Countdown to Finale

The SopranosDepending on how “The Sopranos” concludes its eight-year, six-season run in next week’s series finale, it will rank somewhere in the top three of my list of the best television shows of the past decade. Which is to say that it’s up there for sure, just not necessarily in that top spot that so many television critics almost reflexively assign to it.

I’ve been watching “The Sopranos” faithfully for years, enjoying it the vast majority of the time, and remaining highly invested in the show’s motley band of indelible characters throughout. But I admit that, over the course of its eighty-five odd installments, it’s had its share of digressions, missteps and shark skipping, if not outright shark jumping. Let’s not mince words: there have been awful, tone-deaf episodes and ill-advised plot lines (though the good ones have far outnumbered the bad ones).

The Best Unlaid Plans

My biggest complaint, I think, is the show’s inability to remain disciplined within its serial format. There have been too many conceits of authorship over the years that have rung hollow in the hyper-realistic milieu that creator David Chase has mandated.

The problem, I think, is a lack of consistent planning in recent years. In its early seasons, Chase seemed to lay the groundwork for plots with great meticulousness, constructing a world that seemed intricately detailed and scrupulously considered. Every detail mattered. There’s perhaps no better example of this than the offhand, seemingly inconsequential mention of an old desk lamp stashed in Tony Soprano’s basement in the first season that becomes a key focal point of a major F.B.I. operation in the third season. That level of care and attention to detail was practically unprecedented in series television until “The Sopranos” debuted, and it’s perhaps what drew me into Chase’s world so fully.

Lately, that mindfulness has seemed missing. Even when David Chase and his writers knew that the show would end after six seasons, it still felt very much as if the scripts didn’t. In recent years, characters have conveniently shown up in the first show of a season, and then again conveniently gone away in the season’s last show. New characters are introduced when required by the plot, and presented as if they’ve always been around. And then there’s the suspicious ability of the main characters to avoid truly life-altering consequences of their otherwise dangerous actions. In a dramatic that’s predicated on a highly articulate sense of realism — and in a television show that has benefitted so much from its reputation for that realism — these have seemed like too-frequent occurrences of artistic cheating.

The Never-ending Stories

In fact, this is the problem with series television in general: without a clear understanding of where it will end, it’s very difficult to maintain quality along the way. It’s probably the reason a show like “Lost” (which I’ve never watched) has run into so many problems, and why when it was announced earlier this year that “Lost” would end in 2010, there was a public sigh of relief that some finality would begin informing the show.

It’s also why shows that have had short runs, like the original, BBC version of “The Office” and HBO’s own, soon-to-end “Deadwood,” have been so thoroughly rewarding. Those series never had the opportunity to drift aimlessly when faced with the gaping maw of their unknowable expiration dates.

When a show has its own finale in sight, its writers tend to make every plot line and point count, and that feels as if it’s been the case with “The Sopranos” over the past two or three episodes. Last night’s entry, in which some key deaths occurred and the rug seems fully pulled out from beneath Tony in a way that might finally have some realistic consequences, was gripping and sad in a way that hasn’t been true for a long time. It became pretty clear to me that, if David Chase ultimately wants to do right by this beautiful creation of his, then next Sunday, when the last episode airs, he’ll kill off the character of Tony Soprano.

  1. You might try watching Lost. It’s taken a while for it to show, but I think that it displays some of that meticulousness you talk about. Though it took me three seasons to finally see things that were tying into the first season.

  2. I agree that seemingly the only real end to the Sopranos is for Tony to die, and it would seem the recent plot twists have been to help us hate Tony just enough to let him go. But for the series to be meaningful, don’t we need to see life after Tony?

    Whether Tony was really just a sociopath gangster or in actuality a loving family man and beleaguered executive, depends on how people move on after he is gone. What would become of Meadow and AJ and Carm. And what of the New Jersey crime family? Does Paulie step up? Who then? It seems the show already killed the characters most likely to make compelling television over whether or not to step up and fill Tony’s void and be conflicted over it. (By the by, how great would the series have been if Bobby had killed Tony, and it was Carm who had to go to Janice for funds and help? Especially with the Bobby-Junior connection, but alas, he is just dead).

    My point is when Tony dies, it better not be in the last seconds of the finale, because then the Sopranos will have been pointless. We need to see what goes on after Tony’s death to determine what was so important or not important about his life.

  3. Yep… I’m thinking maybe killed by one of his own guys too. We’ll see.

    Although I’d put The Sopranos up there as a great series, it suffered from too many plodding distractions at times to make my top three. Some seasons were 99% great, others were maybe 50%.

    The main thing I tend to judge a series on is how much I actually *care* about the characters. Lost is actually pretty good in this regard, as is Entourage, as are some seasons of 24. I can’t say I really care about the majority of the characters in the Sopranos this season. Couldn’t care less about Dr. Melfi, the kids, Bobby, Janice, Chris, or any of the others who seem to take up so much time in the plot.

    Anyway, I’m no TV critic. It’s a great show regardless.

  4. I’ve hardly watched the Sopranos, but I am a huge Lost fan! It’s a programme you definitely have to watch from the start of series one, no jumping in part way or it won’t make much sense! It does appear like it’s rambling at times but actually there’s a whole lot of threads being spun that have started to come together in series 3.

    I’m also very pleased that here in the UK we’ve been getting it pretty much in sync with the US (just 3 or 4 days behind), we used to be weeks behind but now I have to wait with everyone else in the world! Plus there’s less risk of accidentally coming across a spoiler blog post!

  5. I think “spoilers” are vastly overrated.

    I ran into a spoiler regarding the Blue Comet episode two weeks ago that was virtually 100% correct but still enjoyed the episode as much as I would had I not known how it was going to turn out.

    AS far as plot lines that don’t go anywhere, that’s the way real life is. We all do things or meet people that have little or no bearing on how the rest of our lives turn out but still have meaning and importance to us. Chris and Paulie talked about their misadventures with the Russian in the Pine Barrens a year or two after it happened even though the Russian never reappeared in the show.

  6. Yes, at last! “Going out” with some class and dignity 😉 The finality is sad and powerful. LOST?! Nahhh…it keeps its audience “lost” with the same old formulaic mind-frakking. In contrast, BSG, or Battlestar Galactica for all non-believers, has committed to ending after this, its fourth season. Khoi, wont you finally show that series some love?

    Can’t resist. Ten bucks says Meadow dies. This would be the only thing that could truly break Tony’s heart. There have been SO MANY references and one-to-one correlations b/w the Sopranos and the Godfather.

  7. The desklamp example is scraping the bottom of the barrel: in my mind, there has been almost no long-term plot development on the show. As Dr. Melfi herself finally realized about Tony, there has also been very little character development, either.

    Which is not to say the show still isn’t usually the most interesting and entertaining thing on TV — it’s just that, IMHO, long-term plot planning, intricate plot development, and/or stunning plot twists have never been The Sopranos strong suit. If anything, 90% of their plots either end with a convenient death (Tony B), a sad or mysterious vignette (the asbestos cloud), or, most often, they just kinda peter out completely (the Russian in the Pine Barrens). Lost, for all its meandering, has a thousand times the long-term planning that the Sopranos has.

    Anyway, if you really want to make next Sunday interesting, check out my new Sopranos Finale Office Pool.

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