The End of Tony Soprano, Maybe

by Rick Rockwell

Sean Connery learned when it came to James Bond, he should never say “never.” And thus was eventually born Never Say Never Again, a Bond flick with Connery long after he had dumped the franchise and gone on to make many other pictures.

So after last night’s season closer of The Sopranos, billed by HBO as the last episode ever, some are mourning the series, but others wonder about the potential for more.

The show’s creator David Chase tied up many loose ends in the series during the past two episodes, but his unorthodox ending also leaves the door open for the inevitable sequel. Both Chase and James Gandolfini (who plays Tony Soprano) have vowed that this is the end. Both feel the experience of working on the series for the past eight years has left them spent. Chase has further vowed he will no longer work in television.

Chase has a long history in television. He was one of the writers and producers who made The Rockford Files crackle. He guided Northern Exposure for part of its peak years. With The Sopranos, which is really a black comedy set amidst the dramatic stylings of a mobster drama (see the assassination of Phil Leotardo from the closing episode if you need any proof), Chase has pushed the boundaries of what is possible for a television program even on cable. He wants to do films now.

The closing scene of The Sopranos, and most of the penultimate episode, shows Chase has a knack for building tension, even in common everyday settings. Is the closing scene just Tony, Carmela (played by the great Edie Falco), and their kids having dinner in a diner? Or is something more about to happen? Tony’s assassination? His arrest? Some even wrongly speculated the scene would be a jumping off point for Tony to go into the Witness Protection Program (no plotlines added up to that although Tony certainly deepened his connections with the FBI in the final installment).

But all the clues are there if Chase, Gandolfini and Falco want to pick up this franchise and move it to a movie theater sometime in the future. First, The Sopranos is a a money-maker. No pay-cable series has its ratings, which sometimes beat most of the competition on free over-the-air television. The series has spawned a video game and its DVDs remain popular.

So can a Sopranos film be far away?

The series always used music to create atmosphere and often to make commentary on the scenes. So noticeably the series closes uncharacteristically on an over-played Journey song "Don't Stop Believin'," and the last words of the song the viewer hears are “don’t stop.” A musical clue from Chase that more is coming in a different venue? Or just a tease?

Chase and Gandolfini could just be creatively tired of The Sopranos for now. Maybe they just need a rest until they want to create more. (In the meantime, Gandolfini is working on a documentary and wants to play Ernest Hemingway in a special for HBO.) Or they could have just pulled a Jerry Seinfeld and really walked away from one of the great television series. But unlike the lame ending episode of Seinfeld, The Sopranos goes out on a high note, with the audience still wanting at least one more aria.

(For an earlier essay on this topic, please see: "So Long Tony Soprano.")

(Promotional photo of James Gandolfini in The Sopranos from HBO.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

I realize my complete lack of interest in the Sopranos may make me jaded, but if I read the ratings numbers correctly, a grand total of 12 million people (not even the population of the metro New York area) saw the finale. So why has this story been reported as if it is massive, tremendous news? I had to listen to a couple of yuks discuss this on the radio in Dallas yesterday, on what was supposedly sports talk.

Rick Rockwell said...

As usual, there are plenty of explanations here, but let's start with the sports angle first.

My guess is there is perverse civic pride attached to this discussion if not a little jealousy: poor provincial San Antonio just can't measure up to Big D. Last year, the ratings for the NBA were much better... this year's game two is down 24 percent from last year when the Mavericks were in the finals.

Also, the opener between the Spurs and Cavaliers was the lowest rated game ever played in primetime, so the NBA has more problems than Tony Soprano going head to head with them.

Yes, the finale of The Sopranos only had 12 million viewers but that is in a universe of 30 million subscribers. Still, The Sopranos beat the NBA finals by more than three million viewers. That's like winning with two hands tied behind your back, because the NBA is on free over-the-air television available to everyone.

To watch The Sopranos a viewer pays a cable bill and a premium bill. And so this is an example that broadcasting is dead and nichecasting is alive, because The Sopranos beat every TV series on the air last week except one. If The Sopranos had won, it would have been the first time a pay cable series had ever won the overall ratings competition.

If The Sopranos is truly the best TV series of the past decade, as many of us believe, then its passing is a cultural landmark. But its ratings also show you that today 12 million is a great number when in the past it wouldn't have been much.

Finally, the jaded newspaperman in you must know there is another reason this is dominating the news: it's June. Even with a war, an out-of-control president, and scandal seemingly everywhere summer just does something to our attention.

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