HBO’s re-airing of “The Sopranos” (starring James Gandolfini) these last few months (or longer) has been a wonder to behold. The run concludes with the series finale, titled “Made in America,” on April 1. (Photo: HBO)
By ADAM BUCKMAN
It has been an enlightening experience to revisit “The Sopranos” these last few months on HBO.
This revered series, which ran from 1999 to 2007, has been running nightly (mostly at 8 p.m.) on the HBO “Signature” channel (which here in New York appears on Ch. 203 on Time Warner Cable). The show has been running for months and possibly longer — long enough to have cycled through the entire series at least once already. And now, the current cycle is almost at an end.
This current run has nine episodes to go until HBO finally gives it a rest. The fabled series finale — titled “Made in America” — with its controversial freeze-frame ending, airs Tuesday, April 1, after which HBO will replace it with a similar, celebratory re-airing of “Deadwood,” which ran originally from 2004 to 2006.
What more can anyone say about “The Sopranos”? HBO’s revival of the series has become a nightly addiction in our household. And the news is good: This is a series that more than holds up despite its advancing age (15 years — can you believe it? — since its premiere).
The quality of this production still astonishes — from the writing to the cinematography to the acting. Watching these episodes again — after having not laid eyes on the show for almost seven years — has me wondering why my own record of reviews and columns about “The Sopranos” was so checkered (see below). Oh, well — that’s showbiz!
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TV HOWL BONUS
How checkered? I went back and assessed my entire output of “Sopranos” stories, reviews and columns from 1999 to 2007 (about 80, all told) and wrote about my see-sawing opinions in my new (hopefully) forthcoming book “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television.” And now, presented here as a TV Howl bonus, is the entire “Sopranos” section from the book. Analyze this:
No single show received more coverage in the New York Post during its run than “The Sopranos.” I personally wrote close to 80 bylined columns, reviews and stories about this HBO series between September 1999 and July 2007.
The editors of the Post had decided that this show was of keen interest to the paper’s readership, and they were probably correct about that. The show, about a mafia chieftain in northern New Jersey who struggled to balance his responsibilities for his mob “family” and his real family while also undergoing psychotherapy, would resonate with viewers and Post readers throughout the New York area.
“They wuz robbed!” read the headline on my first story about “The Sopranos” published on Sept. 14, 1999. The story was a morning-after account of the Emmy Awards, where “The Sopranos” won “only” four awards out of 16 nominations for its first season. Among the awards the show won was a Best Actress Emmy for female lead Edie Falco.
Nevertheless, I had been instructed by my editors to write a column complaining that the show “wuz” robbed, so that is what I did. “ ‘The Sopranos’ is the hottest, most talked-about drama series in years,” I wrote in this column. “When you try to pinpoint the reasons why it’s so appealing, you wind up covering all the bases – casting, scriptwriting, acting photography, music, you name it. ‘The Sopranos’ deserved to win in all the categories in which it was nominated and it deserved to be nominated in a lot more categories.”
Reading this column today, it rings hollow. I doubt that I sincerely felt “The Sopranos” “deserved” statuettes in every category in which it had been nominated. Moreover, the column has the feel of something written in a hurry, without the benefit of revision time. And indeed, it was written under severe time constraints, on deadline on Emmy night, probably in the hour between 11 p.m. and midnight.
My next column on “The Sopranos” was more to the point. As the second season got under way, I was already questioning the show’s quality. “Just four episodes into its second season, ‘The Sopranos’ is suffering from a hype hangover,” I wrote in February 2000. “Thanks to all the parties, awards and subway posters, the show’s fans are now subjecting ‘The Sopranos’ to unrelenting, perhaps unreasonable scrutiny. They’re scratching their heads over the direction ‘The Sopranos’ has taken so far in season two.”
This column happens to be a head-scratcher in its own right. The “scrutiny” being applied by “the show’s fans” was really my own personal scrutiny. For some reason, though, I laid it off on “the show’s fans” instead of taking ownership of these doubts myself.
Despite these misgivings about Season Two, by the time the Emmys rolled around the following September, I was reporting on yet another “Sopranos” “robbery.”
