TV Article

Dead End

A look at ''The Sopranos'' – As the show’s eight year run comes to a close, our TV critic discusses why it mattered

In the January 1999 debut episode of The Sopranos, Tony complains that he thinks the best times have already passed; that in his father's day, people took pride in what they did and had standards. No matter how many thrills, laughs, and surprises The Sopranos sprang on us after that, creator David Chase never forgot this overarching theme — that bygone times are superior to the here and now — and he was determined to see it through to its logical end. (Maybe if Bobby Bacala's eyes weren't misty with nostalgia for the old days of railroad travel, he might have seen the punks who plugged him in the hobby shop.)

The danger of coming to praise The Sopranos is to risk burying it with excess. The HBO series finishes its run June 10 festooned with medals (everything from Emmys to Peabodys) and labels — ''the greatest'' this; ''the finest'' that — along with (the surest sign of critic overkill) comparisons to other media. If I had a nickel for every time The Sopranos has been equated with a classic novel (usually thick and 19th-century) or a classic film (usually The Godfather or GoodFellas), I'd have enough dough for a lifetime of lap dances at the Bing.

So let me state the apparently not-so-obvious: The biggest compliment I can pay The Sopranos is to say it was great, sneaky, low-down TV genre-work. Conceived by a network career writer-producer (Chase), starring actors who were either little-known (James Gandolfini) or trained for the stage (the theater in Edie Falco's case; the rock-concert kind in Steven Van Zandt's), The Sopranos set out to explode the idea of how a weekly show was supposed to proceed, how characters were nurtured, and what subjects were fit to explore on the small screen.

Not to get too Dr. Melfi about it, but much of the rage both expressed and suppressed in this saga can be traced to its creator's thwarted ambitions and dealings with industry people he considered his lessers. Chase began his writing career in episodic network television, on The Rockford Files and Kolchak: ITALIC {The Night Stalker}] — not junk, to be sure, but not showcases for brutal stranglings while on a New England college tour, or for working through one's mother issues, either. Showbiz always prizes youth over experience, so when the then-52-year-old Chase got a shot at his pet Mafia project, he was more than a little protective — no one was going to screw up what might very well be his last shot at immortality. And so he poured all his imagination and obsessions, his various professional and personal frustrations, his idealism and his cynicism, into a finely crafted vessel: a genre piece (who doesn't like a good gangster story?) that didn't abide by genre conventions (who doesn't like a familiar story with new twists?). Chase absolutely depended on our TV-conditioned responses to mobsters, domineering mothers, troubled marriages, and the notion that there are certain things one simply cannot do on television. Why? Because he understood that if we tuned in expecting one thing, were given something shockingly different, but decided we actually liked that shock — well, then...by God and HBO, he'd really have something that could grab the culture by the cojones.

Which he did, for a good long part of its six-season run. But here's the thing: Since The Sopranos' debut, the way television is consumed has become antithetical to the way Chase conceived and executed — in every sense of that word — his show. With so much instant Internet reaction, critique, and debate, fans started treating The Sopranos in the last few seasons as though it were an enterprise on which they had some influence. There were all those viewers who wanted to know when the frosty, elliptical mystery of the ''Pine Barrens'' episode was going to be cleared up; those who demanded that Tony get out of his coma faster and with fewer dream sequences. But these voices never had a chance of influencing Chase, because he never wanted The Sopranos to be what all popular and even some great TV shows become: lovable, adored, comforting.

At its most crowd-pleasing, The Sopranos was true to the axiom the cultural critic Robert Warshow laid down in his 1948 essay ''The Gangster as Tragic Hero'': ''We gain the double satisfaction of participating vicariously in the gangster's sadism and then seeing it turned against the gangster himself.'' But at its artistic finest, this was a stubborn, prickly series that rarely wanted us to agree with it, or even to develop any great affection for its main characters. Tony was conflicted and guilt-ridden, cowed by his middle-class responsibilities as husband and father. For every story arc that made him a sympathetic shlub, there were scenes of Tony's remorseless amorality. He'd kill an enemy or a colleague, or rage at his family, only to retreat into the same self-pity he despised in his son, AJ.

Tony's preferred method for offing loved ones was, significantly, suffocation: He pinched Christopher's nostrils until his ''nephew'' choked to death on his own blood a few weeks ago, but even back in the first season he was ready to smother his betraying mother (the late, great Nancy Marchand) with a pillow just before learning she'd suffered a debilitating stroke that quieted her anyway. As these and more recent strategies for permanent stillness suggest, in the world of The Sopranos, it was always better for business if no one sang.

And now the silence is deafening.

Originally posted Jun 08, 2007 Published in issue #939 Jun 15, 2007 Order article reprints