Before, few shows were designed to hold season-long, series-long narrative arcs (the ones that promised to like The X-Files couldn't really pull it off). Very few shows were character studies. Drama itself was viewed as a dying breed as the costs of making them for the major networks were getting too high. And TV drama was stuck in a kind of self-censored halfway point, unable and unwilling to push the boundaries of decorum to see how far audiences were willing to go.
In stepped HBO, offering an openness of its marketplace to allow for the creation of a show like The Sopranos to flourish. Looking past the nudity and profanity and gore, this was a show that asked us to examine the life of a mafioso, slightly more sociopathic than most people but in most respects an Everyman stuck with the traumas and dread of middle-class, middle-age self-inflicted hell.
James Gandolfini imbued Tony Soprano with calculated savvy and genuine intellect: a character twice as smart as everybody else in the room yet with little to show for it, but a suppressed rage and a desire to find some honest meaning in the world and his place in it. Before this, he'd been a Hey It's That Guy background character, providing some memorable performances in small roles such as the ex-stuntman in Get Shorty, or the guy beating up Patricia Arquette in True Romance, talking about how his first kill was such a shock to his system and inadvertently giving Arquette the incentive to kill him. Tony Soprano made him an A-Lister.
Gandolfini passed away today at 51, preliminary report is due to a heart attack.
Trying to find an appropriate YouTube clip to do him justice.