Hey, Happy 20th Birthday, ‘Sopranos’! And the Ending Still Sucks.
There’s a legitimate discussion to be held on whether The Sopranos was the best show in television history.
There’s no debate, however, on this point: It is the most overanalyzed.
Personally, I’d add one more thing I think is relevant: The ending was terrible.
But I know the “ending” debate gets contentious, and in the interest of not further contributing to the overanalysis problem, I just wanted to cast two quick votes.
First, it was not the greatest TV show ever. It was a fine show, one of the best. But in my opinion, which is only that, The West Wing was better. Mad Men was better. Deadwood was better.
For all the good moments, and for all the brilliance of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, The Sopranos went on too long. The last two seasons, in particular, were riddled with mediocre episodes. It felt like creator David Chase had told his story already, but because the show was so successful he had been talked into keeping it going anyhow.
The best episodes early in the show were compelling. You couldn’t wait to see what happened next. The last couple of seasons it mattered less, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. The first episode in the last half of season six drew barely half the audience that watched the first episode of season four, some five years earlier.
By the last season, the only big remaining question was how it would end, which brings us back to my second vote, which is that the ending really was awful.
Mainly, it was no ending at all. Chase, who deserves full credit for creating the show and all the brilliant things in it, became a guy who had been sitting by the campfire telling this wonderful engaging yarn and just as he got to the ending stood up, walked away and said, “You figure it out.”
I’m fine with audience engagement. I like it when the audience has to pick up clues and ruminate. This went way beyond that. Chase created this show, this story, these characters. For him not to give us a hint what he thought would be the fate of his central character felt evasive and, frankly, lazy. Like, “Hey, I don’t have to come up with an ending! Hot dog!”
In our new round of retro-analysis, which is popping up everywhere this week because Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the show’s premiere, Chase says he saw the ending as a way to encourage viewers to ponder the uncertainty and fragility of human existence.
Well, okay. But let’s also remember that when it came to the fragility of life, The Sopranos rarely opted for subtle. Adriana’s last scene was almost pornographic. Ralphie beating a girl to death was pretty raw, and while Ralphie’s decapitation morphed into black humor, none of those scenes, nor several dozen others, threw it to the viewer’s imagination. Chase’s message about life and death, all along, was right there.
In any case, millions of words have been written on matters like that — and that’s not a criticism of the analysts, many of whom are insightful and articulate.
It’s just that after a while it’s like analyzing a good slice of pizza. Stop talking, pass the oregano and eat.
As for the ending, no matter how revered it will remain in some critical quarters, it will always remind me one of those movie scenes where pretentious art enthusiasts walk into a gallery and see their favorite artist has hung a blank canvas.
They stare at it for a long time and one finally whispers, “He’s brilliant! What a statement! It’s so deep!”
Or, it’s a blank canvas.