The Sopranos' final season started last night, thankfully. Everyone of course has heard, and repeated, ad nauseum how brilliant the show is and how it redefined television, and this has picked up over the last few weeks as TV critics get understandably elegiac about saying goodbye to the show that made their profession respectable. I remember that after the first season, the television critic for Entertainment Weekly declared The Sopranos the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of television. It was the work that bridged the gap between art and popular culture for television just as the Beatles' album was for rock n roll.
All of the purple prose spilled over the series over the last few weeks has of course missed a larger point: the last three seasons, taken as a whole, sucked. And it easy to see why: money.
Let's backtrack. Starting with the show's second season, creator David Chase started saying that he had planned for the show to go four seasons, and had the ending planned. After the groundbreaking brilliance of the first season, which as a self-contained unit may very well be the greatest accomplishment in TV history, the show suffered a slight sophomore slump in the second season, which was extremely entertaining but did not reach the emotional depths of Season 1. That season was redeemed, though, by the shockingly absurd and affecting finale in which Big Pussy was killed. More shocking than a series' lead character killing off another regular character was the fact that an episode that featured a talking fish could be so moving.
The show rebounded from the relatively lightweight season 2 with the astounding season 3, in which Chase and company exploded everything we knew about the series. Everything about the show, from the acting to the visual style, took on a darker tone. The two episodes that are seared in my memory more than any other are from that season. "Employee of the Month" brought the normally detached Dr. Melfi deeper into the moral morass as she is brutally raped--perhaps the most brutal scene in the history of TV--and grapples with whether or not to seek retribution by telling Tony. "University", a sequel of sorts to Season 1's "College", traces the parallel mental dissolution of a sweet, damaged Bada Bing stripper and Meadow's college roommate, along with the dissolution of Tony's relationship with his daughter.
Most importantly, Season 3 had an overarching feeling of impending doom, as things were obviously being set up for the series finale in Season 4. Then, a funny thing happened: HBO backed up a dump truck full of money to David Chase's house. While Chase and the show's other principles got bigger paychecks and HBO helped to prop up Time Warner's flailing stock, we the audience got three seasons of Columbus Day protests, subplots that trailed off to nowhere, new characters introduced with great fanfare and then quickly killed off, dead racehorses, and ever more ludicrous dream sequences. While the show still had moments which reminded you of its former greatness, the overall feeling you got these past three seasons is that Chase was simply killing time, filling up hours for syndication and coming up with new ways to frustrate his audience. The idea of a main character being killed, so shocking when it happened to Big Pussy, became old hat, to the point that they had to come up with a particularly loathsome way to kill Adrianna to make it sufficiently shocking.
Which brings us to this final, seventh season, (or Season 6, part 2 according to Chase and HBO, who apparently went to the George Lucas school of nonsensical episodic numbering). I had high hopes for this season, hoping Chase would pull out those original Season 4 stories and find an appropriate way to wrap things up. Last night's premiere episode, "Soprano Home Movies", was a step in the right direction. It was a reestablishment of the trust the show established with its audience in the first few seasons which was later so badly betrayed. It is an incredibly slow-moving and plot free episode that revolves around Tony's 47th birthday party at Bobby and Janice's lake house in upstate New York. Tony, Carmella, Janice and Bobby take up almost all of the screen time, with only token appearances by some of the other regulars. While it does not advance the overall plot, the episode sets up what will most likely be the prime themes of the final season: Tony's intimations of mortality and his lingering Oedipal problems that have played out with Janice as a proxy ever since Livia died. The episode recalls "Mr Ruggiero's Neighborhood", the Season 3 premiere, with its clean plotline that doesn't really lead anywhere but allows us to get reacquainted with the characters and reassures us that the ensuing season will have a purpose. Even the visual style backed away from the past few seasons' aspirations of cinematic grandeur to the softer style of the earlier seasons, reminiscent of 80s dramas like Hill Street Blues.
In the end, that Entertainment Weekly review was more accurate than the author intended. The Sopranos is TV's Sergeant Pepper: groundbreaking and overblown, brilliant and self-indulgent, affecting and maddening, overreaching and eventually overrated by critics and audiences who want it to be more than it really is. But Sergeant Pepper redeems almost all of its negative qualities with "A Day in the Life", its brilliant epilogue. Lets hope The Sopranos can do the same.