When The Sopranos began its run on HBO in 1999 I was one year away from graduating college and I was a complete moron. I had no real ambition or drive, and most of my days were spent clowning around with a group of guys who all tortured each other. We were friends (well, fraternity brothers, really, but what does that mean?), but we all sort of found each other because of our shared lack of self-confidence, which usually led to the jokes, the pranks and me returning to my dorm room to find glue all over my door and a nail hammered into its keyhole. It was a tough life, but somebody had to complain about it.
Then The Sopranos changed everything. It changed the way I watched television and altered my expectations of it. I mean, what the hell was a sitcom after watching an episode of The Sopranos? I'll never forget the food I spit out of my mouth at the end of that first episode when A.J. turns to his family and cries, "So what? No f**king ziti now?"
I was hooked. Here was a show where everyone's thick New York/New Jersey accent -- a trait that had plagued me my entire life -- was actually being celebrated. It was cool. These characters were cool. And Tony Soprano was the coolest. It wasn't just because he was a mobster who killed people, but he was a father, a husband, a son, a teacher and a punisher. He began suffering from panic attacks at a time when I was going through a very similar thing myself. But Tony always pushed through it, and every Monday I exited my dorm room with a new sense of purpose and a kind of strength that would build in me throughout the years.
I distinctly remember the moment it all changed for me, too. I had watched a Sopranos episode (a repeat I had seen before) and then joined some friends at a party on campus. As things began to wind down, I found myself outside on the front lawn watching a group of mean-looking dudes harass one of my younger, skinnier, idiotic fraternity brothers. The version of me before The Sopranos entered my life probably would've turned the other way, or stalled long enough to get there right as things were ending. But the post-Sopranos version of me (and I was always at my ballsiest after watching an episode) stormed right into the middle of that angry dude circle and put an end to it.
But I didn't fight them. Tony Soprano didn't teach me how to fight -- he taught me how to be tougher. How to outsmart your enemies by making it seem like you have all the answers and they don't. In so many of his roles, James Gandolfini taught me how to have confidence; how some kid with a thick New York accent can actually be somebody if he worked hard, stayed the course and didn't take any sh** from anyone.
I'll miss him for that. And I hope that wherever he is now, there's a great plate of f**king ziti in front of him.