“Hollywood robbed the mob,” read the headline on this summation, which complained about the show winning only one award – a Best Actor award for the star of the show, James Gandolfini – out of 18 nominations. “And the severity of the crime can’t be softened by the one measly Emmy that the TV Academy gave to James Gandolfini, who richly deserved it,” I wrote.
“ ‘The Sopranos’ should have been buried under a whole pile of Emmy statuettes last night,” I griped. “But instead, the greatest TV drama series of last season or any season lost to ‘The West Wing’ – an ordinary formulaic network drama that’s nothing more than ‘L.A. Law’ in the White House. What a crock!”
This column too was evidently written under duress – not only from deadline constraints but also from the desires of the Post’s editors that we continue to side with “The Sopranos” in stories such as this one. One reason I can detect now that it was a column written carelessly and in a hurry: In no previous column had I ever indicated that I thought “The West Wing” was formulaic. In fact, I had praised it often over the years. For that matter, I thought highly of “L.A. Law” too.
As the years went by, the Post’s interest in “The Sopranos” only grew. I came to write column after column speculating on future plot points, even though scant evidence existed to support my theses. I speculated on who would get whacked next, rarely predicting the future accurately. As far back as March 2001, I was speculating on whether Tony Soprano himself would soon be whacked, thus ending the series – though the show continued until June 2007.
In August and September 2001, I reported on the protests of Italian-Americans who disliked the show’s depiction of New Jersey gangsters with Italian surnames. One such group sued HBO and the producers of “The Sopranos” for defamation. A Chicago judge threw out the case on Sept. 19.
For another story, I interviewed psychologists and marriage specialists to get their viewpoints on the troubled marriage of Tony and Carmela. Probably because “The Sopranos” was at least partly about a patient and his therapist, New York’s community of psychoanalysts were surprisingly well-versed in this series. “He keeps the most disturbing part of his life secret,” one psychologist (of the four I interviewed one afternoon) observed about Tony.
“If he wants to look at the things that are underlying his anxiety attacks, he has to be in a place where he can be honest, but of course his code of silence doesn’t allow for more direct conversations,” said another.
In a preview of the third-season finale published in May 2001 a few days before the episode aired, I described “The Sopranos” as “the richest drama series on television.”
A few days later, though, after the finale was broadcast, I expressed my deep disappointment in the episode. “In the end, the thing that was most dissatisfying was the way last night’s finale left you with more questions than answers,” I complained.
I was apparently unhappy with the way the episode left several of the show’s many storylines unresolved. “Ending a season with unresolved plotlines is a device that’s overused on network television and unworthy of a show as artful as ‘The Sopranos’,” I lectured.
Despite my disappointment, I was back to praising “The Sopranos” at the onset of Season Four in September 2002, when I described the show as “a rare TV series which leaves us wanting more with each passing season.”
This new era of good feeling lasted for at least a few episodes into the new season, including one episode that was being derided by some of the show’s fans. It was an episode in which the mobsters became embroiled in a controversy over the correct way to commemorate Columbus Day.
“A lot of loose talk is going around that this week’s ‘Sopranos’ episode wasn’t up to the show’s usual standards,” I wrote in a column published on Oct. 3, 2002. “And I just can’t believe my ears. I loved every minute of it, even the stuff about Columbus Day – which apparently makes me unique since everyone else is moaning that the battle between the Italian- and Native-Americans of Newark over the meaning of the holiday seemed out of sync. …
“The complainers assert that real-life mobsters wouldn’t be caught dead wringing their hands over the efforts of a bunch of Native-American activists to disrupt a Columbus Day parade. In response to which, I have to ask: How do you know what mobsters talk about?
“With only 13 ‘Sopranos’ episodes coming along every few years, this is a series that should be savored, not scorned,” I scolded. “OK, crybabies?”
Just two weeks later, though, I was complaining that the show had become “boring.”
“It’s over,” I wrote, somewhat over-dramatically in retrospect. “I realized it the moment I reached for the newspaper Sunday night during ‘The Sopranos.’ I never thought it would come to this, but ‘The Sopranos’ was so boring, I could read the paper during the show and not miss a thing. …
“What’s needed to revive the show,” I advised, “is for someone to get whacked – fast, and as violently as possible.”
