Dr. Melfi: “What are you afraid’s going to happen?”
Tony: “I don’t know! But something. I don’t know!”
—The Sopranos, season one, episode one
Watching the long goodbye of The Sopranos has been a test, and for many of us a proof, of how deep the show’s hooks had penetrated. At some point in its long run it came perhaps to be taken for granted. Undeniably, during recent seasons, I had found myself carping about stasis, a hint of aridity, an aura of grogginess. Hadn’t all this gone on long enough? Hadn’t we spent enough time watching Tony Soprano and the crew conspiring in the back room of Satriale’s Pork Store, or trading lacerating verbal jabs at the bar of the Bada Bing club while the strippers in the background went through their changeless paces? How many times could Carmela swallow her misgivings after she and Tony once again quarreled and reconciled? Yet as the seventh and final season rolled out, I found myself inwardly whining—in the tones of an addict as helpless as Christopher Moltisanti’s fellow substance abusers in his twelve- Step group or Dave Scatino, the compulsive gambler lured to his doom in Tony’s executive poker game—“Why does it have to end?”
I used to wonder how it would have been to be a reader in the era of serialized fiction, when Dickens could keep an entire culture hanging on for the next installment, and ships arriving in America might be hailed, before anything else, with questions about how things fared with Little Nell. But even The Old Curiosity Shop only took a little under a year to unfold. The Sopranos began its run in January 1999, extending eventually to eighty-six hour-long episodes. Following it has been like watching a movie that lasted for eight years, with occasional intermission breaks for births, deaths, terrorist incursions, and wars that look to go on much longer than the series. (“You realize we’re gonna bomb Iran?” A.J. Soprano asked his father in a late episode.)
At the start The Sopranos had the piquancy of a new invention. Television had fostered a claustrophobia of hemmed-in expectations, a culture of flat character types and pat endings. The space into which The Sopranos inducted us had the messy picaresque randomness of the real world, yet every detail—every tune heard in passing, every remark overheard at the next table, every artifact glimpsed in the background of a crowded room—glistened as if singled out with obsessive mindfulness. In texture and form it seemed something altogether new to television.
The suggestion originally made to the show’s creator, David Chase, was to create a TV version of The Godfather, but he chose instead to rework a screenplay he had written years earlier. The concept, baldly recounted, might have seemed a gimmick with limited potential: a lower-tier New Jersey mobster, living an outward life of suburban ease but bedeviled by panic attacks, with great reluctance goes into therapy. In outline—portrait of a mafioso as…
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