Thank James Gandolfini for Walter White, Don Draper, and Every Great Antihero on Television

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James Gandolfini, who died suddenly Wednesday at the age of 51, is responsible for every great performance on television today. That might seem an overstatement, but, for anyone who has ever watched even one episode of The Sopranos, there's little doubt that it's true.

Tony Soprano might not have been the first anti-hero on television (heck, even the emotionally abusive The Honeymooners' Ralph Kramden was unlikable), but he certainly was the most commercially and critically successful. During Gandolfini's run on The Sopranos, the actor garnered three Emmy wins and millions of viewers — so many, that HBO consistently broke ratings records during its six-season run.

Meaning audiences were intrigued by Tony Soprano. The character might have been violent and psychologically tormented, but, still, viewers were intrigued. The character marked a sea change for television — the small screen wasn't just a mind-numbing medium full of laugh tracks. Tony Soprano proved that with the right premise, writing, and especially cast, the small screen could deliver art.

And did Gandolfini deliver art. Long cast as the heavy in TV and film projects, the actor brought a delicate sensitivity to a flawed character, showing audiences that bad can be so, so very good. The actor had depth, range, and delivered on a seemingly impossible challenge: He made viewers fall in love with a brutal murderer. But he also made the viewing audience smarter — gone were the days where we judged characters by their one-sentence descriptions. Gandolfini forced us to pay attention to the nuances of Tony Soprano, and to patiently wait for the end game before we dismissed the mobster with any one defining adjective. Suddenly, water cooler moments became more refreshing, more complex, and more intelligent. The small screen's brain-melting reputation began to fade away. We started to like the way TV made us think.

In turn, television took note. It wasn't long until antiheroes filled our TV Guides, and not long until antiheroes became essential to a series' success. Dexter Morgan, Don Draper, Nancy Botwin, Tommy Gavin, Damon Salvatore, Francis Underwood, and, of course, Walter White — all of these flawed men and women are direct descendants of Soprano and Gandolfini. The actor made bad attractive, not only for audiences, but for some of the industry's best actors ready for a challenge. And that's precisely why TV right now is so very good.

Image: HBO