By the time Season Four was nearing its end in December, my disappointment had apparently become so deep that I found nothing wrong with pronouncing the show dead. “If you are among the dwindling number of ‘Sopranos’ fans who still think the show is worth wasting an hour of your time every week, then it’s time you face the truth,” I lectured. “This series, which once seemed so infallible, has crashed and burned.
Its miserable fourth season concludes tonight …”
To add insult to injury, at year’s end I chose “The Sopranos” as the worst TV show of the year.
“If you want to know what real disappointment feels like, talk to a ‘Sopranos’ fan,” I wrote, though I hadn’t talked to any “Sopranos” fans about the show at all. “The show, to which they are intensely loyal, returned for its fourth season after an absence of nearly a year-and-a-half and collapsed – spectacularly. Once the most riveting and discomfiting series on TV, ‘The Sopranos’ emerged from its ill-considered sabbatical as an aimless, yawn-inducing soap opera.”
The following year – 2003 – was characterized by a protracted contract battle stemming mainly from James Gandolfini’s demands for more money. The long standoff delayed production, and Season Five of “The Sopranos” didn’t premiere until March 2004.
And once again, I found myself revising my opinion of the show. “Old gangsters have infused ‘The Sopranos’ with new blood, and the result appears to be a rejuvenated series,” I wrote on Feb. 11, 2004, based on a handful of episodes HBO provided for preview. “That’s the cautious conclusion reached after viewing the first four episodes of the mob series’ long-awaited fifth season.”
I apparently became so satisfied with the episodes I was watching during this fifth season of “The Sopranos” that I was moved to declare an end to my nitpicking columns in a column published on May 9. “No other show on TV gets picked apart week after week quite like ‘The Sopranos’,” I noted in the column’s lead sentence. “I should know [because] I’ve done my share of the picking.
“Recently, though, while picking apart an early episode in the current fifth season of ‘The Sopranos,’ I had an epiphany – nitpicking is no fun …”
This moratorium lasted nine days.
“Wake me when it’s over,” read the lead sentence of a column published on May 18 – a recap of the episode seen two days earlier in which Tony Soprano fell asleep in a hotel room in the company of a prostitute and then had a wide-ranging dream that sucked up 23 minutes of the episode’s 50-minute running time.
In the column, I nitpicked about the dream. “While the lengthy dream was frustrating at times to watch, you can’t say it wasn’t a rich 20-plus minutes,” I conceded.
I then launched into an inventory of the dream’s many images of characters who were killed on past episodes of “The Sopranos,” as well as references to “at least three gangster movies … plus three other movies, ‘Chinatown,’ ‘High Noon’ and the 1951 version of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ on whose dream sequence Tony’s dream seemed loosely based.
“But hey, if I wanted to name a bunch of dead people or identify references to old movies, I would go and play Trivial Pursuit,” I wrote dismissively. “As for Tony’s state of mind, after all these years, I feel I know his state of mind. At this point, what I really want to know is: What’s he going to do about it?”
But the following month, I must have forgotten about the 23-minute dream because I was full of praise for the show as Season Five came to a close. “All in all, it was a fine ending to a strong ‘Sopranos’ season,” I wrote, recapping the season finale on June 6.
Then came a long, unprecedented wait of 21½ months for Season Six. I complained about this interval in August 2005. “Get the thing back on TV already!” I demanded in a column published on Aug. 21 – nearly 15 months since a new episode of “The Sopranos” had last aired. “Waiting this long for a TV show to resume is unheard-of,” I pointed out. “Viewer attention spans [really my attention span] are notoriously short. If enough time goes by, viewers might find it harder to remember everything that has taken place on a series as rich as ‘The Sopranos.’ They might also forget why they used to care.
“And they might resent getting jerked around too,” I wrote resentfully.
When the show finally returned in March 2006 for its sixth season with a run of 12 episodes, I continued to complain about it.
