1. 'The Sopranos'
The crime saga that cut the history of TV in two, kicking off a golden age when suddenly anything seemed possible. With The Sopranos, David Chase smashed all the rules about how much you could get away with on the small screen. And he created an immortal American antihero in James Gandolfini's New Jersey Mob boss, Tony Soprano, presiding over a crew of gangsters who also double as damaged husbands and dads, men trying to live with their murderous secrets and dark memories. As the late, great Gandolfini told Rolling Stone in 2001, "I heard David Chase say one time that it's about people who lie to themselves, as we all do. Lying to ourselves on a daily basis and the mess it creates."
What an inspiring, terrifying mess it is. The Sopranos ran away with this poll because it changed the world. Chase showed how much storytelling ambition you could bring to television, and it didn't take long for everybody else to rise to his challenge. The breakthroughs of the next few years – The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad – couldn't have happened without The Sopranos kicking the door down. But Chase had a tough time convincing any network to take on a story about a guilt-crazed gangster who goes to therapy, while his mom plots to kill him. "We had no idea this show would appeal to people," he told Rolling Stone. "The show quite unexpectedly made such a splash that it screwed us all up." Somehow The Sopranos kept going for the long bomb over six masterful seasons on HBO with a wild mix of bloodshed and humor. When FBI agents tell Uncle Junior which mobsters they want him to finger, he says with a shrug, "I want to fuck Angie Dickinson – let's see who gets lucky first."
The Sopranos is full of broken characters who linger on in the long-term parking of our national imagination – Edie Falco's Carmela, Dominic Chianese's Junior, Michael Imperioli's Christopher, Tony Sirico's Paulie Walnuts. E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt became Tony's lieutenant Silvio – Chase spotted him on early Bruce Springsteen album covers. (As Chase told Rolling Stone, "There was something about the E Street Band that looked like a crew.") It wouldn't have been possible without Gandolfini's slow-burning intensity – he was the only actor who could bring Tony's angst to life. But all the writing, acting and directing went places TV had never reached before.
The Sopranos arguably hit its creative peak with the famous Pine Barrens episode, where Paulie Walnuts and Christopher get lost in the woods, knowing the Russian gangster they tried to whack is still out there in the darkness. They shiver in the cold. ("It's the fuckin' Yukon out there!") They wait. And worry. The Sopranos never solved this mystery – for all we know, the Russian is still at large, yet another secret these guys can't shake off. On The Sopranos, family loyalties flip, both in the streets and at home. Beloved characters can get whacked at any moment. It kept that sense of danger alive right up to the final seconds. And nearly a decade after it faded to black in a Jersey diner with the jukebox playing "Don't Stop Believin'," The Sopranos remains the standard all ambitious TV aspires to meet.