TV's Best of the Decade: No. 5 - 'The Sopranos'
Even though its first season aired in the '90s, David Chase' mob drama has enough juice to make this Top 5
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In this increasingly epic 31-part Best of the Decade series, I've referred to litmus tests for different shows, where you can judge the fan based on their reaction to certain arcs or episodes. Generally, with a litmus test episode, there probably isn't a right or wrong answer, but if meet somebody, you can check their test and know how compatible y'all happen to be.
For the decade, there was no bigger television litmus test episode than the finale of David Chase's HBO mob drama "The Sopranos." The finale, titled "Made in America" aired on June 10, 2007 and people were up in arms. Generally, the critical reaction was positive and respectful, but the fans were a good deal less generous.
Obviously this article on "The Sopranos," No. 5 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade, will talk about the end of the hulking colossus of a drama, so be warned.
Also be warned that although, as with all litmus test episodes, there may not be a right or wrong answer, if you hate the finale of "The Sopranos," our friendship may be strained.
What would be worse, though, is if you were one of the people who felt there was a conclusive ending to the series. The fastest way to earn my critical enmity is to try telling me that Tony Sopranos absolutely got whacked at the end of the series.
Anyway, "The Sopranos" is No. 5. More after the break...
Every step I get deeper into this list, the more challenging actual placement becomes. Throughout the list there have been several packs of shows which were relatively indistinguishable, where the smallest whim or fancy determined one show going atop the next. We're in one of those packets now, between No. 6 and No. 3, in which each show has been above the other shows at some point.
With "The Sopranos" the question always involved how much to penalize the series for premiering in the '90s. It's not a small issue. The first season of "The Sopranos" did nothing less than change the business and perception of TV. It's a landmark season and I can't imagine ranking anything above it on a list of The Best TV Seasons of the '90s. Not only did the season introduce the innovative tone and characters, but nearly every episode is superb, peaking with "College," an indispensable entry. How much do we love "The Sopranos" without that first season?
The answer? A lot. Still. We had Season Two, with the Big Pussy arc culminating in the episodes "Knight in White Satin Armor" and "Funhouse," two of the show's true classics. Season Three had the carefully arced brilliance of episodes like "Employee of the Month," with its focus on Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi, but it also included "Pine Barrens," an episode so marvelously out-of-canon that viewers were still clamoring for closure as things went back on the finale. Season Four, somewhat a mixed bag, had Joe Pantoliano's Ralph, plus "Whitecaps," probably the best-acted episode in the show's run (question the episode's substance if you need to, but Edie Falco's just astounding in that finale). Season Five gave us "Long Term Parking" and the progression of Michael Imperioli's Chris and Drea de Matteo's Ade from occasional caricatures into plausibly tragic figures. Defending the first half of the bifurcated sixth season is a bit complicated, though "Members Only" was plenty surprising and "Join the Club" was an effective trippy "Sopranos" episode, if you happen to be able to tolerate Chase's detours into the subconscious. But the second half of the sixth season? Really, pure gold, starting with "Soprano Homes Movies," progressing with "Walk Like a Man" and "Kennedy and Heidi" and closing with bloodshed and Journey in "Made in America."
So yes, that's enough good stuff that I probably could have put "The Sopranos" at No. 3 on this list and not felt at all guilty.
Over and over again on this list, I've taken issue with the Emmy voters, but "The Sopranos," like "The West Wing," was one of those shows that didn't slip through the Emmy cracks. It won twice for Outstanding Drama Series, took home multiple Emmys for writing and multiple Emmys for stars Falco and James Gandolfini and also landed well-deserving single wins for co-stars including Imperioli, de Matteo and Pantoliano for their appropriate seasons. Sometimes greatness is difficult to deny, even for a body as oblivious as the Television Academy.
Despite airing on a premium cable network, "The Sopranos" was probably one of the most popular shows in my Top 10 (other than that "American Idol") thing. Yes, it was a show about remorseless mobsters, but "The Sopranos" was especially gifted at co-opting most of the major themes of the decade. Although launched before 9/11, "The Sopranos" became a show about the troubled War on Terror and the gaps in domestic protection it left behind. Although social critics sometimes railed at the exploitative violence in "The Sopranos," the show turned around and poked fun at Hollywood for its exploitation of violence. Although Italian-American groups complained that the show was perpetuating stereotypes, the show actually proved to be one of the most perceptive and articulate observers of ethnic identity in television history.
Bucking the trend of post "Godfather II" crime films, "The Sopranos" is a series about the American Dream, but it isn't an assimilationist narrative. This isn't the story of Tony Soprano attempting to extricate himself from the mob for the good of his family and being pulled back in every time he thinks he's out. No, this is mostly the show of a man trying to balance his work life, which his home life, which is probably an even more universal story. Always a show about family, "The Sopranos" had a long journey from the production of its pilot in 1997 to the finale in 2007 and the story of the central clan was often forced by external factors, something David Chase and company handled magnificently. A case in point would be the progression of Tony Soprano's relationship with his mother Livia, truncated due to Nancy Marchand's death in 2000. Chase has discussed the arc Livia would have had in future seasons, but real-life tragedy aside, it's better that Tony never was able to resolve his mother issues, that he's still able to use them as a convenient crutch all the way through the finale, where he rehashes his psychosis to his son's shrink in a perfunctory fashion, after having been ditched by Dr. Melfi, who feared she was enabling, rather than helping her patient. Another case in point would be the use of Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler, as both actors had not-so-surprising periods of awkwardness in the middle of the series, but grew out of those phases to be assets by the end. Iler, in particular, was nearly crushingly useless in several middle seasons, but he rebounded to provide both comedy and pathos in the closing episodes.
