Looking back on it all, David Chase admits, no one involved in the first episodes of "The Sopranos" had a clue the show would ever make such a mark on the cultural landscape. The stories, he says, were meant to be funny and sad, and he hoped viewers would come away feeling as if they had had a satisfying "emotional meal."
Now, as Sunday's premiere of the sixth season of the HBO series nears, Chase hopes that by the end of its run, "The Sopranos" will have given them meaning as well, even some beyond the creators' control. "I hope there's more than one thing going on. I hope there are things that I and the writers and actors don't even know about. I've noticed, even with my prior work, there are intentions I was not aware of and thought, 'Wow, this thing had a subconscious life of its own.' "
The new season marks the beginning of the end for "The Sopranos," the series that put HBO on the map and put "whacked" and "bada-bing" into the nation's vernacular. The cast is just finishing production on the 12 episodes of Season 6 and, after a few months off, will start work on the final eight "bonus" episodes that will air in 2007. Chase pledges there will be no more.
"I think we've done it," he says. "We're all going to move on from here."
Until "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City," HBO was known mostly for showing uncut movies. Those signature shows elevated the network to appointment TV status. Now, HBO is facing the pressure of an increasingly fragmented audience that confronts all networks, but without its two bulwarks.
And after a nearly two-year hiatus for the show, some fans may be reluctant to come back for one last dose.
St. Louis sales manager Glen Callanan wrestles with inner conflict over that. On the one hand, he's angry that he has had to wait so long for a new episode. But, like the mafia gangsters on the show, he knows he can't just walk away.
"They get you on a string and pull you back in," he says. "There's not much you can do about it. I guess I'll be mad at them and still watch it."
According to Nielsen Media Research, viewership in the last season of "The Sopranos" fell to an average of 11 million, down from 12.5 million in 2002. But counting replays and on-demand viewings of episodes on HBO, that audience nearly doubled, according to David Baldwin, HBO's executive vice president of program planning. The show is so detailed and dense that many people watch it more than once, he says. Callanan, for instance, says he usually watches the show on Sunday and then watches it again twice during the week. Although subscription cable does not depend on ratings like broadcast, Baldwin is hopeful Season 6 will sustain the same numbers.
As a possible hedge, the network has been heavily promoting its latest original series, "Big Love," and will air the new series about a modern polygamist family at 10 p.m. Sundays, just following "The Sopranos." HBO has enormous hopes for the series but does not intend for it to take the place of "The Sopranos," says HBO Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss.
"It's not about 'The Sopranos' successor. There will be no such thing. It's a unique animal," Strauss says. "These characters are truly three-dimensional people. Everything I've seen so far on this [new season] makes it harder and harder for me to let them go. It won't be easy for me as an executive or as a fan."
For Chase, the goal was always to "get away from the type of storytelling where characters lecture and hector each other, and say whatever is exactly on their minds and say it well and therefore teach the audience some lessons. I've never been a professor and I don't want to be."
Some say it's best to quit while they still have something left to say. Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, thinks it's a good time to wrap it up since it has played out all the themes laid out in the January 1999 pilot: Mafia don Tony Soprano, inspired by a flock of ducks, gets a chance to reform his life and enters therapy; he has trouble winning the respect he believes he deserves in a world whose "Godfather" days are long gone; his masculinity is constantly challenged — by his mother, his wife, even his therapist.
A key to its popularity is that, without its mob references, the show is basically about "an unhappy American man who's never quite gotten used to the definitions of a male in the 21st century," Thompson says. "It's a show with a violent family to make it go down better. If it's about a family with troubles, who would watch it? If someone gets whacked in every episode, it's more exciting.
"Then there's the whole issue of hypocrisy. There are great themes that make this so watchable and so much more than a bloodbath action adventure."
Callanan, 45, says he finds it hard not to like Tony. He can relate to the mob boss as a father and even as a manager.
"There's somebody in there that seems like a good person," he says.
The new season explores darkened themes of loyalty and identity and makes unusual and extensive use of dreams and metaphors, one of its artistic hallmarks.
Where the story will end is the topic of much speculation. Will Tony be redeemed? Will A.J. take over as the next generation's boss? Could it wind up, à la "Dallas" and "St. Elsewhere," as a figment of an unhappy 21st century American man's imagination?
Thompson believes that dramatic convention requires that Tony, persistently amoral, must suffer. "He's got to go to hell by the end of the season," Thompson says.
As to the speculation it may all wind up as a figment of someone's imagination, Chase promises: "That will never happen." Neither will the family wind up hugging and smiling with lessons learned, he says. "If you're asking if they find out crime does not pay, no comment." Tony is already paying a price for his behavior, he adds.