Sunday night, in a stream of post-finale babble veering dangerously close to rant, my comparison of “The Sopranos” to the serialized fiction of Charles Dickens proved to be the last straw. “You know,” my friend interrupted on the phone, “it is just a television show. It’s not like it’s Iraq or Bush or something.”
At work Monday morning, in a post-finale declamation veering dangerously close to rant, a colleague argued that “The Sopranos” had been an allegorical repudiation of the Bush-era myths of American supremacy and a searing criticism of the ethical compromises and materialist rationalizations of the baby boom generation.
James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro, Steven R. Schirripa
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
(HBO; US: 8 Apr 2007)
“You know,” I said, raising one eyebrow, “it is just a TV show—probably the best show ever, but still ...”
Having watched, loved, critiqued, second-guessed and thought, written and argued about “The Sopranos” since its premiere eight and a half years and 86 hours of running time ago, I’ll happily debate the relative merits of the final episode and the real, imagined or fervently wished-for symbolism of the series.
But something else strikes me about what’s been happening in print, on the audio and video airwaves, online, through thumb-activated keys on cell phones and even—gasp!—face to face in the weeks leading up to the end of the series and, now, after it: We’ve been having a national conversation.
True, we’ve been talking about a television show, but that we’re having the conversation at all is a vivid reminder of the power of media to concentrate our attention and create something approaching a shared national moment.
One medium—network television, with its universal reach and, before cable, satellite and the Internet, its lack of competition—used to serve as our national hearth. Assassinations, social upheavals and political crises and natural disasters, along with such cultural touchstones as the first broadcast of “Roots,” the final episode of “M*A*S*H,” the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan,” just about every Super Bowl and an occasional game seven of an occasional World Series would pull us together to experience the same thing at the same time.
In a nation of hundreds of millions of people with vastly different ethnic and economic backgrounds spread out across thousands of miles, these shared experiences became little packets of a common identity. Whether urban, suburban or rural; religious believer or non-believer; radical leftie, reactionary rightie or steadfast independent; whether young, old, black, white or brown; wealthy or working class; farmer, office worker, academic or professional ... these were things we all saw, heard and knew together as Americans.
If such moments were rare before—and, by definition, they were—they are an endangered species today. That is one of the downsides, I’d argue, of the multiplicity of media formats and the “get what you want, where you want it, when you want it,” configure-to-preference, wired-and-wireless, personal-digital era.
Which makes the end-of-“The Sopranos” phenomenon all the more remarkable. After all, notwithstanding the millions of “Sopranos” home-video units sold, it’s still a show that appeared mainly in 13-week bursts over eight and a half years on a TV channel you could see only if you first paid to get cable or satellite service and then paid more to get HBO. By any reasonable measure, the distribution and the availability of “The Sopranos” were extremely limited.
The amount and intensity of the attention paid to the series finale and the fervor, positive and negative, of the responses to the episode itself are measures of the passion with which viewers regarded the series’ artistic brilliance and its emotional and intellectual impact. The waves generated by that passion spread far beyond the fan base where they started and into virtually every form of media, old and new. At this point, you’d have to live an awfully isolated existence to be unaware of the series and its final original episode telecast on Sunday.
I had not the tiniest wisp of a problem with the episode, including the last five of the series’ 4,730 or so minutes. The show’s creator and driving force, David Chase, always said that his fictional protagonist, Tony Soprano, would be held to account for his countless legal, moral and ethical sins. But he also had said that he wasn’t much inclined to kill off the character played with such astonishing commitment by James Gandolfini.
Six years ago, at the end of the show’s third season and expecting that the fourth would be its last, I wrote that Tony’s most fitting punishment would be to feel he had no choice but to betray his crime family to authorities as the only way to protect his wife and children. I was wrong.
Chase, in an episode dotted with scathing references to the banality of the entertainment industry, found a far more devasting punishment for his creation: He left Tony and his family trapped in a spiritless, self-delusional cycle of life in which many things happen but nothing meaningful changes.
I watched “The Sopranos” finale Sunday night with close friends and family, all of us devoted to the series. One had brought a bottle of champagne, which we popped open several minutes after the episode ended—after our heart rates had settled down from Chase’s little Hitchcockian demonstration of the filmmaking techniques used to generate suspense.
Our host found some plastic glasses, filled them and passed them around. My friend Mark thought for a second, lifted his glass and offered the perfect shrug of a “Sopranos” toast: “Whaddaya gonna do? ...”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at emink AT post-dispatch.com.