The best episodes had equal amounts of high and low appeal, an alchemy of artistry and gutter-level blood and gore, all of it leavened with humor.
This Thing of Ours, It’s Over
I’M old, Carm,” Tony Soprano says at the beginning of the end on Sunday. This New Jersey mob boss has recovered from last season’s shooting but tells Carmela he feels changed: “My body has suffered a trauma it will probably never recover from.”
Death was never the most dreaded thing in “The Sopranos” — decline was. Long before any rival mobsters were beaten, knee-capped or killed, there were wistful intimations of decay. In the opening scene of the premiere episode in 1999, Tony confided to his psychiatrist that he no longer found much satisfaction from work: “Things are trending downward.”
Now they are bottoming out, and as Tony and his people grapple with their sense of impending loss, so are viewers.
There are nine episodes left, a coda to put the Soprano saga to rest. It’s high time of course because even before last season the series had started to sag in places, a creative fatigue that matched the main characters’ weariness and also the audience’s.
Now the long-awaited seventh and final season has arrived, and trouble is closing in. Melancholia is spreading just as inexorably as the aches and fatal illnesses that keep knocking down Tony’s friends and foes. After his own brush with mortality last season a chastened Tony crashed through spiny thickets of Cosa Nostra ill will to share with a longtime rival the bromide about how people on their deathbed never ask themselves why they didn’t put in more hours at work, though he phrased it the Soprano way.
“Believe me,” Tony told Phil Leotardo, lying prone and barely conscious after a heart attack. “Nobody lays on their deathbed wishing they had saved more no-show jobs.”
This season opens with the police at the door, a rapping that prompts Carmela to exclaim, “Is this it?” It isn’t, at least not yet. It’s a gun possession charge that Tony’s lawyer easily sets aside. The arrest doesn’t even prevent Tony and Carmela from driving to his sister Janice and brother-in-law Bobby’s lake house in upstate New York to celebrate Tony’s 47th birthday, and to do some business on the other side of the Canadian border.
Christopher, meanwhile, is pursuing show business by producing a gangster-slasher film, “Cleaver,” that he made with Tony’s money. And Johnny Sack, still in prison, has a new set of problems behind bars.
Sunday’s premiere marks the start of the show’s valedictory tour, a chance for the actors and the series’s creator, David Chase, to show off one last time and for viewers to pay their respects to the family that changed television, mostly for the better. It’s not that “The Sopranos” was the only good thing on television, though plenty of fans would say so. But Mr. Chase’s take on New Jersey mobsters was certainly groundbreaking — in opposing directions.
The series lowered the bar on permissible violence, sex and profanity at the same time that it elevated viewers’ taste, cultivating an appetite for complexity, wit and cinematic stylishness on a serial drama in which psychological themes flickered and built and faded and reappeared. The best episodes had equal amounts of high and low appeal, an alchemy of artistry and gutter-level blood and gore, all of it leavened with humor.
Carmela, the most earnest character of all, was often the funniest. At one point she became infatuated with Tony’s Italian henchman Furio, and the two shared a lovestruck moment while inspecting the construction work on Furio’s new house. “You are a very special woman,” Furio told Carmela in a husky undertone. She held his gaze, then broke the spell, saying in her trademark nasal whine, “Have you thought about flooring yet?”
“The Sopranos,” is often praised as the series that definitively bridged pop culture and art. Maybe. It was certainly a gateway drug to television for the elitists who just said no. Some of the same people who used to say they have no time for television can now be heard complaining that they don’t have time to watch everything they recorded on DVR. But “The Sopranos” was a revelation only to people who did not realize there was already a lot of very good television available. And not only reruns of “The Honeymooners” or “Saturday Night Live” and Masterpiece Theater.
Network dramas had already laid the groundwork for HBO almost two decades earlier. “Hill Street Blues” reinvented the cop show much as “St. Elsewhere” transformed the hospital drama in 1982. The first actor brilliantly to portray a charismatic gangster and sociopath on television wasn’t James Gandolfini; it was Kevin Spacey in 1987 on the CBS series “Wiseguy.”
David Lynch’s surrealistic soap opera, “Twin Peaks,” peaked in its first season in 1991, but Mr. Chase has said that show opened his eyes to the medium’s potential. And the cable revolution was already in its primacy by the time “The Sopranos” went on the air. “Oz,” the HBO series set in a maximum-security prison, began in 1997, while “Sex and the City” made its debut a year later.
