THE MOST INFLUENTIAL TELEVISION EPISODES BY DECADE: The 1990s

March 22nd, 2018
David Chase

The Sopranos - “College” Airdate: February 7, 1999

There’s little agreement as to when television’s “Second Golden Age” began. There are those who claim it doesn’t exist at all, while others actually refer to it as television’s “Third Golden Age.” The way I see it, the Second Golden Age of Television exists, continues to flourish, and has a definite beginning date: February 7, 1999, the date when “College,” the fifth episode of The Sopranos, aired -- my choice for the most influential television episode of the ‘90s.

The mob family drama The Sopranos had originally been conceived as a network show. FOX showed interest in the mid-’90s, but eventually passed when they read the pilot script (ooops!). Creator David Chase seems to have had the idea in his head for quite some time. His 1979 feature-length script for The Rockford Files episode “The Man Who Saw the Alligators” features a New Jersey mobster, named Tony, with mother issues, a right-hand man named Syl, and a love interest named Adrianna. With its roots still firmly in network, The Sopranos premiered on HBO in January of 1999. Though airing on a premium cable channel, much of season one played out as it might have on FOX, with one very notable exception. I believe that exception would eventually come to shake the very foundations of television itself.

In our interview with him, Chase discussed the rule of “network morality,” which basically said that a main character doing an awful thing on a television show must be punished for it, and see the error of his ways before the episode was over – e.g. when Lucy Ricardo stole John Wayne’s footprints from the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, she had to face the wrath of the Duke himself in The I Love Lucy episode, “Lucy Visits Grauman’s.” The protagonist always gets her comeuppance.

After a battle with HBO executives, David Chase shattered this convention in “College.” Because Chase had written for network dramas for the better part of 38 years at that point, he understood the rules, and also knew the audience well enough to understand when he could break those rules.

In the episode, Tony Soprano, in Maine with daughter Meadow to show her colleges, spots a man who turned state’s evidence against the “family,” and was now in the Witness Protection Program. Tony very graphically murders the man with a piano wire, and suffers not at all for having done so. Well, not in the short run, anyway. The next day Tony is back on the road being grilled by Meadow, who has become curious about her father’s mob ties. Tony is struck by a quote on display at the admissions office, "No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true" – hinting that in the long run, Tony might not always get away with murder.

With Tony’s actions, David Chase was clearing the way for Don Draper to be an often-unrepentant cheater, for Walter White to make very morally questionable choices when it was in the best interest of his business, and for Frank Underwood to lie at will and, like Tony Soprano, get away with murder. Chase going outside the bounds of what was acceptable in a television script (and the great success The Sopranos had because of it) led to writers taking more chances, and led to networks airing more daring programming. That freedom to take risks is a central component of the second resurgence of quality writing on television. And it all began with The Sopranos’ “College.”

- John Dalton

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