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Paying his respects

Believe it or not, I used to be more of a movie guy. It's not that I didn't watch TV. Many a night in my youth I laid sprawled out on the couch watching "The A-Team" and "Knight Rider" and "MacGyver." Entertaining shows? Sure. But worthy of comparison to the best of modern cinema? Not so much. Sure there was the occasional television series of such high quality that it could compare favorably to film -- "Hill Street Blues" comes to mind -- but more often, TV was junk food for the eyes and brain, never an outlet for serious storytelling.

In the '90s, that started to change. David Lynch's masterfully eerie "Twin Peaks" exploded onto the scene in 1990, forcing people to reconsider what could be accomplished with just one hour a week. ("Twin Peaks" was also the first show where I refused to miss an episode.) It was followed by "NYPD Blue," "The X-Files" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" in 1993, "ER" in 1994, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in 1997. Suddenly, TV writers and directors were doing some pretty wonderful things, and the quality of storytelling was close to on par with what you'd get from a well-produced movie. Still, even these great shows were often confined by the formula of television -- smaller budgets, act breaks for commercials, neatly packaged storylines.

Then in 1999, HBO debuted "The Sopranos," which adhered to no formula, and what may have been suspected was now absolute fact -- anything the movies could do, TV could do ... and probably better. The writing was complex yet sublime with each episode's script stuffed with wit and surprise. The engaging plotlines were matched by rich (and often symbolically heavy) visuals. "The Sopranos" was beautiful to look at no matter whether the action was set in the titular family's lavish home, the neon-soaked strip club "Bada Bing" or the foggy, forested sprawl of the Pine Barrens.

The acting was remarkable, with a first-rate group of players being anchored by James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, who continuously gave two unsurpassed performances as Tony and Carmela. (A highlight amongst near-constant highlights would be "Whitecaps," the explosive episode that ended season four with Carmela throwing Tony out of the house.) Finally, there was the music, which contributed as much to "The Sopranos" as any show before or since. Songs of all genres were hand-picked to add depth or emotion to what was happening on screen. To this day, I remain amazed by the mashup of The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and the theme to "Peter Gunn" that was used so brilliantly in the season-three premiere.

Maybe best of all, since "The Sopranos" aired on HBO, there were no advertisers or affiliates to worry about, no censoring to be done. The series was, at times, shockingly violent, although perhaps not quite as brutal as you remember. Wisely, the most graphic bits -- Janice shooting Richie Aprile at point-blank range, Ralphie's severed head going in that bowling-ball bag -- were spaced for full dramatic effect. "The Sopranos" was never really about the violence, anyway. "The Sopranos" was about people whose very existence is informed by violence and whose families at home are inextricably linked to that other family they give their lives (sometimes figuratively, often literally) to serve.

"The Sopranos" opened the door for a whole new kind of televised storytelling. Dark and challenging shows like "The Shield" and "The Wire" wouldn't exist without it. And "The Sopranos" was certainly the biggest and final blow to the now ludicrous thought that television is inferior to film. Nope, not when TV can be this great. The final episode airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. Tune in and pay your respects.