I suspect much will be written in the coming days about The Sopranos, HBO’s groundbreaking drama that debuted 25 years ago this month and which fearlessly changed the rules around what you could do with a TV show about a mostly bad guy. In fact, maybe a better way to say that last part is — The Sopranos took the pre-existing rulebook governing what was then acceptable on TV and strangled it to death, the way a wiseguy might violently choke someone who’s gotten sideways with the New Jersey mob.
The show was, among other things, funny, dark, and violent in a way that you didn’t realize TV could be. It offered commentary on the state of America. It also literally opened the eyes of a generation of future TV showrunners like Courtney Kemp, who went on to create Power for Starz, and Lee Sung Jin, who created Beef for Netflix. And what else can you say about the writing, which was absolutely next-level? When Tony Soprano delivered gems like “‘Remember when…’ is the lowest form of conversation,” it was a reminder that The Sopranos was basically modern-day Shakespeare delivered with an Italian accent.
Having said all that, though, allow me to humbly offer a contrarian perspective to all the gushing over The Sopranos that you’ll likely come across this month. All six seasons of the drama from creator David Chase are available to rewatch on HBO’s Max streaming service — while Max, in fact, is also home to another mafia drama that actually stands head and shoulders above The Sopranos.
Everything The Sopranos did, in my opinion, a show like Gomorrah put its own spin on and ended up doing even better.
The latter offers a super-violent and extremely addictive dramatization of the inner workings of the Camorra, the Italian criminal organization upon which the name of this show is based. The show’s gangsters speak in a regional dialect — trust me, bad guys who talk like this sound much more terrifying than those with a fuhgeddaboudit accent — and in place of Tony Soprano, we get Gennaro (Genny) Savastano, the hotheaded, privileged scion of a Camorra boss who slowly evolves into a ruthless leader of the drug trade in Naples.
I’m a diehard Gomorrah for so many reasons, one of which is the way the show marries the stock in trade of mafia narratives with the kind of Italian style that eluded The Sopranos. Instead of New Jersey, we’re transported to the Le Vele housing projects in Scampia, on the outskirts of Naples. The show bristles with mayhem and Neapolitan authenticity. The New York Times has even gone so far as to compare the sum total of Gomorrah’s haircuts, clothes, and atmospheric nighttime cinematography to “the Ducati of gangster sagas.”
And while we’re on the subject of a comparison — The Sopranos certainly had a killer theme song in the form of Woke Up This Morning, but Gomorrah somehow one-ups it with a sparse and moody instrumental from the band Mokadelic.
Plot-wise, the shadow that fathers cast over sons is also a much more integral piece of Gomorrah’s narrative than it was in The Sopranos. In season one, Genny’s father Pietro Savastano rules the drug clan with an iron fist. Midway through the series’ run, he’s killed. Genny then takes over the family business, with the name Savastano serving as both a shield and an albatross around his neck. The show’s attention to detail, by the way, comes from the fact that it’s based on the work of an Italian journalist, Roberto Saviano, whose exposes about the mafia have forced him to live under 24-7 police protection.
There’s also a kind of twisted bromance at the heart of Gomorrah, in the form of the relationship between Genny and Ciro Di Marzio, a street kid nicknamed “The Immortal” for escaping death over and over again. At first, Ciro is a mentor to Genny, before they become equals — and, eventually, rivals. Like the Bard said, the course of true love never did run smooth; the same apparently holds true for the bond between gangsters.
Bottom line: Don’t make the mistake of believing American TV is the center of the streaming universe. If you’re a fan of crime dramas and pervasively bleak mafia sagas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that tops Gomorrah — all five seasons of which are available on Max, as is The Immortal (a standalone Gomorrah movie that sits between Seasons 4 and 5 of the show).