Wesley Snipes starred as inner city gangster Nino Brown in New Jack City in 1991, and even 20+ years ago Nino had Scarface “on repeat – constant, y’all” in the words of another gangster recently played by James Franco in Spring Breakers.
Our culture doesn’t like too many rules – especially ones that don’t make sense. And we romanticize those with the guts to live by their own rules.
Yet, prior to The Sopranos, TV only depicted such characters on the margins of the story – or in a watered-down version. Then, as Alan Sepinwall explores in his book “The Revolution was Televised,” Tony Soprano changed all that – placing the anti-hero at the center of the story and allowing the viewer to root for him.
For me, it wasn’t that I always liked the bad guy so much as the good guy was just too square for me to root for. So it was inevitable I’d be a sucker for Tony and the story of his families (that would have been the case even if my family wasn’t Italian – a clinching factor like sugar on the cannoli).
The Sopranos depicted the appeal of the Wiseguy, the similarities between corporate corruption and street crime, that even people who did very bad things loved children and animals (especially ducks) – all the while with more comedy than most any sitcom. This is the show that started it all, but still is only No. 2 on my list.
My Top 5 TV shows of all-time starts with Breaking Bad at No. 5. More than a few respected opinions has Walter White’s saga rated first – but for me, although the craftsmanship is unmatched, the raw emotion and commentary on the human condition is slightly smaller than the others in my pantheon.
The evolution of a chemistry teacher into the architect of a meth empire is no doubt thrilling – especially for those enthralled by the power of the mind. The final season premiered Sunday on AMC, and all prior seasons are currently streaming on Netflix.
My No. 4 is Mad Men – the only show on the list without daily life and death stakes. The societal changes of the 60’s acts as a backdrop to the journey of Don Draper, exploring how childhood, the marketing behind commerce, business conquests, and sexual conquests contribute to a man’s identity. If you can enjoy drama without murder, this is a don’t-miss show.
My No. 3 is The Wire – the first and maybe only novel for television. Not as much about people as the systems they inhabit, the show’s five seasons explored drugs, law enforcement, the political system, the school system, unions, and the press. More than any other show, this world feels real – and that fact is thrilling and scary in equal measure.
Even ahead of The Sopranos, my No. 1 show is Deadwood – the other shows admirably explore truths TV used to hide. Deadwood explores the truths we hide from ourselves. I don’t particularly like shows set in the distant past. I don’t particularly like Westerns.
David Milch’s masterpiece is about humanity in the mud, stripped of modern niceties that can obscure the depth of our self-interest – laying bare our most basic needs and the lengths we are willing to go to meet them. Deadwood answers why the world is a place that worships Scarface.
RJ Bell is the founder of Pregame.com - and co-host of FIRST PREVIEW, heard Monday through Friday at 10 am on ESPN 1100/98.9 FM. Follow on twitter: @RJinVegas. Discussion of this article continues at Pregame.com. Contact RJ at [email protected]