“Wake me up, I must be dreaming,” read a lead sentence published on March 20, 2006, that echoed a similar lead I wrote more than two years earlier. This new column was about yet another dream – this one emanating from Tony Soprano as he lay comatose in a hospital intensive-care unit following a near-fatal shooting. This new one was seen in the second episode of the new season. It lasted 18 minutes in an episode that ran for 51 minutes.
“Pardon me for dozing,” I wrote of this episode,” but last night’s glimpse into the dream life of Tony Soprano held nearly no interest for me …
“Yes, fans, the new season of ‘The Sopranos’ is only two episodes old and it’s back to business as usual – ratcheting up the action one week and then inexplicably slamming on the brakes a week later. …
“I don’t know about you,” I wrote wearily, “but after all the dreams and the therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, I’ve learned all I need to know about the inner life of Tony Soprano.
“What I’d really like to see this season on ‘The Sopranos’ is a plot – you know, a story – with a beginning, middle and, especially, an end.
“This series has become one long exercise in character development,” I complained. “After a while, though, there comes a time to put these characters into action. Or call it a day.”
By May 14, with only a few episodes left to go before “The Sopranos” would take another year-long hiatus, I declared the show a flop. “ ‘The Sopranos’ is flopping badly in its long-awaited return after two years,” I wrote in a column that was not really about “The Sopranos” at all but a preview of the shows HBO had waiting in the wings to assume the “Sopranos” time slot after this run of episodes had run their course. As such, the column contained no support – such as examples of “The Sopranos’ ” latest shortcomings – for my assessment that the show was “flopping.”
A year later, at the onset of the show’s final episodes, I was much more accommodating as I waxed sentimental about the series. There would be nine episodes, culminating in the series finale on June 10. Officially, these nine would complete the show’s sixth season, whose first 12 episodes had aired a year earlier, and which I had described in various columns as plotless and “flopping.”
But not anymore. “Forgive me for feeling sentimental,” I wrote in a column published on March 28, 2007, that previewed the final episodes (two of which I had already seen after they had been sent over by HBO).
“It’s been a great run,” I wrote magnanimously, “if not for ‘The Sopranos’ then for those of us who have expended gallons of ink over the years dissecting it, praising it, complaining about it – basically glomming on to a phenomenon in whose creation and production we played no part.”
That was true, of course. We critics do “glom” on to the work of others – at least sometimes. To a great extent, it was true about “The Sopranos.” The Post’s relationship with this show was at best symbiotic; at worst, parasitic. The show was extremely popular with our readers, so we found it irresistible as a means of selling papers. It never seemed to matter whether my critiques were for or against the show. It only mattered that people read them, whether they agreed with me or not.
The end came on June 10, 2007. The final episode of “The Sopranos” was titled “Made in America,” and it is remembered today primarily for the way it ended – with a freeze-frame image of Tony Soprano in a New Jersey burger joint, looking up from his seat in a booth as someone unseen is heard entering through the front door.
The quality of this ending was debated for weeks afterward since the freeze-frame left Tony’s fate uncertain and unresolved. The conjecture boiled down to this: Who came through the door? Was it Meadow Soprano, the last of the family members to arrive for dinner? Or was it some thug who had come to the burger joint to do Tony in?
My own take was that the ending was very creative – one of the most creative endings I had ever seen for a TV series. To me, it effectively expressed one of the show’s central themes – that, for Tony, his life will always consist of wondering who’s coming through the door, whether it will be someone close to him from either of his two families, or someone else bringing death to his doorstep.
However, I never got the opportunity to opine on the episode. On the night the finale aired, this particular column assignment went to the Post’s other TV critic, Linda Stasi.
My own column-writing about “The Sopranos” came to an end about three weeks later. “This is the last ‘Sopranos’ column ever,” I promised in the lead sentence of this column published on July 1, 2007.
“I mean it,” I insisted. “After this, I plan on never writing about that show again. I shouldn’t even be writing about it now, except that the topic refuses to go away …
“Since [June 10], the chatter about the final scene – what it meant, what it didn’t mean, who liked it, who didn’t like it – has not abated. …
“ ‘The Sopranos’ is gone,” I wrote. “Enough already.”
Excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television,” Copyright 2014 by Adam Buckman. All rights reserved.
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Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org