More than anything, though, "The Sopranos" was about a circle of complicity. Just as Tony Soprano's arc wasn't one of a man attempting to go straight, it also wasn't the arc of a bad man trying to be good. Tony Soprano's arc is one of self-preservation at any cost, with that preservation serving as the impetus for therapy sessions that gave the show its original hook. Tony doesn't go to Dr. Melfi because he wants to become a well-adjusted member of society. He just doesn't want to have panic attacks anymore. He does, frankly, want to continue to do exactly what he's been doing, moreso even, just without the darned shortness of breath and chest pains. That's not inherently sympathetic, now is it? But we were forced to love Tony, even as he routinely committed adultery, murdered or ordered the murder of the people closest to him and violated several provisions regarding interstate commerce. Oh and he also participated in a criminal conspiracy, so the RICO implications alone ought to have forced viewers to hate him.
But viewers didn't regularly root for Tony Soprano to be killed until the finale, at which point a strange subset of people decided that the only acceptable way for the story to end would be with his death, as if that were somehow the story that Chase had been telling all along.
Can we please get this straight? Tony Soprano was not whacked at the end of "The Sopranos," no matter how many armchair dunderheads wrote analysis claiming that he was. There were 20,000 word blog posts written analyzing the final scene and coming to the conclusion that the man in the Members Only jacket walked into the restaurant, eyed Tony for several minutes, went into the bathroom, took out a gun and came back and shot Tony in the head. Strangely, I rewatched "Made in America" just last night and in my version of the DVD, that wasn't what happened.
You can do a shot-by-shot reading of the scene until the cows come home and you're never going to see a gun in the Members Only guy's hand. You're never going to see or hear a gunshot. All you're going to see is, courtesy of Chase, a masterclass in suspense technique, red herrings and diversions. There are suspicious glances that seem to be going between Tony and Members Only guy, but there are similar glances between Tony and a loudly laughing couple and a pair of African-American youths. The soundtrack has been designed to over-amplified the opening of the restaurant door and the bell, leading one to worry that death is walking in the door, but the sound of Meadow's hubcap hitting the curb and several airplanes flying overhead have been similarly pushed to the foreground. What does Tony see when he looks up from his onion rings? Who knows? He's looked up nervously at everybody who entered the restaurant. So it's either the Members Only guy with a gun coming out of the bathroom, a supposition built on pure conjecture, or it's Meadow. Or it's another patron.
I wrote about this at the time the finale aired, but I'll say it again: Tony Soprano didn't die in the "Sopranos" finale that we saw, but he may indeed have died five minutes afterwards or five seconds afterwards within the diegetic world of the show. But that was always the case. There was never a single episode of "The Sopranos" that passed without somebody in the show's version of New Jersey contemplating the idea of killing Tony Soprano. After the show's penultimate episode featured a bloodbath, the finale set up a loose truce and featured the the death of Phil Leotardo. Tony was both as safe as he'd ever been, but also in as much danger. As ever, the threat coming through the door could have been carrying a gun or just a badge or a subpoena. That was all the show promised for 86 episodes and all it ever should have been expected to deliver.
It was bizarre to me that after those 86 episodes, some fans thought the only way "The Sopranos" could close would be as a game of Clue. They wanted Tony Soprano dead and they all had some ending that they felt would be satisfying. Would it be Janice bludgeoning Tony to death with a photo album? Would it be Carmella shooting him in bed? Would it be some long-forgotten mistress or son-of-a-whackee returning, dropping a reference to a Season Two episode and garroting him? The great thing about the finale is that any and all of those things eventually could have happened to Tony. He could have gotten the full "Murder on the Orient Express" treatment just two days later.
In the finale, though, Tony Soprano met his family for dinner, ordered onion rings, paid for a Journey song on the juke box and he balanced the pride he felt at being out in public with his nuclear unit with the terror of his inevitable bloody demise. I can't watch that cut to black without laughing at both the audacity of it and the appropriateness (and I watched the last five minutes four or five times last night... better each time).
Personally, when I thinking of the finale, I actually prefer the penultimate scene, the last interaction between Tony and Dominic Chianese's Uncle Junior. Tony sits with his Uncle, formerly a titan of a man, now plagued with dementia and tries to get him to remember anything. Uncle Junior can't remember Tony. He can't remember his brother. He can't remember being part of "this thing of ours." When Tony tells him that he used to run North Jersey, Junior can only give a half-smile. "That's nice," he replies as tears fill Tony's eyes. What's it all amount to if you survive the wars, if you make it past the point where people are trying to have you killed and none of what seemed so important and worth dying for even lingers in your memory? Maybe getting whacked is a better fate? But it's not the fate we're shown.
Anything else I might want to say, my buddy and colleague Sepinwall has already said 50 times over. "The Sopranos" was smart and funny and bloody. It played into some cliches and stereotypes, but usually found a way to subvert them in the end, giving even the most one-dimensional characters the chance for illuminating glimpses and spotlights over the years. And Gandolfini and Falco anchored the show with two of the great TV performances of any decade.
That's why "The Sopranos" is No. 5 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade and could just as easily have been No. 3.
Coming up tomorrow: International intrigue, family secrets and forbidden passions. This show is bananas. [Yes, I've given up on trying to fool y'all.]