Shows like 'The Sopranos' revolutionised US TV — but the UK invented it
Like its hero, The Sopranos is the big guy. It changed the way TV drama is made and perceived, opening the door to a new gold standard of long-form, non-genre dramas — The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Succession — which explored characters and situations with unaccustomed-to layers of depth. That’s the widely held view, noted here recently by Dorian Lynskey, and there’s definitely truth to it when we’re talking about American TV.
But whenever somebody says so I get a little twinge and I want to wave a flag for Britain — because we’ve forgotten that our industry, with a fraction of the budget and in tiny studios, was doing the same thing decades before.
It was technological innovation that birthed The Sopranos and its inheritors. Before the 1980s almost all American drama (outside of daytime soaps) was episodic, not serialised, with rigid formats and a story of the week. This was because episodes had to be interchangeable, with film prints being distributed in any order into syndication after their networked heydays. Which is why, for example, you can watch Mission: Impossible or Columbo in any order.
Inevitably this has an effect on the content of these series, in which the characters never learn or develop because they have to be reset like skittles for the next episode.
This gradually changed with the advent of the domestic video recorder and more effective distribution. Dallas led the way in the late 70s but it took another twenty years to fully break US TV out of the episodic habit, and to assume an active, devoted engagement with an intelligent audience more likely to tape a missed episode.
The situation in Britain was radically different. For temperamental or cultural reasons (and with fewer TV channels) British programme makers could always rely on viewers to be more loyal and attentive. And that meant our TV drama of all varieties was much more likely to be serialised, with characters and situations developing week by week.
So yes, The Sopranos revolutionised American TV. But Britain had been making long form TV drama with the same texture a long time before — Callan, Tenko, Upstairs Downstairs, Colditz and Secret Army are every bit as sharp, cleverly plotted, and rewarding as the new US drama.
These shows have fallen down the memory hole of TV history — though pleasingly Tenko and Upstairs Downstairs are now streaming on Britbox. Mainly this is for technical reasons. 20th century British TV, made in 4:3 on videotape in multi-camera studios as only soaps are today, now looks positively quaint. Their depiction of physical action looks phenomenally fake to 21st century eyes.
But these series deserve to be remembered, and to be watched. The 1969 series of the now utterly forgotten Public Eye, which tells the story of the the lead character emerging from prison, is a masterclass right up there with the best American shows of the modern era. The portrayal of every aspect of Edwardian society in Upstairs Downstairs is unflinching, and often uncomfortable. Tenko is a visceral portrait of privileged lives turned upside down. These shows look very different to their modern American successors but they have much in common with them, being astute, undidactic, and very, very well-written.
So yes, David Chase inadvertently reinvented this kind of television and the world took notice. But Britain invented it.