From the beginning the greatest appeal of “The Sopranos” was its context — organized crime as a low-life milieu that attracts high-minded people. Television had never before produced a crime show in which the criminals were the main protagonists, and law-enforcement officials minor characters at the margins of the story. But before Mr. Chase mined his memories of Italian-American New Jersey, Francis Ford Coppola had made the three “Godfather” movies, and Martin Scorsese, with “Goodfellas,” had built on a foundation laid by old James Cagney gangster movies. Mr. Chase never forgot that debt. Christopher and his pals referred to Mr. Scorsese as “Marty” and went wild when they spied him going into a gala movie premiere in the first season. A running joke that never failed to crack Tony up was Silvio Dante’s impersonation of Al Pacino in “The Godfather: Part III.” And when Tony’s mother, Livia, died, he ended up in his den watching “Public Enemy.”
Mr. Chase chose to explore the waning days of organized crime, focusing on a lost generation of mobsters who had surrendered territory and influence to newer criminal gangs, been decimated by RICO laws and abandoned the old code of Omerta. Mob malaise was so bad, the boss consulted a psychiatrist who put him on Prozac.
Early on, the conceit of Italian-American crime families in the twilight of their power was played for mostly for comic effect. The saga stood out in the way it humbled the mafia, even as it exalted its lawlessness, contrasting feral street violence and collapsing crime family values with the most prosaic suburban concerns: — parent-teachers conferences, baked ziti casseroles and shopping at Color Tile. Tony’s business pursuits seesawed from high crime — insurance and public-housing fraud — to the ridiculous, like a stolen shipment of provolone.
Some of the funnier moments, and some of the most shocking, arose from those incongruities. In one of the best episodes Tony took Meadow to Maine for a college tour, and while there discovered an ex-mobster who had entered the witness-protection program after informing on some of Tony’s friends. Tony stalked the man and killed him in between father-daughter Kodak moments.
In another episode Paulie Walnuts took his aged mother and two of her elderly friends to a restaurant and grew indignant when one of the women slipped into her doggie bag a Parker House roll he felt belonged rightfully to his mother. Later he slipped into the old woman’s house to steal the savings she stored under her mattress, and when she discovered him, smothered her to death with a pillow.
Yet no matter how crass or grotesque the context, the strains and strange bonds between mother and son, sister and brother, and husband and wife, were deeply yet delicately mined.
“The Sopranos” was reliably unpredictable, with subplots that seemed destined to resurface and instead disappeared, like the Russian veteran of the Chechnya war who escaped his would-be killers and ran through the snowy woods.
And throw-away jokes turned out to have hidden portent. Carmela refused to believe Meadow, her boyfriend Finn and her roommates at Columbia when they tell Carmela that the bullied hero of Melville’s “Billy Bud,” a class assignment for A. J., has a homosexual subtext. Much later Tony gives Finn a construction job, and the young man ends up being tormented by Vito Spatafore, the closeted gay mobster.
After a while — certainly after the third season, which included the long and graphic scene of the rape of Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi — violence lost some of its shock value. For one thing “The Sopranos” emboldened other series to lose their inhibitions. HBO prodded networks to push the limits of sex and violence, though most efforts to create a network “Sopranos” failed. Showtime, however, took more imaginative riffs on the HBO example, with smart, provocative fare like “Weeds” and “Sleeper Cell.”
Not all of the show’s influence was to the good. “The Sopranos” can be partly blamed for emboldening ABC to allow so many plotting excesses and drawn-out detours on "Lost," which in turn prompted a surfeit of copycat series, all with huge casts of characters and complicated interlocking story lines that required nothing short of maniacal commitment on the part of viewers. (“Heroes” was the only one to become a bona fide hit.)
But the main difference between “The Sopranos” and its spawn wasn’t prurience, it was ambition. Most shows overreach, or “jump the shark,” when they pile on too much melodrama and too many dead bodies. On “The Sopranos” it was the opposite: The show lost its way when it put murders and mischief aside and weighed itself down in ponderous character sketches and too many Bergmanesque dream sequences. Those flights of fancy were not surprising given how often the series was hailed as Shakespearian or Dickensian. Norman Mailer recently called “The Sopranos” the closest thing to the Great American Novel in today’s culture.
Last season was particularly low on whimsy and the playful black humor that was so much a part of the series’s charm, and the first two episodes of the final season are mostly solemn and self-serious.
It’s just as well. Way back in the fourth season, when Tony resisted Carmela’s pleas that he protect his loved ones’ future with some estate planning, she told him to grow up. “Let me tell you something,” Carmela snapped. “Everything comes to an end.”