Back when it debuted, HBO’s The Sopranos arguably ushered in the so-called second golden age of television. It was groundbreaking. It was unlike anything ever shown on the small screen.
It’s also not as good as you remember it.
Now that we’ve had time to process the awful finale and seen the shows that came in its wake—which, all due respect (as the mobsters would say), would never have existed without Tony and his gang—we can fairly judge The Sopranos for its place in the history of TV and admit that the show had some major flaws.
Now, there are those who still cling to the old gang. Most recently, Rolling Stone magazine put The Sopranos at the top of their 100 Greatest TV Shows list. And really, is there any better arbiter of what is the most current, most cutting edge entertainment than Rolling Stone? (Yes.)
Here’s what we should all admit—the show got out to a great start, ducks in the pool and all, and then it became uneven, to put it kindly. Part of the shift came from the unexpected and tragic death of Nancy Marchand, who played Tony’s mother. The whole premise of the show centered around Tony’s therapy due to his Mommy issues. Take the mom out of the equation and you have a show set adrift that never quite made it back to shore.
First, we were subjected to that awful, awkward episode where they recycled old scenes and outtakes of Marchand into a cobbled-together mess intended to give some sort of closure to the character. It didn’t work, and they would have been better off letting her pass away off screen and then dealing with it. Other actors have died mid-show and nobody tried the embarrassing cut and paste job The Sopranos did.
That brings us to Dr. Melfi. Poor, underused Dr. Melfi. The dynamic between Tony and his therapist set the tone for what was not your daddy’s mob show. Something deeper was at work here. Lorraine Bracco was excellent as the therapist put in an ethical dilemma with her mob boss client. And then, the reason for his therapy vanished. Did they redirect the show? Did they fire Dr. Melfi as Tony surely would have? No. They kept her around, using her in fewer and fewer scenes as the series wore on. She became marginalized, pointless, and a waste of talent.
When faced with the question of what to do with this character who has no point anymore, they took one easy route. Sexual assault! Why not? When in doubt with what to do with a female character, there’s always rape.
Then, in a defining example of the second half of The Sopranos run, what could have been a compelling, complicated storyline was half-heartedly dealt with and then quickly dismissed as if the writers lost interest once the act had been completed to our beloved Dr. It made her tokenism even more obvious when she had truly nothing at all to do after that for the rest of the series.
The writers seemed to grow bored with their own characters quite often in the later episodes. And although they weren’t shy about killing them off, which often gave us the most effective and well-crafted episodes, they fell victim to a habit that affects far too many shows that get multiple seasons—for every character they kill off, three new ones replace them.
The inner workings of Tony’s mind was the hook that got us all to fall in love with the New Jersey mobsters. The inner workings of mob politics in the tri-state area became the writers obsession, and there is no way to keep track of the dense politics, overabundance of characters, and businesses minutia without the narrative going off the rails.
Even the most die-hard fans began to wish they had better taste in who to kill off sometimes. For example, I’d trade one Adriana for both Sopranos children. AJ gave Dr. Melfi a run for her money as the most useless character in the later seasons. The living room furniture had more character than the kids.
One thing The Sopranos also ushered in to the new TV was the year-long wait for new episodes. All the momentum of the story ground to a halt. By the time they were back on the air, sometimes a year and a half later, any narrative through line had dissipated like Tony’s cigar smoke.
With so much damn time to write the things, why were so many storylines dropped or forgotten about? Too many episodes ended on cliffhangers that wouldn’t get resolved—or even addressed—until weeks later. And heaven help you if some storyline got caught in a twelve-month break between seasons. It was like each writer was in their own cabin in the woods writing a standalone short film that they stitched together into a season.
New faces would pop up only to be underused and underdeveloped. Old favorites would pop in from time to time only long enough to remind you that you really like that character, but then they’d disappear and we’d get three more scenes of Janice.
In our binge-watching world of today, The Sopranos seems filled with holes.
The finale is its own special brand of insult to a loyal audience, but the less said about it the better.
In the end, I think the story just got away from them. They were unwilling to make the major changes they needed to after Tony’s mom died, and the solution to add more mob politics was the wrong one.
While many still cling to the first feelings of excitement when Season 1 hit the airwaves, not many viewers in the current generation are digging back into The Sopranos and finding it to be as good as they’re told.
Breaking Bad is better because they never lost sight of the story. The Wire is better because they followed through on season arcs and then set themselves a new task next season, keeping it fresh. See also: The Americans, Fargo, The Walking Dead, Justified, The Shield, Deadwood.
Don’t believe me? Find someone who didn't watch the first run of The Sopranos. Set them up with any of the shows above and ask them to watch both. The Sopranos won’t come out on top.
There’s no doubt it laid groundwork. It broke barriers for what you could and couldn’t do with a TV show. It reached for an epicness not seen before. And it nearly got there, but instead it managed to crumble under its own weight.
It’s okay to admit it. It’s okay to still like it. It’s not a bad show by any stretch. Just stop telling people it’s the best ever, because that’s not true. And I know saying that risks me getting a visit in the night from some guys out to break my kneecaps, but someone had to say it.
The Contrarian tells it like it is. You might not like it, but you know he’s right.