The Sopranos - final season

The Sopranos - final season

Mob rules

The Sopranos broke all the rules in the small-screen book and became the benchmark for quality TV drama. With the final episodes now here, Brian Donaldson bids arrivederci to Tony and his crew

In May 1998, traumatised executives at US cable channel Home Box Office (HBO) were in mourning when the last episode of the ground-breaking spoof chat show comedy The Larry Sanders Show aired. Having reached a creative peak since its inception in 1965 and with only the ultimately annoying Sex and the City heading the roster of new shows for the year, it looked like bleak times were ahead for HBO. But over the horizon rode a little silver-haired New Jerseyite who would save the day not just for HBO, but for those who had come to the conclusion that quality drama and TV were mutually exclusive terms.

While David Chase had already had success on the small screen with writing work on The Rockford Files and producing Northern Exposure, it’s not an exaggeration to say that he is not a big fan of mainstream television: ‘I fell out of love with TV probably after The Fugitive went off the air,’ he told an interviewer when The Sopranos first arrived. ‘I loathe and despise every second of it.’

Chase desperately wanted to make movies. So, when the pilot episode for The Sopranos was rejected by the Fox network, HBO stepped in and gave him the licence to create epic little films lasting 50 minutes. The final one (number 86) will be shown in late October, when the arguments over the ending will be tossed around by the devotees the same way they were in America in mid-June. Though it’s unlikely that there’ll be quite the parodic explosion which had everyone from the Clintons to the ABC News team spoofing the final scene.

Claims have been made about The Sopranos that perhaps even Chase would baulk at. But if it’s not the best TV drama ever made, the victor is clearly going some. Its status as landmark broadcasting is unquestioned. It’s not just the cursing, nudity or brutal violence that made The Sopranos unique in TV terms – for Chase and his team, the greatest triumph was in creating a bunch of monsters and making them loveable.

The terror of the show arrived when the audience was charmed into accepting the characters’ humanity only for one of them to perform a psychological or physical act of brutality. When the nasty Ralphie Cifaretto ran to the aid of his son, horrifically injured in a freak bow-and-arrow accident, you just about forgave his history of maiming and murder. And within half an hour, as if to punish us for feeling pity, Ralphie’s corpse was being chopped up by Christopher Moltisanti and Tony Soprano.

If you’ve watched the show from the beginning, you’ll have laughed at the malapropisms, insults, bad impersonations and blokey larking around indulged in the Bada Bing! strip joint by Christopher, Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante. But then we remember that the trio have assaulted or killed innocent gardeners, pensioners or girlfriends. And then, of course, there’s the boss, Tony Soprano. In the pilot episode in ’99, we saw as many sides of him as is possible to fit into a 50-minute viewing. He cries over the ducks who have taken to gathering in his pool, messes around with his son and daughter, and hosts a barbecue for his friends. But he also runs over a debtor, screams abuse at his therapist and attacks Christopher when he threatens to leave the Mob and go into the movies.

And throughout six seasons, Tony Soprano, in the shape of the incredible hulk that is James Gandolfini, has mined the lowest depths of humanity while still somehow retaining our sympathy. Each infidelity and every lie, all the underhand tactics and acts of violence should have had us turning off in our droves. Yet in America, audiences reached 13.5 million for the fourth season premiere and a more than respectable 12 million tuned in to see the series finale in June.

Everyone has had their theories about the ultimate fate of Tony Soprano, his family at home and the Family at work. As the final barrage of episodes prepares to hit us with all-out war against the New York Mob looming, those who have demanded more whackings on the show look set to have their bloodlust satisfied, while the rest who have warmed more to the psychological insights and depths of characterisation will not be let down.

Whatever happens, don’t expect the series to have every t crossed and each i dotted. This is not the Chase way. But for fans of The Sopranos, no matter what its fate, this show’s importance is infinite.

E4, Sun 9 Sep, 10pm

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