflix. Even the dream sequences and the Dr. Melfi scenes, which I'd thought detracted from an episode, made sense now, added depth.

Legacy

Ever the glass-half-empty seer Chase still believes that — "The show's gonna be forgotten, like everything. It's not gonna have a legacy".

But the words Tony says to Chrissie about his shlock horror movie Cleaver in season six suggest Chase, even then, sensed what he'd achieved when Tony tells Christopher — "A hundred years from now when we're dead and gone people will be watching this f**kin thing".

And that legacy continues. Chase is now shooting Newark - a Soprano's prequel set in the 60s, starring none other than James Gandolfini's son.

Most revealingly in The Sopranos Sessions Chase speaks of the sense of working with something larger than himself.

" ... I would think [at times] "This show is meant to be." I would feel like, "I'm not organizing this; someone else is, or a greater power, a muse, is organizing it. How could this fall into my lap like this?".

And finally he talks about that ending.

"What did I mean to say? I meant to say that time here is precious, and it could end at any moment, and somehow, love is the only defence against this very, very cold universe."

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Edie Falco as his wife Carmela. The show is one of the most acute portraits of a marriage on screen.
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Edie Falco as his wife Carmela. The show is one of the most acute portraits of a marriage on screen.

Sopranos takeaways

■ There are no weak seasons; but it's a bit like that old saying about Beethoven's symphonies — "the odd numbers are the ones" — so 1, 3, 5 and what should have been 7.

■ Despite the flip-phones it hasn't dated. Tony's a racist, sexist and depressed mobster who uses charm or bullying to get what he wants — remind you of anyone? As critic Stephen Whitty has pointed out: "We used to marvel at the world of The Sopranos, once. Now, 20 years later, we live in it." And in light of last month's college admissions scandal one can't forget Carmela trying to bribe the college dean with her baking.

■ It's very funny — (Chase was a big Laurel and Hardy fan) full of a particular kind of black humour — a high Christopher sitting on and killing Adriana's dog in season five ("it must've crept under there for warmth" he reasons), the hilarious Waiting for Godot-like Pine Barrens, the ep where Chrissie and Paulie kill a waiter after he had the nerve to question a low tip, and who can forget Lauren Bacall getting mugged for her goody bag.

■ Chase knew his music and used it to devastating effect. The doomed Golria Trillo dancing to The Lost Boy's (Stevie Van Zandt's band) Affection; Sinatra's It was a Very Good Year over the second season opening montage ("The whole show was about ageing, time and mortality," Chase told Noisey in 2015. "That was one of the first instances of presenting that theme musically").

■ It is also one of the most acute portraits of a marriage (Tony and Carmela) ever put on film.

Fans of the show will enjoy this new in-depth weekly pocast