Randi Kreiss

Cable and PBS: They make TV worth watching


Do you ever wonder whether Tony died in the last episode of “The Sopranos”? Remember the family sitting in a restaurant, and a guy in a Members Only jacket walked through, heading to the restroom, and after a minute the scene faded to black, and that was that?

Tony may or may not have died; you may or may not care. But millions of Americans did, and they tuned in to HBO on Sunday nights to watch the wise guys, good guys and bad guys duke it out. In his lively book “The Revolution Was Televised,” Alan Sepinwall describes “The Sopranos” as a masterpiece that changed TV forever. “The refusal to be all things to all people was a key part of what made ‘The Sopranos’ so revolutionary,” he writes. “For 50 years, TV had operated under a big-tent philosophy; you tried to rope as many people into the tent as possible … and you gave them the same thing over and over …”

We all lived in that TV tent. Many of us grew up with “I Love Lucy,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Father Knows Best,” the quiz shows, the talk shows and now the reality shows. In the ’70s and ’80s we overdosed on cop shows, doctor shows and lawyer shows. All pretty much the same, with a plot tweak here and there.

Then, after decades of pap, along came cable and PBS, and the menu became varied, nuanced and, at its best, thrilling. Congress created PBS in 1967, following a recommendation from the Carnegie Institute. One of the earliest successes on PBS was “Sesame Street,” and the good programming just kept on coming. These days, millions of viewers watch the arch of Maggie Smith’s eyebrow, attempting to read her deliciously wicked thoughts about the troubled residents of “Downton Abbey.” I say change the accents and the costumes and replace Carson the butler with Big Pussy, and you have “The Sopranos” all over again. That’s a good thing.

According to “The Sopranos’” website, by season six, the body count was 55. For many of us, however, the draw wasn’t the violence, but the human drama. A big-time racketeer killer who was enraged by his rebellious adolescent children. The complicated code of honor and loyalty among men who murder easily and without the burden of conscience or morality. Women who balance love with the knowledge that the men they love are thieves, thugs and killers.

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