HBO is not TV, the network reminds us every time it airs one of its original shows, it's HBO, which I suppose makes sense if you shill out extra dough every month to watch Entourage, The Wire, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But if your BS detector is presently firing on all cylinders, I won't check to see if it's broken. HBO made its name with programming that was edgier, smarter, and (for a while, at least) better than what was on the major networks or basic cable. It set a high bar for excellence that hasn't been lowered as much as matched by the rest of the dial, from FX to the once-lowly ABC. Still, the uppity "It's not TV" mentality still applies to the show most responsible for HBO's rep, The Sopranos, in an increasingly unhealthy way.
Creator David Chase has shown his disdain for TV convention by brazenly flaunting (or just ignoring) it throughout the run of The Sopranos. Chase's irreverence is a big reason why The Sopranos became the greatest, most influential drama of its generation–it essentially cleared the slate on what was considered good and pointed the way toward conflicted protagonists, novelistic storytelling, and tough, often depressing themes. Quite simply, The Sopranos was "the big bang" that created the golden age of serialized television this decade. The Shield, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and every other notable drama of the '00s owe The Sopranos a tribute.
But for the past season and a half The Sopranos has fallen behind the competition it inspired. And I don't think you have to be an action-hungry meathead to think Chase, like Tony Soprano, might be willfully alienating those who used to love him. You want more whackings? I'll kill off a gay mobster in a disgusting fashion. You think Tony Soprano is a funny, loveable teddy bear? I'll put him in a coma for a couple of episodes, and then turn him into a grumpy, humorless a-hole. You like the Godfather-style suspense and intrigue of past seasons? I'll make the mob stuff perfunctory. Now, I'm not knocking Chase for taking the "fun" out of his show to focus on the psychological and emotional rot of his characters. What I am knocking him for is how obvious and tiresome that focus has become in the series' final days.
Critics seem to think The Sopranos has been stronger lately after last year's low-watt season six. But while I can offer a half-assed defense of last season after recently re-watching it on DVD–it plays better if you don't have to wait two years for it, though it's still the sixth best Sopranos season–the past four episodes have only deepened my frustration with the direction Chase has taken. Which is not to say that The Sopranos has become a bad show; it's too well-observed and carefully thought-out for it to be full-blown mediocre. What The Sopranos has become is unsatisfying and sort of empty, like a tryst in the back of the Bada Bing. It's not just that Chase no longer seems interested in telling stories or that he keeps putting heavy-handed "What's it all for?" pontificating in the mouths of his characters. Too many plot points lately just aren't ringing true. So far this season, it's been suggested that Tony might kill, in order of episode, Bobby, Christopher, Paulie, and Hesh, with seemingly no legitimate provocation beyond that week's show. (Is it just me or does the cantankerous Chase seem to be messing with fans who bet in those dumb "Which Sopranos character will get killed next?" pools?) Sunday's episode was the most hackneyed yet: (SPOILERS AHEAD) Tony all of a sudden has a desperate gambling addiction and a mountain of debts, A.J. (now hampered with ridiculous facial hair) loses that too-hot girlfriend we never knew or cared about, and Hesh's girlfriend dies mysteriously. Oh, and Tony and Carmela have a violent confrontation that ends as suddenly as it begins.
As much as I admire the stomach-churning level of foreboding Chase has built up in recent episodes, I'm beginning to wonder if there's no longer a there there. Even with six-plus seasons worth of momentum, Tony's personal disintegration feels rushed when it should be (and used to be) organic. I'm reminded of how another beloved pop culture institution, Star Wars, came to a close. Like the prequel era Star Wars the main draws of The Sopranos at the moment are history and hope. Long-time fans are so invested in the characters that even minor plot developments seem weighted with great meaning. Is Tony luring Paulie onto a fishing boat to kill him a la Big Pussy, or are they just going fishing? Chase knows obsessive fans will catch every allusion to a past episode, and that critics will find him brilliant for subtly conjuring one of Tony's many personal demons. But I can't help feeling that this is a cheap way to keep us watching. Sometimes it seems like Chase is milking our expectation for something, anything, big to happen. Is he simply flaunting convention again, or has he run out of ideas?
Let me state the obvious: David Chase has already forgotten more about TV drama than I will ever know. I should probably just trust the guy more—there's a good chance I will appreciate the current run of episodes better when I can absorb them on DVD. And who knows what he has in store? Maybe I'm in the anger stage of grief as my favorite show of all-time dies a slow death we all know is coming. At least I hope that's the case. Because Tony Soprano, bastard that he is, deserves a grand finale after such a grand run.