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‘The Sopranos’ changed America’s television schedule

When I was kid (the ’80s) the Powell family of eight watched its fair amount of television on the one set we shared.

There were weekly gender brawls over how often the boys got to watch their “stupid sports” and over “How many times can you girls possibly watch the same ‘Little House on the Prairie’ episodes?”

In truth, the only thing we agreed upon as a collective viewing audience, the only time each week my parents enjoyed a harmonious family room, was Thursday night. “Must see TV!”

Rejoice! There will be no headlock with accompanying wet-willy for sister Kristi tonight! No ripping up of baseball cards to get back at brother Shawn for Tuesday night’s headlock! No sir, not on Thursdays. “Cosby,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers” and “Night Court” are on, and the savages are at peace.

Now, skip ahead to 2002, when a 30-year old Chuck Powell was living in Chicago, working in sports radio, diligently using his free time to pen the next great American novel and watching very little television that didn’t include a scoreboard. After one grueling autumn work day of watching six straight hours of NFL football, I remember turning to my friend Bob and asking him if he wanted to go grab some dinner. Bob looked at me as if I had just asked him to rob a bank with me or dig up a grave. “It’s Sunday night,” he jeered. “‘Sopranos,’ man.”

It was if I asked him to go to a brothel with me on Christmas morning. Turns out, I had unknowingly but undoubtedly threatened some sort of religious tradition he subscribed to. I certainly knew The Sopranos was a popular show, but I didn’t know Sunday night had become the new “Must See TV.”

I was uninformed.

I remember vividly my personal fall Sunday television viewing when I was a child (and granted I was kid). “Tarzan” (starring the gifted and tan Ron Ely) and professional wrestiling before church, football after church, then “60 Minutes,” “The Wide World of Disney” and shortly thereafter it was off to bed for school in the morning. The previous night I was allowed to stay up and watch “Saturday Night Live,” but now house management was only allowing wholesome television viewing. I’m pretty sure my parents, and others like them, used Sunday night television as a last-minute smut enema, a cleansing of young minds corrupted that week by “Knot’s Landing” and Eddie Murphy, and just in time for Monday morning.

But “The Sopranos” and HBO happened to change all that. Today, I don’t make it a point to watch any television during the week, but I never miss “Game of Thrones,” “Veep” or “Boardwalk Empire” on Sunday night. Hit programs “Dexter,” “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead” and “Homeland” now take advantage of the new Sunday night viewer as well, a viewer that chooses not to cleanse before the start of the work week, but instead wants to jam as much good entertainment into the waning hours of the weekend that they can muster before they renew the grind.

“The Sopranos” was GREAT television, unapologetic television, REAL television. “The Sopranos” showed us R-rated television can be artfully done, and that the average American held a secret unquenchable thirst for movie-quality programs. And I knew from the expression on my friend Bob’s face that HBO had changed the game and changed it for good.

I think we’re better for it.