Monday, June 11, 2007

Bada Bye

The longer a TV series runs, the tougher it is to end. I can't think of a Last Show that was at all satisfying, that tied together loose ends, that left me feeling wistful or wanting more. "M*A*S*H", "Cheers", "thirtysomething", "Seinfeld" -- none of these shows ended artfully or even memorably. Each in its own way was overstuffed with references and characters from earlier periods, and at times looked like pre-emptive cast reunions. And with syndication, you really wonder what's the point of a Last Show, since endless reruns keep a show's characters and familiar plotlines alive.

I prefer a show to end without warning, leaving everything up in the air. "My So-Called Life" did that, against the wishes of the producers, of course, as they clearly thought that a second season was coming. But ABC canned "So-Called" without ceremony, and we're left forever wondering if Brian Krakow and Angela Chase ever hook up, or if Angela's father Graham has an affair with his business partner, Hallie Lowenthal, among other unresolved storylines. We'll never know, and that's a good thing. It's as if we moved away from that neighborhood and never looked back.

From the reaction I've seen so far, it seems that most fans of "The Sopranos" feel cheated or let down by last night's abrupt ending. I was simply confused, and thought, for a moment, that my cable went out, which was a clever ploy by David Chase -- fuck with the transmission at what seems to be the key moment, then silently run the credits. It took me an hour to fully appreciate Chase's choice, for as others have observed, there was no real or satisfying way to end "The Sopranos", so just end it, and toss in a little technical joke for added effect. To me, this was the best Last Show I've seen.

Now, I must confess that I'm a relative newcomer to "The Sopranos". I didn't really start watching the show until the middle of last season, found myself hooked, and haven't missed an episode since. But I did miss a lot of plot exposition and character development, as well as many characters killed before I came into the narrative. So, over the weekend, the wife snagged from the library the first season of "The Sopranos", which I'm currently watching, and I'm simply floored by the thing. I cannot believe it took me this long to watch the beginning of Tony's slow and inevitable loss of power; his early, angry, clumsy efforts to discover who he is within, and how he honestly relates to those close to him. The framing of shots, the lighting, the cinematography -- all are simply fantastic. But it's the writing, and most especially, the acting that blows me away. I know this isn't news to the millions of "Sopranos" fans across the world, and you'll excuse my late appreciation, but James Gandolfini and Edie Falco are perhaps the best leads I've ever seen in a series, dramatic or comedic. And of course, "The Sopranos" blends these forms as well as, if not better than, any American show before or since.

In a way, I'm glad I'm just now watching the first season. I know the main characters well enough from the past two years, so it's nice to see them in an earlier time. And unlike all you "Sopranos" regulars left with no new episodes, I've got some 70-plus fresh chapters ahead of me, so this will be my personal "Sopranos" summer. Needless to say, I'm really looking forward to it.

The teen bet me five bucks that Tony would get whacked last night. I refused her wager, since I knew that David Chase could not and would not kill Tony, "Too easy," I told her. "Too predictable." I also thought that Chase would leave Carmela untouched as well. How on earth could he erase his two greatest characters? Better to let them face an unknown future together, along with Meadow and A.J., and allow the fates take them as they are.

What fate does the Soprano family face? There's talk of a feature film, which would make sense, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars. But even if we never see the Sopranos again, that's okay. It's like leaving behind another fictional neighborhood, albeit one filled with hidden graves and unresolved relationships. In reality, you'd be happy to get out of there alive. In "The Sopranos'" world, you'd keep looking back, hoping to see one more plot twist, a family argument, a fist fight, a hit. Or maybe you'd look to see if the ducks had returned. But that would be too neat a framing device, and as David Chase showed us last night, such narrative symmetry was not part of the plan. That's one of the reasons why "The Sopranos" will remain a unique and an indelible piece of Americana. Let's see if the floating surfer show can match that.