There’s a short list of television programs that can legitimately be considered among the best ever, and The Sopranos is definitely on that list. Six seasons, 86 episodes, many whackings, many more boxes of ziti, there’s a lot to unpack here.
So we decided to draft it out. Three writers, six rounds, 18 Sopranos characters. No rules, just pick anyone you want. Woke up this morning, had ourselves a draft.
Kevin Kaduk, former Yahooligan; founder of Chicago sports newsletter Midway Minute (sign up here)
Get out your draft board, grab a New Jersey turnpike ticket, and let’s rip this out.
1.01 — Tony Soprano (Kaduk)
This is actually a harder pick than it looks because I think you can absolutely build a show around Carmela and not miss a beat because of what Edie Falco did. But just as you don’t start off a Simpsons draft with anyone but Homer or a “The Office” draft with anyone but Michael Scott, I gotta go with the big guy. Damn, I miss James Gandolfini.
1.02 — Carmela Soprano (Pianow)
Man, I miss James Gandolfini, too. Can you have a Sopranos without him? What if Gandolfini had died in the middle of the show? Can you have Cheers without Sam? Mad Men without Don? The Office didn’t work without Michael Scott. Obviously this is a lot of apples and oranges . . .
So many characters in The Sopranos are trying to be bosses in their own right, and so many fail. But not Carmela. She gets things done. She strong-arms people. She’s one of the few characters that stands up to Tony. And she makes a mean lasagna.
And it’s wonderful that she’s such a well-developed character. We see Carm in favorable and unfavorable lights. She can be sweet, maternal. She can be shameless. She can have tunnel vision for what she wants. And she has a brilliant BS detector, something I admire in any person, real or fictional.
1.03 — Paulie Walnuts (Schwab)
Paulie was complicated, to say the least, but that’s what made his character so great. Of the 20 greatest lines in the history of the show, how many did Paulie have? 15? You can’t even imagine The Sopranos without Paulie.
2.01 — Silvio Dante (Schwab)
A great character as Tony’s right hand man, but aside from that, Steven Van Zandt was one of the main characters on The Sopranos and played guitar in the E Street Band. I defy anyone to find a cooler crossover combination.
2.02 — Christopher Moltisanti (Pianow)
Chrissie is a Hall of Fame screw up, but that’s what makes him so much fun. And he’s a kaleidoscope of emotions — cockiness, insecurity, curiosity, impetuousness. He’s going to shoot for the stars, and probably shoot himself in the foot at the same time. Almost every episode that prominently features Chris turns into a classic episode. He also said a ton of funny things, even if half of them weren’t on purpose.
2.03 — Livia Soprano (Kaduk)
How different does this show look if Nancy Marchand lives past season two? It’s one of the great what-ifs in television history.
3.01 — Ralph Cifaretto (Kaduk)
The unsettling thing about The Sopranos is that it was stocked with bad characters that you were delighted to spend time with anyway. Not so with Ralphie. Joey Pants’ portrayal was so off-kilter and off-putting you cringed every time he showed up on screen. “University” is my favorite episode of the entire run.
3.02 — Johnny Sack (Pianow)
I’m leaving some good options on the board, but I want another character who can go toe to toe with Tony. Their clandestine meetings always packed a tremendous wallop. Johnny could be shrewdly pragmatic one moment and psychotically emotional and vengeful the next, but I always bought it as plausible. His sad endgame in prison was handled deftly.
3.03 — Junior Soprano (Schwab)
The ups and downs of Junior late in his life were played perfectly by Dominic Chianese. Junior had one of the widest ranges of any character on the show.
4.01 — Jennifer Melfi (Schwab)
We get to know Tony better through his sessions with Dr. Melfi, but she was more than a narrative device on the show, with her character gaining depth as the show went on.
4.02 — Artie Bucco (Pianow)
Another wanna-be-gangster who generally fell on his face whenever he tried to follow through. And yet, when Artie truly bottomed out, he knew how to emotionally manipulate Tony.
Every episode that included Vesuvio made you want to eat (much like every Mad Men episode makes you wanna drink). You set up Artie to knock him down, but his plotlines were always interesting.
4.03 — Adriana La Cerva (Kaduk)
I was hoping Johnny Sack would somehow fall back to me at this spot so I could have the holy trinity of Tony’s best enemies: his mother plus Ralphie and Johnny Sack. Alas, I should’ve known better. But I’m also excited to get Drea Di Matteo here, too. With this pick, I lock up three of the five actors to win an Emmy for their work on their show. In addition to Gandolfini and Falco’s multiple statues, Joe Pantoliano won best supporting actor in 2003 while both Imperioli and Di Matteo won for their supporting roles in 2004.
Draw up a list of the most devastating scenes in Sopranos history and it’s impossible not to top it with a doomed Adriana riding shotgun next to Sil, completely knowing the fate that awaits her at the end of “Longterm Parking.”
5.01 — Phil Leotardo (Kaduk)
Frank Vincent is a lottery pick if we’re holding a fantasy draft of Italian-American actors to make a Mafia movie with.
5.02 — Furio Giunta (Pianow)
Not sure how much I love the pick. I think he’s far more important to the show as a plot device than he is as a standalone person to be analyzed. But he can stand up to Tony — he even considers killing Tony in a moment of daring — and obviously his romantic tension with Carmela was a simmering corridor.
Furio was also part of one of my favorite throwaway Sopranos scenes — the sight of him and Tony, in separate houses, preparing their dinners. Furio is delicately making a home-made Italian meal. Tony isn’t sure how to reheat pasta. Brilliant.
5.03 — Meadow Soprano (Schwab)
We saw Meadow’s character grow as she did, and her awareness of her father’s business became a compelling part of the show. Or maybe she just looked interesting compared to Anthony Jr.
6.01 — Salvatore Bonpensiero (Schwab)
His transformation from being one of Tony’s crew to FBI informant, and his conflict over that, was one of the best stories from the early seasons. And his final trip on the boat is one of the most memorable scenes in the show’s history.
6.02 — Hesh Rabkin (Pianow)
Older and wiser, but shrewd nonetheless, Hesh is a valued confidant and a useful contract to the younger players on the show. When Hesh and Tony hit a standoff over a bridge loan, Hesh is forced to ask himself some uncomfortable questions. Hesh was rarely a main ingredient, but he was a value spice to add to the mix.
6.03 — Charmaine Bucco (Kaduk)
Artie’s wife might’ve been the only character on the show who adhered to anything resembling a moral code … unless it was time to get back at Carmela by telling her that she’d slept with Tony in high school.
Kaduk: Tony, Livia, Ralph, Adriana, Phil, Charmaine
Pianow: Carmela, Christopher, Johnny Sack, Artie, Furio, Hesh
Schwab: Paulie, Silvio, Junior, Jennifer, Meadow, Salvatore
Notably Undrafted: Janice, Richie, Bobby, A.J., Vito, Carmine, Gloria, Little Carmine, Rosalie